First Year Seminar

As part of the proposed changes to the Baccalaureate degree in Natural Science, a First Year Seminar CINA 3050 has been proposed. We wish to bring to the attention of the faculty some possible problems with this seminar.

According to the April 2003 draft, Exhibit 1, the purpose of this seminar is to introduce the role which science and technology play in our society. It includes discussions of the history of science, the role of technology in the solution of current problems, information skills, the management of information, how to use the library, multidisciplinary analysis of a “problem” (unspecified), ethical analysis of the said problem, collaborative search for solutions to the “problem”, discussion of possible “quantitative” aspects of the “problem” and possible mathematical models. It incorporates competencies of critical analysis, linguistic and “quantitative” skills as well as political and economic aspects of research. Also included are a description and analysis of philosophical aspects of science such as the question of truth, the limits of creation, and science as “parallel model”[sic]. In addition, the student is expected to develop research skills by means of a “project” and “to contribute effectively” to the inclusion of students with disabilities.

After covering basic linguistic and “quantitative” skills, internet, use of library, “research” on a “problem”, etc., little time will be left for anything more than a superficial treatment of the profound and difficult subjects mentioned in this syllabus. Ethics is an ocean. Philosophy of Science is an ocean. The History of Science is an ocean. These areas, if done well, are much deeper and therefore harder to teach (properly) than, say, Chemistry I or Precalculus, which have fairly standard and well trodden syllabi. Even assuming that some kind of coherent path can be found through the mass of material in the Seminar, many questions arise. Who exactly will teach this seminar? How many professors have the training to properly discuss this myriad of subjects? How many are available and willing to do this? Is the budget available to pay them? What is the relation between the Physical Science course in General Studies and the proposed seminar? What is the opportunity cost of the Seminar? Which first year or other course will be sacrificed to make space for this interloper?

At least 32 of the 45 hours of this seminar are devoted to the discussion of a “Problem”. This is a problem. There are problems and there are problems. To fully judge the adequacy of this seminar it is essential to examine possible problems that a student may study. No examples are provided in the syllabus. Since the more transcendental problems of science cannot adequately be discussed in a first year seminar, students could well be engaged in trivial pursuits.

In short, the First Year Seminar attempts to be all things to all people. It is so broad that it inevitably lacks any depth -a kind of Science Lite. The serious danger exists that students will be left with an impression of superficiality. For example, realistic mathematical models in science are often very sophisticated. A microscopic physical system may be modelled by a vector in an infinite dimensional Hilbert space, an adiabatic process by a system of differential equations, a wave by a partial differential equation, the spectrum of hydrogen by homomorphisms from a symmetry group into a group of linear transformations, etc. Such models can only be taught to students who have substantial mathematical and scientific training. Thus the type of mathematical modelling that can realistically be covered with first year students is limited to relatively trivial activities as fitting curves to laboratory data -better taught in say precalculus or statistics. More realistic mathematical models are currently taught in such courses as Differential Equations and in the current two semesters of Physics. Unfortunately, recent proposals indicate that both Physics and Differential Equations will be made optional for majors in Mathematics. This elimination of an important part of the scientific cannon from the curriculum is a major part of the opportunity costs referred to above.

The confusion concerning the level and content of the seminar is well illustrated by the “bibliography”. With the exception of the widely criticized Un Nuevo Bachillerato para el Recinto de Río Piedras, the main section of the bibliography consists entirely of unspecified newspapers, journals, texts, manuals, bulletins, and“internet resources”. A separate section is entitled “(LITERATURE RECOMMENDED BY THE FACULTY OF HUMANITIES)”. Why this section is separate and in parentheses is not clear. What is clear is that the recommendations made by the Humanities faculty are at least specific. They include a classic work The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper, which contends that science tests hypotheses whose falsehood is in principle verifiable, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which introduces the debatable notion that science advances by paradigm shifts, and the postmodern work Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge by Paul Fayerabend which questions the very existence of “the” scientific method. Thus each of these three books advocates a very different philosophy of science. Will first year students, with little or no scientific training, be academically mature enough to adequately appreciate and understand these very different philosophical viewpoints? Another recommended book is The Philosophy of Physics by Roberto Torretti. Torretti discusses a range of topics including geometry, the twins-paradox in special relativity, the “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum physics, the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox, etc., all of which require a certain level of mathematical maturity. Recognizing this, the book contains supplements on vectors, lattice theory, and topology. What real benefit can first year students, with little or no scientific or mathematical training, derive from a book at this level? The last book recommended by the Humanities faculty is Ernest Cassirer’s The Logic of the Cultural Sciences. This is a technical philosophical treatise on, as the title suggests, the logical foundations and structure of the “sciences” of culture.

The books suggested by the Humanities Faculty would be more suitable for courses in the Philosophy of Science than for the proposed First Year Seminar. Ironically, the Philosophy Department is one of the Departments whose very existence was threatened by the Reconceptualization Project which gave birth to this strange seminar. In reality, for a seminar which seems to be based on the dubious notion that content is a pretext, no specific bibliography can possibly be adequate.

The recent decision of the Academic Senate to halt the implementation of the New Baccalaureate, as described in Certification 146, 2000-2001, alleviates the Faculties from the obligation of creating a first year seminar. In view of the multiple practical and philosophical problems described herein, it would be wise for the Faculty of Natural Science to use this opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of introducing such a seminar.

Philip Pennance
Río Piedras,
September, 2003