Today, let's talk about the prequisite course. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Rereading a set of articles in last
year's Science magazine has set off all my alarm
bells. Educators, concerned over the way American science
students have slipped behind, are recommending an
integrated curriculum. Let's see what that means.
Most high schools start students out with biology. Then
they teach chemistry and finally physics. That way they
go from the course seen as least mathematical and most
descriptive to the one regarded as most mathematically
and conceptually difficult. The reason we teach biology
as a purely descriptive course is that it's really so
complex that few teachers can handle its full details.
So these courses get taught independently of each
other. Biology texts raise issue after issue that can't
possibly make sense without physics and chemistry:
reaction rates, pH, chemical bonds.
Chemistry in turn is laced with concepts from the physics
course that students haven't yet taken. So science begins
to look like no more than a recitation of words. Students
have little basis for appreciating the structural way the
concepts bind one another together.
Science is quite different from, say, history. Humanities
students develop maturity in a mosaic fashion. Learn
about Byzantium one semester and English kings the next.
The order isn't important, because the big picture
emerges from many tiles. Far more than biology, history
is too complex to be based on simple sequences.
To teach science, we have to reveal a mathematical
and logical structure that comes to rest on concepts and
equations. To understand science, we have to
develop an architectural eye for its structure. That
architecture can no more be broken into isolated units
than a building can be reduced to a collection of rooms.
The structure of science should be seen, not as the
essence of scientific complexity, but rather the
essence of scientific unity and simplicity. That's
why educators rightly call for an integrated science
curriculum. By that they mean teaching math, physics,
chemistry, and biology in that general order but all of a
piece, building up the logic and the structure along the
Meanwhile, the result of teaching science in isolated
sections has been more devastating than we realize.
Students who've seen science reduced to description are
left with only words. And the architecture of course
sequences -- the heart of science education -- makes less
and less sense. That's why college students sell their
textbooks at the end of a semester and expect the next
course to be a tabula rasa -- a new beginning
untouched by previous study.
This is subtle business. Science offers so many lovely
and compelling phenomena that we're seduced into thinking
we're teaching science when we're only describing raw
data. The Latin word scientia means ordered
knowledge. Until we've conveyed the architecture of that
order, we've taught very little indeed.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.