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Shaky Foundations

All PostsOpinionShaky Foundations

story Xie Yihao

Shaky Foundations
(Rachel Johanna Lim)

The first semester of Foundations of Science (FoS) was not terribly successful. The second semester so far shows no sign of improvement. While faculty members rolled out a new batch of short courses, replaced the Langkawi study-trip with more optional local activities, and fine-tuned the components of the final grade, FoS is still failing to meet students’ expectations. The faculty must realize that substituting and improving content of the course solves no problems. The superstructure of the entire FoS curriculum needs a major overhaul: Foundations of Science must be restructured to independent semester-long courses with individual grades and fewer supplementary activities.

The current FoS curriculum is structurally identical to last semester. This semester, students are required to finish two seven-week modules with exams and projects, three book readings, one capstone project at the end and a handful of course-wide activities such as movies, museum trips and talks. There are a total of twelve short courses offered in Academic Year 2014/2015. They range from Climate Change and Sustainability, which have a clear social and practical emphasis, to Novel Traits and Habitable Planets, which focus more on technical aspects.

Many students will agree that this curriculum model has been performing badly thus far. It has generated enormous problems that undermine quality of learning and student experience. Shortcomings include discontinuous and superficial learning experiences, disproportionately demanding amounts of coursework, poorly planned and coordinated assignment deadlines and inconsistent grading standards.

Dividing one semester into segments precludes continuous in-depth exploration into a single scientific issue. A student in the Coral Reefs course who was interviewed on the condition of anonymity pointed out that “there is so much to learn and so much jargon to use unsystematically in such a short amount of time” under the current model. Given the diverse nature of courses, moving from the first short course to the next may feel like going to a separate and unassociated module altogether. While more students get to experience more units, this structure inevitably makes learning superficial, disjunct and unsatisfying.

Some professors try to compensate for the lack of time and insufficient understanding of the subject matter by increasing the workload for students, sometimes assigning over a hundred pages of readings every seminar. Hasty skimming of the materials then becomes a strategic necessity for students who have to cope with increasing pressure from their electives and major modules. The demanding amount of coursework is complicated by uncoordinated and disorganized cohort-wide activities. When six courses are happening alongside supplementary course-wide activities, deadlines often clash to create a surge in the number of assignments in a short period. The student in the Coral Reefs course counted the number of hours spent on the course in one particular week: 14. Supplementary assignments, continual journals, class preparation readings and course-specific assignments add up to the staggering number, the student explained. Fourteen hours is almost twice the the time normally required for a 5 Modular Credit course. Students will then have to choose whether to sacrifice their electives and major modules or Foundations of Science.

Yet another contradiction in the current model of FoS is incoherence in grading policies. In spite of apparent divergences in pedagogies, content and classroom policies, the FoS faculty attempts to merge the fragmented experiences by assigning a conglomerate grade for Foundations of Science as one module. But without universal grading instructions and policies, students in certain courses where professors are more strict will surely be disadvantaged. The same level of effort is often not translated to comparable results. How then can these grades be effective performance indicators?

These shortcomings are, in essence, inherent in the current structure of Foundations of Science. Changing the content of short courses or organizing trips to exotic locations makes no difference; the inconsistencies, contradictions and impediments will only be resolved if we abolish the present structure, and make a few fundamental changes:

1) Extend every short course to one-semester long independent modules
2) Reduce the number of cohort-wide activities and related assignments
3) Internalize common learning objectives into individual course curricula
4) Assign a separate grade for every course, not subsumed under Foundations of Science

Science courses targeted at non-science majors are an important component of the Common Curriculum. The integrity of the entire Common Curriculum will be compromised if a major science course like FoS remains dysfunctional. The Foundations of Science faculty members will have to take bolder steps to redesign the course structure for it to actually work.

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