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Viewpoint: User-friendly science

BY JEREMY LEVY

Published January 26, 2010

Do you know why it’s hotter in the summer than in the winter? If your answer has to do with the Earth’s tilt, then congratulations! By the standards of scientist Robert M. Hazen, you can brag that you’re more “scientifically literate” than 90 percent of Harvard University’s graduating class of 2002. A few weeks ago I was assigned to read Dr. Hazen’s article — which argues that even non-scientific people should understand basic scientific concepts — in a science class that I’m only taking to finish my natural science requirement. Speaking as a non-scientific person, I’m not convinced that knowledge of the Earth’s tilt is ever going to be a useful piece of information in my life.

The logic behind the natural science requirement is essentially the same as Dr. Hazen’s. The Collge of Literature, Science and the Arts wants all students to graduate with enough general scientific knowledge to comprehend the scientific debates that occur during their lifetimes. But as far as I can tell, most attempts by science professors to provide life lessons for students who will never be taking another science class again are laughable.

One common activity in biology or environment classes is for students to measure their individual carbon footprints. Aside from the fact that this tends to be done via a shoddy looking Internet site that asks no more than ten questions about your individual carbon usage, I have little faith in the value of such an activity anyways. I doubt that it convinces many students to suddenly recycle their beer cans and monitor the amount of water they use when they shower.

Nearly all classes that fulfill the natural science requirement focus on too much information that is useless to non-science majors. I don’t care about the names of the Earth’s biomes or the classification of vertebrates. I bet that I would be much more interested in a class called “Environmental and Resource Economics” than a class called “Ecological Issues.” But guess which one fulfills the natural science requirement.

The problem is that science classes are being taught in a vacuum. There isn’t enough discussion about how ecological issues take place in a political and economic environment. It’s too easy for students to walk out of a biology class feeling guilty for about ten minutes before continuing to resume their lives as normal. If the two classes mentioned above were merged into a class that counted towards the natural science requirement, the resulting class would be way more beneficial to non-science majors than the current options.

This is why I propose the creation of a new natural science course specifically geared towards people who aren't majoring in a science. It would be called, “What you need to know about science…really.” While I’m not a professor, here are some ideas for topics that I think would provide more beneficial discussions for students who will only be taking two science courses at this school:

First: There are many educational initiatives about the environment — like the University's “Planet Blue” initiative — that seek to convince individuals to change their routine behaviors for the benefit of the environment. What are the qualities of an effective initiative?

Second: If a large mass of people in an area where there is an abundance of water decides to drastically reduce its water usage, will that help people who live in an area where there is a shortage of water?

Third: If a country, such as the United States, signs an international agreement to reduce its carbon usage, how would it go about doing that? Is cap-and-trade enough?

I’m sure that science majors have similar complaints about their distribution requirements. But requirements aren't going to go away, no matter how much we complain about them. Seeing as most of us non-science folks are not going to take Orgo or neuro-biology, something can be changed to make the available options more applicable to our lives.

Jeremy Levy is an LSA sophomore.


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