FSU’s new liberal studies regulations: If we’re doing everything right to help students pursue engineering and science careers, why do we have to do less of it?

FSU’s studio physics program is being forced to take a step backward.  It’s a small step backward, but it’s backward nevertheless.  It might, for example, force those of us teaching studio physics to drop some of the work we do to solidify students’ understanding of conservation of momentum from our course so that we can instead insert a discussion of “alternative interpretations” of, say, climate change.

Who is forcing studio physics to take this step backward?  Is it the State Legislature?  Governor Scott?  The Board of Governors?  Maybe a rogue administrator at FSU?

Nope – it’s my own colleagues on the FSU faculty.

It’s a long, twisted story, so if you’re interested you’ll have to bear with me.

The story does actually start with the Florida Legislature.  In 2012, the Legislature passed (and Governor Scott signed) a bill that introduced what the K-12 folks call “accountability” into the general education requirements at the state’s public colleges and universities.  The new language in the statute (see page 9 here) is this:  “Each general education core course option must contain high-level academic and critical thinking skills and common competencies that students must demonstrate to successfully complete the course.”

General education courses in the natural sciences have traditionally been low-level courses in geology, astronomy, biology, environmental science and even physics intended for students majoring in fields outside of the sciences.  But general education requirements in science also apply to science majors.  To keep science majors from having to take “Rocks for Jocks” type courses, introductory math and science courses for math, science and engineering majors were included in the general education list.

The result is that general education courses in the natural sciences are an eclectic list, ranging at FSU from the 1,200 student “baby biology” course to the first-semester calculus-based introductory physics course for engineering and physical science majors.  And this is where we start to run into trouble.

The new law referenced above requires each college and university to write a list of “competencies” that all courses in a given general education category – like “natural sciences” – would teach.  This is a treacherous exercise because of the range of emphases of the general education courses.  At the other SUS institutions I’ve contacted, the academic decision-makers (generally speaking the Faculty Senates at these institutions) have dealt with the challenges of the competency-writing exercise by keeping their competency statements fairly general and blessedly brief.  At the University of Florida, the natural science competency statement is this:  Students will demonstrate the ability to critically examine and evaluate scientific observation, hypothesis, or model construction, and to use the scientific method to explain the natural world. Students will successfully recognize and comprehend fundamental concepts, principles, and processes about the natural world.

But not at FSU.  The academic decision-makers in the Faculty Senate – my own colleagues – saw an opportunity to set FSU apart from the other SUS institutions and dove into the task with tremendous (if misguided) enthusiasm.  For the sake of completeness, I am pasting in the entire competency list for the natural sciences here:

Students must meet one of the two following competency sets:

Scientific Method and Reasoning (typically for non-lab)

Students will demonstrate the ability to:

– think critically and cogently about causal relationships with scientific reasoning

– assess previous experimentation and published scientific results

– critically examine and evaluate scientific observation, hypothesis or model construction

– articulate a variety of issues created by the complex interactions among science, technology, and society

– use scientific perspectives to evaluate contemporary problems facing society.

Science in Practice (typically for lab courses)

Students will demonstrate the ability to:

– explain the process of scientific reasoning and apply scientific principles inside and outside of the laboratory or field setting

– systematically evaluate evidence for accuracy, limitations, and relevance, and identify alternative interpretations of evidence

– design and conduct experiments to make observations and test hypotheses, as well as to analyze and interpret data using quantitative and appropriate technological tools.

The problem with all of this well-intentioned prose is that while it might have its place in a nice science class intended for non-science majors, it will require those teaching the already challenging (for both students and faculty) introductory science courses for engineering and science majors to cram a few more topics into overcrowded syllabi, or to drop important science topics (like conservation of momentum) to make room for a discussion of “alternative interpretations of evidence” like denial of human contributions to climate change.

For example, we might have to drop a hands-on experiment on momentum from the syllabus to make room for a presentation and essay on scientific controversies like climate change.  Or eliminate a few collaborative problem-solving white board exercises on conservation of energy to have a group discussion about the scientific method.

The central purpose of the studio physics program is to make careers in engineering and science accessible to a broader range of students.  To do this, we usually have to deprogram students from their deeply ingrained notions that science is about memorizing facts and equations.  Instead, we have to cajole them to their first glimmers of genuine scientific understanding.  It is grinding work, and we sometimes lose students.  The idea that we have to do less of this – even a little less – to have discussions that students should have had (and probably did have) in high school is maddening.

I’ve talked with two fine colleagues (neither of them from Physics) about this issue during the last few days.  Both emphasized that this is just a little thing, and that I have more important issues to push on.  I guess they are right.  But still.  In the studio physics program, we are doing everything right to help struggling students pursue engineering and science careers.  We shouldn’t have to do less of it.

Update (Thursday morning):  In 2009, Chinese and American education researchers reported on a study of the scientific reasoning ability and physics understanding of brand new college engineering majors in both nations.  The study was published in Science.  Students from both nations were excellent in scientific reasoning skills.  However, while Chinese students had a high degree of proficiency in physics, American students had very little.  This is a problem for American engineering majors and provides a partial explanation for the high attrition rate among engineering majors in the US.  Given these results, shouldn’t we be focusing our college-level physics instruction for engineering majors on achieving a deep understanding in physics instead of spending more time and effort on liberal arts-style scientific reasoning?

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2 Responses to FSU’s new liberal studies regulations: If we’re doing everything right to help students pursue engineering and science careers, why do we have to do less of it?

  1. Pingback: What is our university for? What this physics professor cares about most. | Bridge to Tomorrow

  2. Pingback: Florida needs its elementary school teachers to be better educated in science, but FSU’s e-series course rules block one effort to address this | Bridge to Tomorrow

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