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A women floats above a surreal backdrop in which a bellows, cauldron, celestial beings, and a filmstrip are colllaged. Her head is a comet, and she holds a seashell in one hand, upon which a head emerges like a giant pearl.

 

 

 

The basic sciences are fundamental to LSA’s culture and commitment to cultivating wonder and intellectual discovery. But some classes can overlook certain students. LSA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics Tim McKay discusses the need to evolve the design of introductory science courses, and what LSA is doing to celebrate the diversity of students’ backgrounds, interests, and goals in the classroom.

LSA:  How do you define basic science research?

The basic sciences are fundamental to LSA’s culture and commitment to cultivating wonder and intellectual discovery. But some classes can overlook certain students. LSA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics Tim McKay discusses the need to evolve the design of introductory science courses, and what LSA is doing to celebrate the diversity of students’ backgrounds, interests, and goals in the classroom.

LSA:  How do you define basic science research?

Tim McKay: One alternative phrase that people use in physics, for example, is “fundamental” science. This is meant to carry the same connotations as “basic,” a sense of being essential. Another phrase is curiosity-driven research, which I prefer because it doesn’t evoke a hierarchy of underneathness. Curiosity-driven research often reveals things at complex levels of science that we would never have seen otherwise. When research is driven by curiosity, it is unconstrained by application. It’s not that we don’t care about applicability, but it isn’t driven by it.

The idea that a curious human mind might get us to the most valuable kind of discovery has been tested over and over. It’s easy to point to high-impact research that emerged from abstract curiosity. To give one example, Claude Shannon, an undergraduate at U-M in the 1930s who first learned about Boolean logic in his philosophy classes. He went on to use these ideas to establish the foundations of information theory and digital computers.

Tim McKay: One alternative phrase that people use in physics, for example, is “fundamental” science. This is meant to carry the same connotations as “basic,” a sense of being essential. Another phrase is curiosity-driven research, which I prefer because it doesn’t evoke a hierarchy of underneathness. Curiosity-driven research often reveals things at complex levels of science that we would never have seen otherwise. When research is driven by curiosity, it is unconstrained by application. It’s not that we don’t care about applicability, but it isn’t driven by it.

The idea that a curious human mind might get us to the most valuable kind of discovery has been tested over and over. It’s easy to point to high-impact research that emerged from abstract curiosity. To give one example, Claude Shannon, an undergraduate at U-M in the 1930s who first learned about Boolean logic in his philosophy classes. He went on to use these ideas to establish the foundations of information theory and digital computers.

LSA: What is the importance of basic science research, or curiosity-driven research, in LSA specifically?


TM:
Curiosity-driven research is almost never done except at academic institutions, and it’s done because we put a very high value on curiosity and creativity. Research universities like U-M were created to do this, and we are very fortunate to have been supported in this work by society. Fortunately, most of society still understands the deep benefits that come from curiosity-driven research. And those benefits are not always entirely practical.

I spent the first 20 years in my research career working on cosmology, understanding the origin and evolution of the universe. It’s not practically relevant, but there isn’t a person who isn’t fascinated to know about it. It is deeply essential for us to understand something about our origins and our place in the universe. And that’s not because you can put a dollar figure on it or you can make a widget with it. It’s because our lives have meaning because of it.

The interconnection between natural science, the humanities, and social sciences, between the nonhuman world and the human world, is essential for the natural sciences. When we isolate technical work from a humanistic understanding of life, dreadful things can happen. You see them happening across the tech industries now. We have a lot of people super capable of making something happen, but they’re not super capable of thinking about what it might mean.

You see it in political responses to things like the COVID-19 crisis. We need people with a broad humanistic education to address this crisis, and we also need people with technical skill. Anthony Fauci was a classical studies major. He has, by many accounts, navigated last year successfully. And I think he’s done that because of a deep understanding of what’s most important. We want his expertise in epidemiology, of course, but we also want someone who understands what makes people function, what they value, why they value it. We’re very fortunate that the natural sciences remain a core part of LSA. It’s where they belong.

LSA: What is the importance of basic science research, or curiosity-driven research, in LSA specifically?


TM:
Curiosity-driven research is almost never done except at academic institutions, and it’s done because we put a very high value on curiosity and creativity. Research universities like U-M were created to do this, and we are very fortunate to have been supported in this work by society. Fortunately, most of society still understands the deep benefits that come from curiosity-driven research. And those benefits are not always entirely practical.

I spent the first 20 years in my research career working on cosmology, understanding the origin and evolution of the universe. It’s not practically relevant, but there isn’t a person who isn’t fascinated to know about it. It is deeply essential for us to understand something about our origins and our place in the universe. And that’s not because you can put a dollar figure on it or you can make a widget with it. It’s because our lives have meaning because of it.

The interconnection between natural science, the humanities, and social sciences, between the nonhuman world and the human world, is essential for the natural sciences. When we isolate technical work from a humanistic understanding of life, dreadful things can happen. You see them happening across the tech industries now. We have a lot of people super capable of making something happen, but they’re not super capable of thinking about what it might mean.

You see it in political responses to things like the COVID-19 crisis. We need people with a broad humanistic education to address this crisis, and we also need people with technical skill. Anthony Fauci was a classical studies major. He has, by many accounts, navigated last year successfully. And I think he’s done that because of a deep understanding of what’s most important. We want his expertise in epidemiology, of course, but we also want someone who understands what makes people function, what they value, why they value it. We’re very fortunate that the natural sciences remain a core part of LSA. It’s where they belong.

LSA: What is LSA doing to make basic science more inclusive?


TM: For most people, their primary college encounter with science was in a few introductory courses which, historically, have been designed to determine who can or should proceed in scientific disciplines. They’re sometimes described as “weed-out” classes. We’re moving away from that notion. Introductory courses should successfully introduce students to the subject; instead of weeding students out, they should help them put down deep roots.

We’re working to recognize how important the diversity of our students’ backgrounds, interests, and goals are for successfully introducing them to a subject. In the past, introductory courses were pitched for people who already had a strong background in the subject without acknowledging the broad spectrum of what brings people to big introductory courses.

This is particularly debilitating in the natural sciences. Making these course activities more authentic is a big theme of science education reform. In the past, the main purpose of introductory courses was to cram a large number of facts into people’s brains, not to introduce them to doing science. We’re moving toward classes and laboratories where students are participating in an actual research project for which the answer is not known.

We’re also asking students to use more writing to learn in large introductory courses. This comes from Ginger Shultz, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Anne Gere, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and Gertrude Buck Collegiate Professor in the School of Education, the former director of the Sweetland Center for Writing. Being able to write about something is essential to understanding, and the act of writing creates knowledge.

The math department is engaged in a major transformation of their introductory courses to what’s called a mastery teaching orientation. Typically, students take a test so the instructor can find out what they understand at that point at that moment. You take the test once, and if you can’t demonstrate your knowledge, it’s over. A mastery-oriented class allows students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, and imagines that all students will get to the mastery level, maybe their very first time, maybe their fourth time. The goal is that everyone gets there, without a focus on who gets there fastest.

The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT) is running the foundational course initiative, which enables math courses, for example, to enter into a collaboration with CRLT that continues for three years as they work on developing a really different and complex new version of a class.

Many of these large courses now rely on undergraduate learning assistants (LAs) to provide one-on-one interaction with all students. These LAs have recently taken the class and done well enough to help with course instruction, and having students participate as teachers plays a role in inclusivity.

Current students can see a group of students like them who has successfully navigated the class and has lots of very specific and authentic advice that is coming from a peer and not from a professor who took the class 30 years ago. It makes the climate of a class much more welcoming.

LSA: What is LSA doing to make basic science more inclusive?


TM: For most people, their primary college encounter with science was in a few introductory courses which, historically, have been designed to determine who can or should proceed in scientific disciplines. They’re sometimes described as “weed-out” classes. We’re moving away from that notion. Introductory courses should successfully introduce students to the subject; instead of weeding students out, they should help them put down deep roots.

We’re working to recognize how important the diversity of our students’ backgrounds, interests, and goals are for successfully introducing them to a subject. In the past, introductory courses were pitched for people who already had a strong background in the subject without acknowledging the broad spectrum of what brings people to big introductory courses.

This is particularly debilitating in the natural sciences. Making these course activities more authentic is a big theme of science education reform. In the past, the main purpose of introductory courses was to cram a large number of facts into people’s brains, not to introduce them to doing science. We’re moving toward classes and laboratories where students are participating in an actual research project for which the answer is not known.

We’re also asking students to use more writing to learn in large introductory courses. This comes from Ginger Shultz, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Anne Gere, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and Gertrude Buck Collegiate Professor in the School of Education, the former director of the Sweetland Center for Writing. Being able to write about something is essential to understanding, and the act of writing creates knowledge.

The math department is engaged in a major transformation of their introductory courses to what’s called a mastery teaching orientation. Typically, students take a test so the instructor can find out what they understand at that point at that moment. You take the test once, and if you can’t demonstrate your knowledge, it’s over. A mastery-oriented class allows students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, and imagines that all students will get to the mastery level, maybe their very first time, maybe their fourth time. The goal is that everyone gets there, without a focus on who gets there fastest.

The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT) is running the foundational course initiative, which enables math courses, for example, to enter into a collaboration with CRLT that continues for three years as they work on developing a really different and complex new version of a class.

Many of these large courses now rely on undergraduate learning assistants (LAs) to provide one-on-one interaction with all students. These LAs have recently taken the class and done well enough to help with course instruction, and having students participate as teachers plays a role in inclusivity.

Current students can see a group of students like them who has successfully navigated the class and has lots of very specific and authentic advice that is coming from a peer and not from a professor who took the class 30 years ago. It makes the climate of a class much more welcoming.

 

 


 


 

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College has looked a lot different this year for first-year students like J.J., with many courses and activities meeting online. The LSA Annual Fund provides support for tuition, room, and board, as well as the technology and tools necessary to connect to classes and campus. Your support means LSA students won’t miss a beat.


 

 

 

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Release Date: 05/10/2021
Category: Research; Students
Tags: LSA; Chemistry; Mathematics; Physics; Natural Sciences; LSA Magazine; Sweetland; English Language and Literature; Anna Megdell; DEI; Timothy McKay