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Useless to the Core

Current Core Bio classes are uninspiring and turn students away from the sciences.

The College Admissions website tells visitors that the Core will help students “raise fundamental questions and become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society.” To a large extent, this description is accurate—especially when it comes to Hum, Sosc, and Civ. However, in other areas, like the physical and biological sciences, the Core falls short of its lofty mission and goals.

The elephant in the room when it comes to the Core is the biological sciences component. Simply put, Core Bio sucks. It suffers from a lack of focus, which results in a course that covers too much and fails to properly transition into Bio Topics. The lack of focus and depth, when combined with homework assignments that border on the “busywork” that many students hoped they had left behind in high school, has a predictable consequence: Those who take Core Bio end up disliking the biological sciences and are driven away from them. It’s conceivable that a student can enter the College planning to study a science and have her Hum class shift her towards philosophy, but it is almost impossible to think of a scenario where Core Bio motivates someone to major in biology.

In general, the architects of the Core have a real problem on their hands when it comes to the science requirements. It is hard to deny that Hum, Sosc, and Civ are successful in their goals of introducing undergraduates to a wide variety of methodologies and texts, all while cultivating important interpretive, analytical, and writing skills. Students who leave these discussion-based courses often have a newfound respect for the fields that they were exposed to. Unfortunately, similar claims cannot always be made for lecture-based classes like Core Bio, Global Warming, or Chemistry and the Atmosphere.

Sadly, there isn’t an easy way to address this problem—nobody is advocating for the elimination of the science requirement. A more plausible solution would be the introduction of more focused, text-based classes. Courses that explore the teachings of Darwin’s The Origin of Species or Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory could instill the fundamental tenets of scientific thought while retaining academic legitimacy. Other options could be classes that center on the history of science, as well as offerings on specific, overarching concepts like natural selection, thermodynamics, and genetics. These are solutions that would eliminate the “blow-off” reputation of most Core science classes while still limiting their scope to the essential aspects of scientific theory.

Some might argue that this would dilute the teaching of technical knowledge. While this trade-off might be inevitable, it’s also true that adhering to a more conceptual and focused curriculum would inspire more students to pursue said technical knowledge. At the end of the day, there just isn’t a good reason for why the teachings of Plato and Marx are considered required knowledge for all students while those of Farraday and Heisenberg are only available to a small minority of math and science majors. If the Core’s mission really is to introduce students to the ideas that shape our society, then surely fields like physics, chemistry, and biology deserve better than what they currently get.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.

7 comments on “Useless to the Core

  1. reply

    Great article!

    What about a science distribution requirement? Still require students to take science classes, but allow them to take the specific classes that most appeal to them, while at the same time making departments/professors compete to have the best courses? Sounds very uchicago to me

  2. reply

    It seems to me that Core Bio is actually doing a good job–I came in as a prospective English/Arts major, and yet my Core Bio class is fascinating, and I’m really considering taking more biology courses. As long as you take the time to choose a flavor of Core Bio that you’ll be interested in, I think the class is a success.
    On the other hand, the poor selection of physical science Core classes is really unfortunate. It has nowhere near the diversity in “flavors” that Bio does. If we’re going to focus on a problem, I suggest we focus on adding more classes to the physci departments that cater to people who don’t want to spend hours and hours in long labs are memorizing formulas. I can think of several options off the top of my head.

  3. reply
    Allegory of the Crave

    I’m gonna disagree. I would hate a text-based science class…what about that is science-y? I loved my core bio class AND my topics class – which was actually one of the most intellectually challenging classes I’ve had here. Challenging because it actually taught me science and then subsequently challenged me to use my brain on exams and critical papers that were actually comprehensive. It made me wish I had done everything again, and taken more Bio. And introduced me to an awesomeee lab PI, post-doc, and grad student, all of whom I’m still in touch with.

    Also I loved my Environmental History of the Earth class. Informative, and the teacher is an awesome guy I would have never met otherwise.

  4. reply

    Valid but Chemistry and the Atmosphere was one of the best classes I took during my four years at UChicago. Reading Einstein is a noble goal but it’s not for everyone

  5. reply

    I also disagree with some of your points. Your proposal here basically amounts to turning science classes into something they’re not. No real science classes at UofC are discussion-based/text-based until the upper-levels. You can’t rigorously analyze or intelligently discuss a subject in which you do not have a solid background, and that background is the most solid when it comes from a combination of lecture + either textbook readings or primary literature readings.

    While it’s true that perhaps Core Bio and Global Warming, etc would benefit from more focused and in-depth curricula, text-based classes are not a reasonable proposal. Making the Hum and Sosc core requirements based on text-based classes works because that is the format of most courses in the humanities and social sciences. However, in the physical and biological sciences, the huge majority of classes involve lecture. Students reading the Origin of the Species will get much more out of it if they already have a basic knowledge of evolution.

    Moreover, you say, “other options could be classes that center on the history of science, as well as offerings on specific, overarching concepts like natural selection, thermodynamics, and genetics. ” Uh, hello! First of all, like the poster above me said, there ARE specific nat sci offerings like (s)he mentioned. Second, there are also other courses you can take to fulfill the core that aren’t specifically in the nat sci sequence or core bio. Core bio isn’t the only option for fulfilling the bio requirement of the core – there are other options. As far as natural selection goes, Ecology & Evolution in the bio department offers a great introduction to natural selection and has no real prerequisites, and as far as genetics goes, if you want to take Fundamentals of Genetics, just take Cell/Molec beforehand. There is no happy medium for some of these topics that’s between “very easy” and “rigorous” – sometimes you have to choose what you want. But if you think that core-level science classes seem too easy/useless, there are more intensive options available to you!

  6. reply

    …And when I say “very easy” and “rigorous,” I also mean “superficial” and “very in-depth/technical.”

  7. reply

    I think your point about Core Bio is well taken. There should be a 2-3 term “Intro General Bio.” w/ labs for non-majors to replace flavored “Core Bio” + a topical elective course. An optional 3rd term or a topical elective could be used as a 3rd bio course under the Core requirements. Non-biology majors or non pre-medical students have little option but to choose from the 100-level liberal arts biology courses. However, non-physical science majors can take real physics, chemistry and math courses taken by majors even without freshman standing. ALUMNUS

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