Biology | Colleges must redo general curricula

In 2009, then-Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee wrote in an opinion piece in the
Christian Science Monitor that “universities must break out of their silo structures
(because) the world’s problems do not fit solely inside the bounds of (traditional academic

Courses that American universities offer to meet their general-education curriculum requirements
for graduation reveal this silo structure problem of traditional academic departments.

Discipline-specific departments, or clusters of them, offer general-education courses in their
discipline for “non-major” students. Initially, universities designed these courses to provide
incoming students a sampling of an entire discipline, such as biology or physics, partly to recruit
some of them into the field.

New students often had no previous opportunity to take even basic courses in these subjects.
Current and ongoing changes in K-12 education eliminated this need. High-school students now must
pass courses and standardized exams in these disciplines to graduate. Many universities, however,
have not updated their general-education science curricula accordingly.

This delay in updating curricula has not kept universities from adding new goals to their
general-education science curricula.

The Soviet Union’s success with its Sputnik satellite in 1957 launched a golden age of science
education and the careers of many of today’s scientists. General-education courses still played a
role in recruiting new scientists from the ranks of incoming college students who did not have
previous access to science courses. Partly because of the success of these efforts in generating
successful scientists, governmental and educational administraters soon confronted a new and larger
challenge: Preparing all citizens to understand the ability — and limitations — of science to
address larger, social problems.

The benefits and costs of new vaccines against infectious diseases were relatively easy to
explain. The benefits and costs of nuclear arms and power plants were not that easy to explain and
remain that way today. This new curricular goal aimed to develop sound public policy in our
democratic form of government.

The college general-education science curriculum has taken on this new goal of civic scientific
literacy. The failure to update that curriculum to reflect improvements in K-12 science education
and the multidiscipline nature of current societal issues, however, keeps many college
general-education curricula from achieving this new goal.

Americans and their elected representatives, scientifically literate or not, must confront
multidisciplinary problems and opportunities that do not fit nicely into discipline-based
general-education science curricula.

Understanding genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, requires more than understanding
genetics. Understanding how to prevent cancer requires more than understanding how cancer cells
differ from other cells. And understanding how climate change threatens biodiversity requires more
than knowing how to identify species of plants or how hurricanes form.

Most instructors of college general-education science courses never took a college
general-education science course. They took courses for majors.

All teachers, including those of us in college, start teaching as we were taught. Different
student audiences with better educational backgrounds might need different teaching methods.

Exciting opportunities exist to make college general-education science courses interesting,
relevant and valuable. These courses, however, should reflect the improvements in the preparation
of their targeted students. And these courses have to break out of their disciplinary silos.

Steve Rissing is a biology professor at Ohio State University.

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