For more than eighty years, the heart of the undergraduate experience at Columbia College has been its Core Curriculum, a set of courses that introduces every student to the great ideas of Western literature, art, music, and philosophy. For many, the Core, which comprises a substantial portion of the coursework in the first two years of study, is a defining experience.1 All Columbia students share and can discuss a common set of works and themes drawn from the central ideas of Western culture. Yet in the eight decades since its adoption, the Core Curriculum has neglected an essential contribution of Western civilization: Science.
Emerging from the Renaissance as an original, creative, and profoundly powerful approach to the natural world, Western science has provided us with a fundamentally new view of the Universe. In this, the University's 250th year, we plan to introduce to Columbia undergraduates the study of this new view, and the modes of thought that lead to it, by instituting a course on science in the first year of the Core Curriculum.
While science courses are currently required of all Columbia students, their scientific education is not governed by the central premises of the Core: the importance of a common, simultaneous experience; the value of interaction with the material in small seminars; and the significance of a focus on central intellectual themes. Students currently take three science courses, two in a sequence within one discipline (for depth) and one in another discipline (for breadth). Since students take very different courses, the common intellectual experience is missing. Most such courses are large lectures, which limit discussion and hands-on experiences. Moreover, science-oriented students fulfill this requirement in very different ways than do students in the humanities, contributing to the perception of a great division between these two intellectual cultures.
Our new course, Frontiers of Science, both introduces students to exciting ideas at the forefront of scientific research and develops the habits of mind characteristic of a scientific approach to the world. Our goal is to foster a common intellectual experience, helping to close the divide between science and humanities in the minds of our students, as well as to enhance the experience of teaching for the faculty.
—David Helfand, Darcy Kelley, and Jacqueline van Gorkom