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Lecture 0:  Contents, Goals, Requirements

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  • This course is part of Atkinson's Natural Science General Education program—a program intended to provide each student with a precise sense of what science is: its history, its methods, and its multiple relationships with culture and society. It is also intended to contribute to the teaching of the so-called critical skills: how to read and write, how to ask questions, how to reason, how to integrate the various bits of information into knowledge, and how to cope with the overwhelming amount of information that our society is producing at a faster and faster pace.

    This particular course takes everyday life as its theme: the body, the kitchen, the street, the countryside and the city, the sky. We are surrounded by objects and phenomena which we take for granted, and we realize the extent of our ignorance only when we are asked why these objects behave as they do, why these phenomena occur. This course will look at this world with the eyes and the curiosity of a scientist, and by digging a bit deeper into our everyday experience it will build an image of science that is alive and personal, yet sufficiently general to enable us to understand the 'big' science we read about in newspapers and on television. We do need to understand science, at the very least because we need to respond intelligently to the ethical, moral, environmental, social and political dilemmas that science so often poses.

    Here is a very recent article which appeared on the BBC News website:
    Public 'needs to drive science'
    By Elli Leadbeater
    A new project funded by the UK government aims to give
    the public a chance to drive science policy. 
    Science Horizons is based on the premise that progress 
    has historically come from technological development rather
    than social wants and needs. 
    In nationwide events, people will be asked to comment on
    simulations of how technologies such gene therapy might 
    contribute to future life. 
    Their reactions will be fed into a government study on 
    public attitudes.
    "We're not saying, 'here is the future, what do you think?'"
    said project contributor Ben Johnson of Graphic Science, a 
    science communications consultancy based at the University
    of the West of England. 
    "We're saying, 'this is what the future could be like, what
    do you want?'" 
    The events will range in size from major set-pieces at 
    science centres to small group meetings in halls or even 
    living rooms. 
    Dialogue and debate
    An early version of the type of exercise that will be used
    was presented at the project's launch at the British 
    Association's Science Festival in Norwich last week.
    Participants viewed a computerised cartoon scene depicting 
    a possible home in 10-15 years' time.
    The scene reveals information about each character present.
    For example, in one of the prototypes, a 48-year-old female 
    character is planning a trip to a fertility clinic, to start
    a family using eggs frozen 10 years before. 
    Users are then asked to complete a questionnaire, asking for
    their feelings about each aspect of the storyline. 
    Contributors to the project, which forms part of the 
    government's Sciencewise consultation exercise, stress that
    the emphasis will be on the social impact of technology, 
    rather than gadgets and gizmos. 
    The form of the tasks will vary according to the setting, 
    and may also include paper exercises or podcasts, aiming 
    to stimulate dialogue and debate. 
    "The images of the future that we are shown hardly ever
    include people themselves," said Jack Stilgoe, author of
    the project's launch paper. 
    "We need to put the people back in the future."
    Here is an article which appeared in the New York Times:
    N Y Times
    April 27, 2004
    Committee Urges Harvard to Expand the Reach of 
    Its Undergraduate Curriculum
    For the first time in 30 years, Harvard University has
    reviewed its undergraduate curriculum, concluding that 
    students need more room for broad exploration, a greater
    familiarity with the world that can only be gained 
    from study abroad, and a deeper, hands-on understanding
    of science.
    After 15 months of study, a committee of administrators,
    professors and students has recommended that the university
    give students more time to choose their majors and limit
    the requirements for those majors, encourage students to 
    spend time abroad and increase the number of required 
    science courses.
    The committee's underlying conclusion, that students in a
    fast-changing world need a wider range of knowledge, is 
    likely to have an impact on universities across the nation,
    many of which are also trying to modernize their 
    curriculums. In making its recommendations, the committee
    was asked to address what it would "mean to be an educated
    man or woman in the first quarter of the 21st century."
    William C. Kirby, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences,
    said yesterday in a letter to the faculty, "As a leading 
    American institution, Harvard College has a responsibility
    to educate its students — who will live and work in all 
    corners of the globe — as citizens not only of their home 
    country, but also of the world, with the capacity not only
    to understand others, but also to see themselves, and this
    country, as others see them."
    Among the findings in its report, which was released 
    yesterday, the committee said it was no longer sufficient
    to satisfy the science requirement with broad-based survey
    courses. Instead, students should focus on scientific 
    principles and methods, for example, spending time in the 
    laboratory learning the chemical structure of the genome.
    "Graduates of Harvard College should be able to understand
    the news and expository articles in journals such as 
    Science and Nature," the committee said.
    [ ... ] 
    One of the most striking recommendations is that every 
    undergraduate at Harvard "be educated in the sciences in
    a manner that is as deep and broadly shared as has 
    traditionally been the case in the humanities and the 
    social sciences."
    Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, said of the
    emphasis on science: "An educational culture where it's
    an embarrassment to not know the names of five plays by
    Shakespeare but O.K. not to know the difference between
    a gene and a chromosome isn't functional."
    [ ... ] 
    The report suggests that Harvard's core curriculum be 
    modified so that students have a broader choice of courses
    that meet its requirements. It also recommended that 
    Harvard emphasize smaller classes across the curriculum,
    beginning with a faculty-led freshman seminar. 
    The committee said it wanted professors to have more 
    contact with students, a recommendation that experts said
    might be hard to carry out at a university like Harvard
    where research often takes precedence over teaching.
    Dr. Summers, who recently taught a freshmen seminar on 
    globalization, said it was important "to assure that we
    expand what is most fundamental in education: direct 
    personal contact between students and faculty."
    Claire Hoffman contributed reporting for this article.
    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
  • And here is another very recent article which appeared in the September-October 2004 issue of American Scientist:
    Scientific Literacy
    The United Nations agency UNESCO has defined literacy as an 
    individual's ability to "read and write a short simple 
    statement relevant to his everyday life." Scientific 
    literacy does not imply that a person must be learned in 
    matters of science, but it does not suffice that a person be
    able to read and write.It rather means functional literacy,
    the ability to comprehend what is read or written to an 
    extent sufficient to perform adequately in society, whether
    to communicate with individuals, to further one's own 
    economic or other interests, or to participate in the 
    democratic way of life. Scientific literacy implies the 
    ability to respond in a meaningful way to the technical
    issues that pervade our daily lives and the world of
    political action.
    Scientific literacy does not require knowing the definition
    of angular momentum or that the expression of DNA is 
    mediated by transfer–RNA molecules. But a scientifically
    literate person would know that astrology is not science
    and that children are not born with stronger muscles just
    because their parents exercise in the gym. Scientific 
    literacy implies that whether or not a person endorses a
    program for water fluoridation or for building a nuclear
    power plant is based on some understanding of the issues
    at hand, rather than on prejudice (that all tampering with
    natural resources is harmful or unambiguously beneficial)
    or ignorance that decisions involve trade–offs, as
    might exist between a nuclear and a coal–fueled plant.
    Two increasing demands of modern nations establish the
    universal need for scientific literacy. First is the need
    for a technically trained labor force. Second is the 
    requirement that citizens at large pass judgment on the
    promises and actions of their governments and on the 
    claims of advertisers of consumer goods.
    The productive sector of the economy of any industrial
    nation demands a scientifically literate labor force. 
    Scientific and engineering breakthroughs are the basis of
    industrial productivity. But economic and industrial 
    development more immediately come from the adaptation of
    scientific ideas: new materials and manufacturing 
    processes, quality control, advances in productivity and
    the performance of workers, and consumer appeal and 
    marketing. The successful implementation of scientific and
    engineering innovations requires cadres of educated workers 
    skilled in the management of machinery, computers, control 
    centers, quantitative information and materials.
    The need for scientific literacy extends beyond industry 
    to other sectors such as agriculture. The recent greatly 
    increased agricultural productivity in the United States
    and other countries is largely attributable to the 
    introduction and application of modern farming practices
    and the use of machinery that requires skilled operators.
    Scientific literacy is also required for informed public 
    involvement in the political and public life of a nation. 
    Whether or not a highway system will be developed, and
    if so, where and how; how to protect and improve the water
    supply and air quality; the exploitation of mineral or 
    marine resources; the preservation and commercial use of
    forests, rivers and coasts—these are among the numerous
    political decisions that call for the participation of
    the body politic.
    A participatory democracy will not be consummated if the
    import of the technical premises of political decisions
    with great economic consequence, and which affect the 
    present and future welfare of a nation, can be understood
    only by a small fraction of the population. A public that
    has no inkling of the technical issues at stake exposes
    the democratic process to exploitation by special 
    interests and demagogues, and even to fraud of the kind
    that masks pseudoscience, such as astrology or 
    parapsychology, with the cloak of science.
    Francisco J Ayala
    President, Sigma Xi
    [ Reprinted by permission of American Scientist, magazine
    of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society ]
  • This course has no prerequisites, and thus does not assume any prior knowledge other than that acquired in high school. It does require your interest, your curiosity, and your participation. It does require that you go beyond specific knowledge concerning specific phenomena, and that you develop a sense of context, of the big picture and its implications. Keep this principle in mind: in class, when you study, and when you write the required essays and the final exam.
  • Each week I will post a new lecture on this website, and you are urged to read it before coming to class. The lectures, as posted on the website, are essentially sketches, outlines, and will be expanded, also with your contribution, in class. These outlines will include suggested or required readings, and occasional questions that you should think about before coming to class. Of course you are strongly encouraged to share your own questions and observations. This will greatly facilitate in-class discussion. After all, science is a communal enterprise.

Readings and Resources

  • Given the range and variety of the material we will be studying, there is no required textbook. Throughout the course, live links to on-line readings, as well as references to off-line material (i.e. in the library), will be provided. Many are simply presented as suggestions. Some are required reading, and are specially marked with a red arrow Read ! . As a starting point, please check the Syllabus and the Selected References .
  • "In the May, 1997 issue of Discover, Jared Diamond suggested five reasons why it is so important for the public (or read that non-science majors) to understand science." Read  Read ! Why Study Science.
  • I have set up a discussion list, and all the students registered in the course have been subscribed to it. To send mail to the list use the following address: NATS1800-List@yorku.ca. The list is exclusively for academic matters directly related to this course.
  • You are strongly encouraged to spend time in the York Libraries, or in any other good library close to you. If you live or work in downtown Toronto, you can also use the Metro Reference Library, the Ryerson Library, the University of Toronto Libraries, etc. Library holdings do not consist of books only. There are scholarly journals and good and reliable magazines. I strongly urge you to physically go to a library and explore. At least for the time being, libraries are still the essential tool for scholarship—they have not been supplanted by the internet.
  • Finally, even if you are an experienced web surfer, please read  Read !  Effective Internet Search Strategies. This is a very useful summary of good search practices on the net.


© Copyright Luigi M Bianchi 2003-2005
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Last Modification Date: 11 September 2006