Case Study - Science Today (Jacqueline Cason)

Science Today

We began the semester with the historical “two cultures” debate over whether colleges should privilege a scientific education over a humanities education. I used this assignment as an ice- breaker: one large collaborative activity that would 1) introduce conflicts between scientific ways of knowing and the policy issues they inform; and 2) address the role of public delibera- tion in resolving controversies that require scientific understanding. We called our show Science Today instead of Justice Talking. The collaborative episode was prepared in parts outside of class and performed in a single class period.

The episode began with an interactive timeline of key events in the history of the two cultures debate, followed by a graphic display of the history of science in a series of images set to music. The segment emphasized the driving curiosity in poets and chemists alike, along with issues of social stratification, differing employment opportunities in the sciences and humanities, increasing levels of international competition in global economies, and the aims of education in helping individuals and communities address economic and moral challenges.

The overview and historical background segment was followed by a current event news report of the recent groundbreaking for UAA’s new science facility. The segment featured an interview with James Liszka, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a philosophy professor dressed in a long white lab coat. The student newscasters described the dedication in ritualistic terms as an expression of values, joined with a performance of indigenous music and the Alaska Flag song.

The debate portion underscored the common values shared by both the sciences and the humanities. The person advocating for scientific education described science as systematized knowledge or a system for organizing complexities, and claimed that it would carry the humanities into the future with momentum and shared values. She spoke metaphorically, calling upon the class to witness how the ink of her math homework had bled through the page and intermingled with her history notes. The spokesperson advocating for a humanities education also spoke metaphorically of foundational knowledge with an emphasis on civic engage- ment. In short, the debate centered on questions of emphasis and priority, with the “science” student emphasizing knowledge and the “humanities” student emphasizing civic engagement.

Following the debate, the moderator focused class attention with four key questions:

Should all students have to take courses in the humanities and fine arts, even if they plan to pursue a science-based career?

Which is more important: how much one knows or how well one can express it publicly? Why?

How important it is for a person with a very high level of technical expertise to be able to communicate specialized knowledge to the general public? This question was addressed to the science advocate.

How important it is for a person who is a competent and eloquent communicator to be able to maintain a high level of scientific knowledge and literacy? This question he posed to the humanities advocate.

The episode concluded with two commentators who delivered personal essays. The first spoke from the perspective of a Bristol Bay salmon fisherman who works under a system of quotas set by fisheries biologists whose job it is to manage the harvest of a renewable resource. He spoke about the limitations and unpredictable nature of an imperfect science and the biologists’ responsibility to communicate with fishermen in both technical and lay terms. He supported an educational system that prepares students with marketable skills but also helps them experience an affinity to society instead of existing in separate communities that cannot communicate or understand one another.

The second commentator spoke from the perspective of a Chinese exchange student who has witnessed this debate in her home country. She described the high-stakes single standardized college entrance examination as “cruel” and the time it occurs as “Black June” or “Black July.” She told the story of one award-winning eighteen-year-old who wrote a book on the topic, a book that claimed high school science courses were meaningless in preparing students for the exam and thereby functioned to maker higher education off limits to very talented students in the arts. The commentator advocated a more flexible system that would play to the strengths of diverse students without limiting their future educational opportunities.

Jacqueline Cason