Background and ContextThese courses were developed because by the fall of 204 I realized that I was no longer convinced that the traditional way to teach subjects such as biochemistry genuinely develops in students a significant ability at "being able to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for personal and social purposes" (as stated in the AAAS report Science for All Americans) That realization was the result of a journey that had included teaching courses for nonscience majors using texts such as Chemistry in Context, participating in discussions over 18 months with other science faculty at Saint Vincent College about possible revisions to the natural sciences goal in our core curriculum, attending two SENCER Summer Institutes (2002 and 2004), and teaching a SENCER course for the first time (Science and Global Sustainability, a course for nonscience majors).
Teaching the Science and Global Sustainability course was pivotally for several reasons. I saw firsthand how motivated the students were at the end of the course to make a difference in the world. That was something that I had never seen with students taking biochemistry in all the years that I had been teaching those courses. As part of the preparation for teaching Science and Global Sustainability, I had to become more familiar with public health issues such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. As I learned more about these issues, I increasingly saw connections between them and the concepts that are typically covered in undergraduate biochemistry courses. Yet these significant public health challenges rarely if ever appeared in biochemistry textbooks. These issues had more than just a scientific component to them; there were moral and civic dimensions that crossed the traditional boundaries between disciplines.
In the April 5, 2002 issue of Science, Ismail Serageldin (director of the Library of Alexandria), wrote a Perspective titled "World Poverty and Hunger - the Challenge for Science" in which he stated:
"For science to realize its full promise and become the primary force for change in the world, it requires that scientists work to 1) engage scientific research in the pressing issues of our time; 2) abolish hunger and reduce poverty; 3) promote a scientific outlook and the values of science; 4) build real partnerships with the scientists in the South...All of that, however, requires our joint commitment as scientists to work for the benefit of the entire human family, not just the privileged minority who are lucky enough to live in the most advanced industrial societies...But scientists' voices must be heard loudly and clearly in the national discourse of their own societies. This absence not only severs science from its salutary effect on the modernization of societies, but also undermines the public support necessary for its pursuit."
To prepare undergraduate science majors for the responsibilities that Serageldin describes clearly required that students make connections between scientific concepts studied in courses for their major, larger social issues, and their own personal values and willingness to engage in moral and civic issues. Such learning, clearly consistent with the aims of a liberal education and reflective of the aspect of science literacy highlighted earlier, would also be decidedly integrative in nature. If I was to be more effective at helping science majors make these integrative connections, then I had to change the way that the course was structured.
At the same time, I could not avoid the question of how to balance the content-intensive nature of the biochemistry courses with the time and attention required to develop this integrative understanding. How could these courses be structured so that students were challenged to master the scientific concepts and at the same time make connections to pressing issues, a variety of disciplines (in and out of the natural sciences), and their own personal values? During the 2005-2006 academic year, this was the focus of my Carnegie Scholar project. The work has continued since the end of my fellowship, and what is described here as a SENCER model course is the result of four years of continuous work on this question.
The courses are required for the B.S. in biochemistry and also serve as electives for the B.S. in biology and the B.S. in chemistry. These courses are often taken by students preparing for several different health profession careers (medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine).