July 08, 2003

PU president Tilghman on teaching science

Today's New York Times science section has a conversation with Shirley Tilghman, a distinguished molecular geneticist and since 2001 president of Princeton University. The conversation dwells for some time on issues of Women in Science and then touches briefly on science education.

Q. How would you change the way science is taught at universities?

A. I think we do not teach the introductory courses appropriately. Right now, we just teach all the basic facts of chemistry, physics, biology or mathematics. Then, we teach a few basic principles. By the third year, we finally tell the students what is interesting about all of this. I think we should break the pyramid. We should begin with the most exciting ideas in chemistry, physics, biology and how you go about studying it. What are the things you need to know? We should only teach what students need to know in order to understand what those are.

Q. Would you teach science by changing science education into a "great ideas of science" course?

A. Absolutely. I'd like to see us teaching more than a canon, a collection of facts, but why this is exciting, why is the exploration of nature one of the most wonderful ways to spend one's life.

All this without a hint of regret that even Princeton University students should have to be babied into an appreciation of science. I wonder if it is really so.

Posted by Bas Braams at July 8, 2003 10:16 AM