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Frontiers of Science
by Jennifer Boeth Donovan
Concerned that "so-called nonscience students often are shunted into boring or irrelevant courses, if they take science at all," Darcy Kelley decided to do something about it.
Mary Helen Bowers and Jennifer Evans lean forward, rapt, as their professors argue on the stage of Columbia University's Miller Theater. The debate: "Can we engineer consciousness?" The heated answers of a superstar faculty: "Yes," "no," and "maybe."
Bowers, 26, danced for a decade with the New York City Ballet before entering Columbia to earn a college degree. Evans, 18, is the daughter of scientists. Both are taking "Frontiers of Science," a novel course developed by Columbia neuroscientist Darcy Kelley and a cross-disciplinary assortment of colleagues to introduce undergraduates in all disciplines to research on the frontiers of science today and—more importantly—to the ways scientists think.
Bowers, Evans, and more than 300 other entering students attend weekly lectures by the cream of Columbia's scientists such as Horst L. Stormer, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who used to head the physical research laboratory at the pioneering Bell Labs, and Kelley, one of 20 researchers nationwide named HHMI professors—each of whom received $1 million to help transform undergraduate science education.
For 85 years, Columbia's undergraduate education has centered around a core curriculum comprising literature, music, art, history, and philosophy. With the advent of "Frontiers in Science," for the first time science joins the fields that generate what this university calls "the great ideas of Western civilization." The course will be offered on a pilot basis for 5 years.
Photo: Jennifer Altman