On this page, you will find my teaching philosophy and my suggestions for those who wish to study science, courses that I have developed, and my experience in teaching/lecturing.
The field of science is so impossibly large that any undergraduate degree has to pick and choose the elements deemed most important for a general science background. Of course, there are different streams like mathematical sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences, etc. Each discipline has its own content or focus, but at the heart of all of these curricula lies a basic appreciation of what science is and how it should be taught.
For each department, educators ask themselves “what kind of student would we like to see come out of our program?” The answer is broadly in two parts. First, basic, sound knowledge and competence of the fundamentals of the specific discipline are required. For biology, that would include things like a general understanding of the living world at all levels (molecules, cells, organisms, communities, etc), evolutionary theory, and ability to do laboratory or fieldwork, and so on. For the mathematical disciplines, it would include things like algebra, calculus, trigonometry, statistics, and computational math among other things. But a basic competence in the discipline-specific content is only part of it. It is impossible to cover all the contents of a specific discipline in an undergraduate degree, which is why the second answer is just as important. The second component concerns transferable skills. These are critical because they allow us to switch from one science field to another even if the content and background have not been covered as much as one wished.
My personal view is that there are at least three very broad areas of competence required for anyone wishing to enter science, engineering, technology, or pre-clinical medicine. The first area is logic, organized thought, and quantitative skills. The mind is by nature not particularly logical or rational. For developing this aspect at the university level, some training in mathematics is required. The second area is language. In every discipline, we need to write, speak, and listen. Language is essential, perhaps the most essential single component. As Wittgenstein (in his book the Tractatus) says the limits of our language are the limits of our reality. All languages are a gift and important. No single language is, at its core, more important than any other, but it is also important to be pragmatic. To a large degree English, for better or worse, is the lingua franca of science. The third area that in my view is essential is philosophy. Philosophy is criticized as being a ‘luxury’ subject, non-essential, or divorced from empirical fields. That is simply not true. Philosophy is everything. It is the ultimate transferable skill. In fact, I would argue that if in a hypothetical world, one was only allowed to study one subject it would have to be philosophy.
How can the teaching goals be realized?
The best way to learn is through discovery or curiosity-driven inquiry. Traditional textbook approaches to a subject are important, but you really learn and develop critical thinking when you ask questions and try, by yourself at first, to answer them. I have always been partial to the tutorial system employed by universities like Oxford University. Exceptional universities are exceptional because they are not production lines. I am not one to laud over the prestigious universities (they also get a lot wrong), but often they are not fixated on metrics. Of course, their financial situation allows them this indulgence. But even in less financially stable universities, the essence of what a university is about should not be lost in metrics. Some things are not quantifiable and any university that insists on things like KPIs (key performance indicators) has lost its way. The corporatization of universities has been an enormous setback in tertiary education.
Formal, didactic lectures have their place. Sometimes it is important to provide a broad outline of something, a framework, and context, or a systematic approach to a particular subject. In these instances, there is no limit to the size of classes. But learning through discovery, whether theoretically or in the laboratory, is the key to becoming an independent, critical thinker. Here a dialectic philosophy (both co-intentional and co-extensional) is most appropriate.
My suggestions for basic science students
If you are thinking about pursuing a career in science or science-related fields, my suggestion is that you do at least the following at the university level:
one year of mathematics,
six months of English,
six months of philosophy (an introduction to the philosophy of science, epistemology, and metaphysics, and topics in the analytic or continental tradition may be helpful)
six months of physics and chemistry,
select other subjects depending on what your future plans are e.g., biology, more physics, and chemistry, computer science, etc.
Musings on the future of the general medical doctor degree (MD, MBBCh, MBBS degrees)
See the opinions and essays (May upload).