Teaching Science To the `Unteachable'

IF scientific knowledge is being spread more widely around college campuses today, at least part of the credit goes to Zafra Lerman.

Professor Lerman teaches at a relatively obscure institution with an open-admissions policy. Columbia College in Chicago serves a largely minority urban population and specializes in the arts and communication. She joined the faculty in the late 1970s, after stints as a research chemist at Cornell, Northwestern, and other major universities.

She decided, she says, to ``change careers and help out in teaching.'' Columbia College had never offered science courses before, and ``everybody looked at me as if I had just landed in a UFO,'' Lerman says.

But she soon devised ways of connecting chemistry to things in her students' everyday lives - from food ingredients to headlines about nuclear accidents. Before long, her classes had no shortage of takers. Since 1991, she has been head of Columbia College's Institute for Science Education and Science Communication.

Also since that year, Lerman and fellow chemists from Princeton and Indiana University have been building a ``common curriculum'' for undergraduate nonscience majors at their very diverse schools.

Tom Spiro, a professor of chemistry at Princeton, had already developed a curriculum based on current environmental concerns, and his ideas were employed to launch a course now being taught at all three institutions - ``From Ozone to Oil Spills: Chemistry, the Environment, and You.''

Dr. Spiro says he teaches the course to between 30 and 40 students a term at Princeton. While his students have different backgrounds than those at Columbia College, and his teaching style may be quite different from Dr. Lerman's, the course's content is the same.

Measured by student enthusiasm and the quality of the projects presented at a yearly symposium that brings students from the three schools together, the goal of engaging nonscience majors in the study of science is being met. You might think kids from Columbia College would be a little intimidated by a visit to Princeton, says Lerman. ``But when they sit in classes at Princeton and do their demonstrations, they feel second to none.''

Her students have been particularly adept at merging their artistic and communicative talents with scientific knowledge. One group of students, for example, created a dance to illustrate the depletion of the atmosphere's ozone layer. Their instructor emphasizes, however, that there's nothing depleted about the course material. ``We have a whole curriculum, with a list of labs that they do,'' Lerman explains. ``We teach practically all the basic chemistry.''

``The point is, yes, it can be done,'' she continues. Her students have typically spent 12 years in an urban school district that former Education Secretary William Bennett has called the country's worst. ``They would be listed by anybody as `unteachable' in science,'' she says.

Far from unteachable, the students in Lerman's classes at Columbia exhibited a level of involvement that ``I've not often seen in science labs,'' says William Cohen, a biologist from the University of Kentucky who was hired by the National Science Foundation to observe Lerman's teaching. The NSF has funded the ``common curriculum'' project undertaken at Columbia, Indiana, and Princeton.

``I was very impressed with the project,'' Dr. Cohen says. ``I think it deals with an issue in the forefront nationally - science literacy.'' Cohen points out that efforts to bring undergraduates into contact with science are hardly limited to Lerman, Spiro, and a few others. He is involved in a science literacy project himself at Kentucky.

``If you do the traditional content-rich approach to science education, where you get to college and hear a lot of lecturing, the response of students is to turn off,'' says Cohen. ``Whereas, if they're fully engaged in doing, they're interested.''

Cohen notes that Lerman starts her classes ``at the big level,'' with issues in the news that are familiar to students, and ``works down to the tiny'' - cells, atoms, molecules. That's just the opposite of what scientists often do, he says, but it's appropriate to her students.

The effort to tailor undergraduate science courses to students' interests - whether environmental issues, food chemistry, or medical controversies - amounts to ``a big wave,'' Spiro says. Teaching experiments are going on all across the country, he says, with more and more conferences on the subject every year.

Some of this interest is impelled by a public demand that professors became more involved in teaching undergrads, Cohen says. Lerman is a little amused at the surge of interest in something she's been pursuing for nearly 20 years.

``Everyone is picking it up and using it at various levels,'' she says, a trend she heartily encourages. She has shared her techniques with instructors all the way down to those in early elementary grades.

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