DePaul beefs up science in liberal studies program

Starting this fall, the degree progress reports of new students at DePaul will look slightly different. For incoming freshmen and transfer students, there will be a new requirement under the Scientific Inquiry learning domain called Science as a Way of Knowing (SWK).

Following a standard academic program review of the Liberal Studies Program in the 2010-11 academic year, they determined DePaul could improve their science offerings for non-science majors to better explain and explore the process of science. Currently, most students are required to take a science lab as well as one or two science elective courses, depending on their college and program.

“In the sciences they discovered that, although students were taking lab courses, they weren’t learning the larger, general concepts of science,” Mark Pohlad, an associate dean and director of the Liberal Studies Program, said. “So they suggested to think about a general science course between labs and then the more general electives.”

Pohlad agreed that some courses offered under the current scientific inquiry domain might be considered too lenient.

“That is what was driving this conversation, that the courses had become a little less scientific than we think they ought to be. But that was inevitable because our liberal studies program is interdisciplinary,” Pohlad said. “There was a sense that we needed to get back to something more directed.”

Bernhard Beck-Winchatz, an associate professor in the College of Science and Health, was the former scientific inquiry advisory chair and helped lead the development of the SWK designation.

“We looked at what other universities were offering, and we looked at what employers expect students to know when they graduate college, and we realized that there was really nothing that would give students that opportunity to learn about the process of science,” Beck-Winchatz said.

Then, they worked to develop learning outcomes for SWK courses, which ultimately dictate what students should be able to accomplish as a result of the course. The two main learning outcomes for SWK courses include: students will understand the scientific worldview and that students will understand the nature and process of science, according to a copy obtained by The DePaulia.

SWK classes will be taught in the context of natural sciences — including environmental science, biology, chemistry, physics and more — but the classes won’t look any different, Mark Potosnak, scientific inquiry advisory chair and assistant professor in the College of Science and Health, said.

Many of the classes in the new SWK designation will not be new classes, but simply existing courses that have been re-worked with new assignments or lessons.

“If there is a psychology course that really uses the scientific process, but just used in a different context, we would definitely look at that for a SWK course,” Beck-Winchatz said.

Although requirements vary by program and college, most new students will now be required to take a science lab, scientific inquiry elective and a SWK course. For most DePaul students, 40 percent of their education is made up of liberal studies classes, including the core classes like senior capstone, as well as all the learning domains, which make up about 1,800 sections every quarter.

However, this new SWK designation is not intended to be exclusive and all other scientific inquiry electives will remain the same.

“We have courses in the current domain that are not at all about science,” Beck-Winchatz said. “There are examples where students use computers or technology and receive (scientific inquiry) credit. It doesn’t mean that those aren’t good courses, we just want, at the minimum, to make sure students understand how the scientific method works.”

To have this new class designation ready for the fall, the scientific inquiry committee, currently led by Potosnak, will begin accepting proposals from professors and instructors.  The committee will then review the proposals, which include a syllabus and various questions explaining how the course meets the learning outcomes. They hope to have 10 to 12 SWK courses ready by the fall, Beck-Winchatz said.