Bridging the "Two Cultures" in the Classroom: Using Historical Pedagogy to Enhance STEM Learning in Higher Education

AHA Session 52
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Tom Rudin, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
Bringing History into the Lab: A New Approach to Scientific Learning in General Education
David Brandon Dennis, Dean College; Rob Alan Lawson, Dean College; Jessica M. Pisano, Dean College
Teaching the History of Genetics and Race
Vivien Hamilton, Harvey Mudd College
Karen A. Rader, Virginia Commonwealth University

Session Abstract

The emergence of history of science and history of medicine as stand-alone fields after the Second World War coincided with innovative curricular projects in American higher education that blended historical and scientific pedagogies. Harvard President and chemist, James Bryant Conant, was perhaps the leading postwar advocate of historical approaches to scientific learning. He argued that the history of science belonged at the center of general education on the grounds that all educated citizens of a “free society” in a “technological age” should become conversant with basic scientific ideas and principles. Pioneering a curriculum rooted in science history case studies, Conant hoped to give the non-scientist citizen a “feel” for what he called “the tactics and strategy of science.” Other postwar curricular innovators, such as medical historian Henry Sigerist at Johns Hopkins or historian of science Henry Guerlac at Cornell, focused conversely on teaching historical awareness to future scientists, engineers, or medical doctors. They hoped this would provide these professionals with the cultural, social, and political context that Guerlac called “the intangible assets” of science.

Although innovative, these postwar visions for interdisciplinary learning ultimately failed to take root as disciplines became increasingly siloed. C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 critique of the “two-cultures” divide between science and the humanities reflected this pedagogical parting of ways. Recently, Michael Aaron Dennis has called for historians to revisit the pedagogical projects of the postwar era for twenty-first century higher education. He argues that today’s public “knows neither more nor less about science than they did in the 1950s” and advocates “coproduction” of knowledge about history and science. The need for humanistic approaches to STEM learning has taken on increasing relevance as societies grapple with climate change, rising health care costs, genetic engineering, and other such challenges.

Consequently, this panel surveys the current curricular landscape for pedagogical approaches that bridge the “two cultures” in the classroom. Its contributors also consider the challenges and future possibilities for such approaches. Presenter David Dennis, with co-authors Rob Lawson and Jessica Pisano, provide an overview of their project at Dean College to create and implement two general education courses that combine historical pedagogy with laboratory science whereby students perform historical experiments. Using qualitative and quantitative data gathered, they examine how this curricular model impacts learning outcomes, learning experiences, and attitudes toward science. Vivien Hamilton’s paper relates the experience of co-teaching a course at Harvey Mudd College in the history of genetics and race with a biologist to a group of science students. She describes the narrative arc of the course, as well as decisions about pedagogy, and reflects on the challenges of team teaching across disciplines. Tianna Uchacz outlines the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University and shares insights from this pedagogy-driven research. The Project has taught over a hundred graduate students historical, hands-on materials-based, and digital research methods. The Project aims to provide an adaptable and scalable implementation guide and resource set for other instructors to draw on in their own teaching and research.

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