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Lowering Disciplinary Barriers

An interview with Robert F. Watson, National Science Foundation

You have occasionally argued that since disciplinary boundaries are dissolving in research, departmental boundaries in education no longer serve a useful purpose. Could you elaborate on what you believe to be the proper balance of disciplinary and interdisciplinary curricula in education, especially in grades 10-14?

"No longer serve a useful purpose" sounds more absolute than I would like. I do feel that the disciplines are important, and certainly many basic principles must be taught, learned, and practiced within the disciplines.

But people more influential than I (certainly more accomplished as scientists, for example Harry Gray at Cal Tech) point out that whereas the disciplines are doing fine and will continue to do so, that may not be the case with the existing political or social entities where they have traditionally been housed. Take chemistry for example. Great chemical research is going on in many fields, for example, in brain chemistry and environmental chemistry, but not necessarily in the university chemistry departments.

Applying this to education, especially at the high school level, my point would be that too many high school curricula (and also undergraduate curricula) cling to a content and structure that are too narrow for future scientists, much less for the great majority of other students. I could not say what an ideal division should or could be between disciplinary and interdisciplinary curricula at any level. But I do believe the pendulum is stuck on the narrow discipline side, and has been since the time when the only students were future scientists and engineers. (Actually there never was quite such a time, was there? But what other excuse do we have?)

We in the sciences too often fail to ask ourselves "Why?" In particular, "Why am I teaching this subject to this particular group of students?" I believe science courses should be tailored as nearly as possible to each individual student's needs, and not be based on the assumption that a course for future scientists is good for everyone. The American Chemical Society's Chem-Com program is a good example of such a broad-based course, but of course it remains essentially chemistry.

Mathematics teachers are often very reluctant to submerge their disciplinary identity in integrated interdisciplinary contexts. What advantages would there be for mathematics to be taught as part of a vigorous interdisciplinary program?

I do sympathize with faculty who are faced with the need to change. It's pretty easy for us old administrators to preach, especially when compared with the job that faculty must ultimately do if we are to succeed in reform at any level.

Mathematics teachers are not the only ones threatened by change and by the effort required to do things differently. But still, mathematics is a special case. To most everyone, it is an essential tool of life. But like the other sciences, it is useful only in context. Of course all science professors also teach mathematics, probably in every course. I certainly did in every chemistry course I taught. But I could have done so much better if I had collaborated with mathematics educators.

I suggest that every science course be interdisciplinary with respect to mathematics. And I suggest that mathematicians and other scientists should collaborate on every course. Maybe mathematicians should be members of the faculty of chemistry, physics, engineering, etc. Maybe smaller schools and community colleges that can't afford separate departments are best since they can more readily have science divisions that might promote interdisciplinary approaches.

I think we need to take a very client-oriented approach to curriculum development. Some programs are going in that direction. (I certainly hope so, since they have said they would in order to get NSF/DUE support.) For example, to meet the needs of students who aim for a technical or scientific career (e.g. a medical doctor or a lab technician), curriculum designers should ask doctors what they do, then analyze what they say and what they do, and only then design curricula. They don't do that often enough now. I fear that frequently they just make courses real hard so that they'll be known as the gatekeepers with high standards ... and often they just keep teaching the same old stuff. I have fairly new doctors in my family; uniformly, they either did not like their college science courses or feel they were not of much value either in medical school or in practice.

Engineers offer another great example, one that is getting scary to science faculty (including mathematicians). Engineers have gotten tired of having their students receive science and mathematics preparation they regard as inappropriate. So, they just teach it themselves ... and why not?

Departments of the future should not be based exclusively, or even primarily, on an orientation toward future scientists, but toward the majority of students. So let's experiment with a pre-health career department, appropriately divided internally for nurses, doctors, technicians, etc. (Incidentally that takes care of the majority of students taking science courses.) Next we might consider a pre-engineering and physical science department for future engineers, technologists, physicists, and chemists. And a pre-environmental science department including earth science, oceanography, and other such applied areas. Each of those should include a cadre of mathematics educators, as well as computer science types. I see I have wandered into undergraduate thinking, but I think the concepts apply at earlier grades as well.

The mathematics and science standards tend to enhance the strength of the disciplines. Is it fair to say that the standards movement may make it more difficult to build strong interdisciplinary programs? Do we need "interdisciplinary standards"?

Perhaps. It may be too soon to tell, but you raise a good point. The natural and easiest response to weak science is to harden studies in the disciplines. This may be better than what we have, but not best in the long run. I see this in particular in undergraduate teacher preparation programs. The move away from colleges of education is good to a degree, but replacing their programs with narrow disciplinary training is not good either. This concern applies to all students, not just to future teachers. I'm not totally sure what you mean by "interdisciplinary standards," but the term has a good ring.

The standards projects have achieved a great deal, but implementation is not yet widespread. The trouble with the standards projects is that mathematics was done first, separately from the other sciences. Then when the sciences standards were developed, the participants seemed to come from their separate disciplines, or rather they tended to stay in their separate disciplines, defending their territory too much. So, as you seem to imply, we now have a whole bunch of separate disciplinary standards. This is not to say that both projects didn't produce a lot of good. They did, and perhaps the radical change that I feel is needed is simply not doable ever, or certainly not in these early stages.

I may have focused too much on the needs of students who will have technical careers--because increasingly our citizens will need this kind of preparation. But the interdisciplinary approaches I advocate will augur well for general science literacy as well. I do not agree with those who feel that a "good, strong, laboratory-based course" in chemistry or whatever is the best science for the non-scientist. As part of that heresy, I'm not even sure a laboratory course is essential. I know a bad laboratory course is worse than none. Understanding some of the principles of science across the basic fields and being able to put those principles to work in a real world context should be a basic part of everyone's education, and should continue all the way from kindergarten through college graduation. (Keep in mind also that scientists themselves are often quite illiterate outside their very narrow specialties.)

Finally, I think every breathing human should be able to do simple algebra and some plane and solid geometry. And I mean to be able to use these tools in all kinds of environments.

Although these remarks have been critical, perhaps too much so, I want to close by emphasizing the positive. Many good things are happening across the country at all levels of education. Faculty and administrators in higher education are working hard to correct past problems and to strengthen the learning experiences for all students. The momentum is right and growing.

Robert F. Watson, a chemist by training, is Director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, on assignment this year as Scientist in Residence at American University and Visiting Scholar at the National Research Council. He is working to fostor undergraduate reform as called for in the recent NSF report "Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology." He can be reached by e-mail at rwatson@nsf.gov.

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Last Update: 08/27/97