"'Just Do Science': A Liberal-Arts College Perspective on Teaching the Sciences to Undergraduates"

President William Durden delivered the following keynote address for the Gateway Sciences Initiative symposium at Johns Hopkins University on Jan. 17, 2013.*

I am delighted to participate in this engaging meeting at my graduate alma mater focused on the continuing improvement of Gateway science education at Johns Hopkins. Thank you for the invitation.

I intend to offer concluding remarks to the day's activities that introduce you to some best practices in teaching the sciences at a representative liberal-arts college-my undergraduate alma mater and the college of which I am currently president-Dickinson-a college that arguably has been a leader in undergraduate science pedagogy in the United States. I believe that it is especially important for you to be familiar with what we do because of the results we in the liberal-arts sector achieve through science education. Victor Ferrall, Jr., a former colleague at Beloit College, cites key data points in his book provocatively entitled Liberal Arts at the Brink (2011) that may be of interest:

Twenty-eight of the 50 baccalaureate-granting institutions that, proportionate to their size, graduated the most science and engineering doctorate recipients from 1997-2006 were liberal-arts colleges. Five of them, Harvey Mudd, Reed, Carleton and Grinnell, ranked ahead of Harvard; nine of them ahead of Yale.

Of course, I am keenly aware that we in the liberal-arts college sector do not possess a magic potion and that, in turn, we could learn a great deal about science advancement from a major research university such as Hopkins. I share then to grasp the best of both worlds for a shared purpose and to challenge you to determine whether what I describe can be adapted to science teaching at Hopkins. The obvious issues to reconcile are mission, class size, pedagogy, classroom design and disciplinary ownership.

I assert four points of differentiation between Dickinson and Hopkins in the teaching of science [of course, I do so dangerously not knowing in detail what you do currently!]: history and mission, pedagogy, student-faculty research and interdisciplinarity. I am dismissing one point of distinction I hear often among my colleagues at liberal-arts colleges because I believe it is bogus. Some claim that liberal-arts undergraduate colleges have "better" results with science education because they do NOT have graduate programs. Faculty do not have to direct time and energy, as well as intellectual capital, to graduate students who are attending the university to accomplish research towards a Ph.D. and in turn, they do not have to spend an inordinate amount of time seeking grants to support an elaborate graduate school-oriented agenda. I reject this notion because I believe that good undergraduate science teaching can benefit from a graduate research university environment in many ways (resources, scope of study, contact with bright, striving graduate students and shared research projects), if-but only if-the university makes an effort to diminish any unnecessary divide in terms of instructional support and the personalization of teaching and learning. Unfortunately that does not happen at all research universities-undergraduates are not always given the attention they need to be prepared for both science literacy and advanced study in the sciences. Additionally, if I were to defend this claim of my liberal-arts colleagues, I would give an exceedingly short presentation as Hopkins, I trust, is not about to forgo its distinguished graduate programs-its DNA from its founding and the base, I believe, of its most creative possibilities for enhanced undergraduate teaching in its future.


Dickinson comes by its scientific disposition quite naturally. Its founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, was not only a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but a physician and scientist. He argued for Dickinson College in 1783 to reject the "monkish" higher education inherited from the elite British and to adopt a new form of education-a USEFUL liberal education-suited to the new and emerging democratic form of government that was the United States of America.

Dr. Rush centered the new American higher education on the sciences-particularly chemistry (he is, of course, America's first professor of chemistry at what is now the University of Pennsylvania). It was this subject, he believed, that would have the most "connectivity" to emerging fields-fields that, in turn, would help the nation grow in political substance and financial stability. In a 1787 letter to Jonathan Smith he wrote, "Chemistry is not only a science of importance in itself, but serves as a key to a thousand other sources of knowledge." Already we perceive that, for Dr. Rush, science in America's undergraduate liberal-arts curriculum was of central importance. Its influence extended well beyond the confines of the subject area itself. Dr. Rush understood that the study of science in America had to be about something larger than the subject itself to capture the energy and creativity of the population. For him, that something larger was informed participation in an emerging democracy. The teaching of science brought students directly into the progress of humanity and democracy. It is precisely at this early point in my presentation that a difference of founding mission between liberal-arts colleges and particularly Johns Hopkins-albeit representative of all major research universities-must be mentioned as it could well confound Hopkins adopting anything I say today about science instruction among liberal-arts colleges. Hopkins was, of course, founded "to realize the scholarly ideal of an institution devoted to the CREATION of knowledge" from Richard A. DeMillo in Abelard to Apple, 2012). As Daniel Coit Gilman so explicitly stated, "[At Hopkins] No love of ease, no dread of labor, no fear of consequences, no desire for wealth will avert a band of well-chosen professors from uniting their forces in the persecution of study….By their labors, knowledge has been accumulated, intellectual capital has been acquired." Clearly the primacy of university activity and distinction is located in outstanding faculty who are singularly devoted to the creation of knowledge. However, this focus on professors is problematic historically as noted by Richard A. DeMillo, "But it was always a delicate, and sometimes confusing balance-even for Johns Hopkins-between research and teaching the thousands of students who were pouring into colleges and universities and whose interests did not necessarily lie in the laboratory."

An early graduate of Dickinson and later professor, Spencer Fullerton Baird-of course, the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions-introduced field study into the American curriculum for the express purpose of teaching science. For the first time in American educational history students went out of the classroom and into-in this case-the surrounding Central Pennsylvania mountains to gather specimens that were later classified and studied in a college laboratory. The formal acquisition of science in our institutions lost its fixedness to confined space and extended out into the world. Students and their professor were involved directly in the collection and the analysis of scientific data.

Let us now fast forward a few centuries. In the 1980s, before many of our peer institutions, Dickinson embarked on a comprehensive, long-term science initiative that has included an infusion of new faculty, innovative pedagogy and curriculum, and upgraded instrumentation and facilities. Critical components of this initiative have been the application of active, discovery-oriented approaches to science education and the integration of student research throughout the curriculum. Numerous liberal-arts colleges and some universities have adapted their science instruction to this model. Progress began with the development of an award-winning program of Workshop PhysicsÒ  in the 1980s funded extensively by NSF-throwing away the textbook and permitting students to discover scientific principles by personal experimentation. This was followed with curricular reforms in mathematics, geology, chemistry and biology in the 1990s. More recently, the college has instituted new programs in biochemistry & molecular biology and neuroscience and explored the role of bioinformatics, genomics, and nanoscience in the undergraduate curriculum.  

  • Science education at Dickinson focuses on the following goals:
  • Participatory, discovery-oriented pedagogy for both majors and non-majors,
  • Opportunities for students and faculty to engage in intensive research, often leading to publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals and presentations at professional conferences,
  • and Encouragement of faculty and students to engage in interdisciplinary science and to write frequently about their progress and discovery.

The combination of pedagogical innovation, a research-intensive curriculum, an emphasis on interdisciplinarity and, as importantly, writing, has produced, I believe, an exceptionally dynamic undergraduate science program at Dickinson with very positive commitments of our graduates to continued engagement in science as researchers, practitioners and informed citizens.   


First and foremost, most introductory science courses at Dickinson-and increasing numbers of intermediate and advanced courses-focus on active learning using discovery-based approaches, enhanced fieldwork, and/or laboratory-based investigation of issues and themes. Implementation of this pedagogy across all disciplines has placed Dickinson on the vanguard of national science education reform. Retired faculty members Priscilla Laws in physics and Nancy Baxter Hastings in mathematics pioneered the WorkshopÒ method of science teaching. Their work centers on the principle that students learn most effectively through direct and active experimentation. Similarly, our faculty introduced a discovery-based approach to biology and geology by building introductory courses around themes such as cancer or global warming.

Discovery-based teaching and learning has also influenced the design and equipment of many science classrooms and laboratories. For example, spaces in our Tome Scientific Building were specially configured and equipped with computers and other technology to support the Workshop Physics and Workshop Mathematics curricula. Cooperative learning design was complemented by the immediacy of experimentation space. In biology, a grant from Merck in 1996 enabled us to equip laboratories and classrooms for physiological and pharmacological research. Very early, therefore, our faculty and students were engaged in our construction process and guaranteed that what was built met completely their emerging needs for teaching informed by research. Form met function head-on and faculty were engaged architects of their instructional space.

In addition, the college's recent and successful $150 million campaign provided funds for the construction of the first two wings of the new Rector Science Complex, which opened for classes in fall 2008. Featuring 90,000 square feet of laboratories, classrooms and research facilities, Rector houses the entire department of chemistry, as well as portions of biology and psychology relating to our interdisciplinary program in neuroscience. It includes "areas of inquiry" in place of the traditional department structure-meaning that groups of offices, laboratories, classrooms and equipment are largely grouped by function, rather than by department. Offices and laboratories of biologists are situated next to those of psychologists in neuroscience, and the chemists' offices are spread through both wings. Rector has a vivarium on its lower level shared by biology and psychology. Since the opening of this new building we have seen a steady increase in student enrollment in introductory biology, chemistry, neuroscience and BMB courses-especially among women. A further expansion is currently underway to enhance our science facilities and unify all members of the biology department in the Rector facility.

The college itself also actively encourages curricular development.  Many of the external grants noted above-and there are many more-were secured by faculty who first received planning grants for their ideas from the college's own Research and Development (R&D) committee.


Discovery-oriented teaching at Dickinson mirrors a strong focus on research by faculty and students. We strive for a student-centered experience in which faculty self-interest is balanced by student needs and interest (DeMillo). Dickinson requires senior science majors to conduct capstone research. We also encourage interested students to work one-on-one with faculty for intensive research collaboration either in the summer or during the academic year.

Beyond the undergraduate assistant roles that many faculty have incorporated into their own research proposals, Dickinson has won multiple institutional grants specifically for collaborative student-faculty research. Over a decade ago, external grants helped us establish a regular summer program of student-faculty research projects.

Thanks to a challenge grant and the generosity of alumni and friends, considerable internal funds are now available for summer projects through the college's own Student-Faculty Research Endowment.


Dickinson faculty members have also worked to ensure that students understand and experience the increasing interconnectedness and interdisciplinarity of modern science-that they appreciate collaboration-a principle already suggested in the 18th century by our founder. The college has made many strides in recent years to break down disciplinary silos and to build a curriculum that encourages problem posing and solving from multiple perspectives. For example, our BMB major, created in 1997, combines the teaching and research expertise of faculty in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. BMB joined Dickinson's existing interdisciplinary environmental studies major, which integrates work in biology, chemistry, earth science, environmental science and policy studies. Most recently, Dickinson's commitment to interdisciplinary science prompted the creation of a new major in neuroscience, composed of coursework at the intersection of biology, chemistry and bio-psychology.

Dickinson has also worked to develop interdisciplinary bridges among the sciences, humanities, arts and social sciences. External grants funded the construction of new laboratories in archaeology and biological anthropology. In addition to providing arenas for the further application of discovery-based pedagogy, these new labs extend the reach of the sciences. Archaeology now actively integrates geology with the classics, art history, and history. Anthropology and its collaborating major in sociology now have a strong grounding in biology.

Dickinson has made great progress in interdisciplinary science with the help of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2008. We established a Center for Sustainability Education (CSE) to serve as a point of connection for all academic activities and resources at Dickinson related to the study of sustainability. CSE is working across the curriculum to link classroom learning with co-curricular programs, greening of campus operations (facilities), and both global and local civic engagement.

We have also been assisting other institutions in increasing their interdisciplinary approaches to learning. With a grant from NASA's Global Climate Change Education Program, Dickinson is leading a consortium involved in the teaching of global climate change in the liberal-arts curriculum at four-year and two-year colleges. Members are jointly implementing a multifaceted campaign to build faculty competency for interdisciplinary teaching about climate change and developing and implementing a core curriculum of climate change-focused courses.

Dickinson's ambition to have its science students and faculty profit intellectually from interdisciplinarity and collaboration appears to challenge long-standing practice in the Academy. Richard A. DeMillo describes the challenge: "Academic biographies-especially in the sciences-are filled with stories of stars who are not only distrustful of methods and techniques they did not create themselves, but are also actually disdainful of lessons that could be drawn from related fields. Many prefer instead to invent everything that needs to be invented to solve the problem at hand. Fearful of committing themselves to courses of action, they are often suspicious of strategy. They have been rewarded for solving problems in isolation from distracting contexts." In contrast, Dickinson intends by its discovery-based instruction to prepare a "different kind of mind" for a different kind of graduate-one that can recognize problems, create, make connections among seemingly disparate elements and thread meaning and application from the juxtaposition of past, present and future.

When I was preparing this presentation I asked our science professors to tell me what they thought was distinctive about how they taught science-especially in contrast to what they were familiar with as TAs at the excellent graduate institutions they attended to receive Ph.D.s. The response was unequivocal. To a person they declared, "WE DO SCIENCE!" Being a humanist I asked for clarity. The response was clear, "We personally take students through the scientific method. We are in this jointly. The students are partners with us at the undergraduate level and our research is intended solely to improve their introduction into the complexities and mysteries to which science permits access and solution."

Another faculty member attributes the apparent success of the science program to the college's substantial investment in sophisticated equipment in the 1980s, continuing through today-equipment normally only available to graduate students. Such equipment directly in the undergraduate classroom and used daily by undergraduate students facilitates an immediacy of problem posing, research methodology, data collection and analysis, thus eliminating the delay associated with sending classroom data to an external third party for tabulation. All students respond positively to this immediacy of result-but especially those who are non-science majors.

Another professor stresses that, while the physical arrangement of a classroom is often thought to be the most important ingredient in the success of "workshop" science, this is not the case. The most important ingredient is the curriculum and its adaptation to "workshop" pedagogy and discovery learning. The curriculum must be conceived such that the student discovers for herself, at the data collection and analysis points, the logical link between what has been engaged and observed and an understanding of the associated general principles.

Yet another example comes from a senior English professor-of all things!-who participated in a Mosaic program this fall. At Dickinson a Mosaic is an intensive, interdisciplinary, semester‐long research program designed around ethnographic fieldwork and immersion in domestic and global communities. In this particular Mosaic, entitled "Natural History Sustainability Mosaic", students spent the entire semester with three professors engaged in natural history field work informed by both an array of sciences and a commitment to intensive writing. Considerable emphasis was directed to writing about scientific matters as an 19th-century English essayist or science journalist, and how to engage in citizen-science that can be communicated to fellow citizens and national and international leaders. This mosaic is a prime example of utilizing small class size, interdisciplinarity and beneficial balance of core classes with focused topic work, so that our students see science as part of the wider world and as part of their lives beyond graduation. The professor with whom I spoke admitted that the size of the class does matter and that such results would be extremely difficult to achieve in a large research university setting-particularly at the introductory levels (But might the creative use of MOOCs and other digital technologies in a blended instructional context overcome this apparent obstacle? More on this later).

The comprehensive pedagogical principle behind just "Doing Science" extends today to most areas of the Dickinson curriculum. It complements work initiated in disciplines other than science at the college. It involves our students in an activist, "useful," liberal-arts education wherein their direct confrontation with and manipulation of existing knowledge causes them to connect the dots among reflection, engagement, understanding and application. Such a compelling dynamic is essential, we believe, to accomplish the ambition of a 21st-century undergraduate education and to set the stage for the more focused creation of new knowledge in graduate students and professions. There are several examples at Dickinson including: the engagement of our students directly in excavation at the ancient Greek city of Mycenae, as we possess the exclusive rights for such activity; also, an environmental outreach project throughout Pennsylvania, known as ALLARM, that engages our students in helping citizens evaluate regularly the quality of water in local streams and rivers. Another project has our students combing historical records to establish and maintain one of the most thorough on-line repositories of families involved in the American Civil War. This much acclaimed effort is called "A House Divided." And then, there is the senior art history majors' project that requires students to prepare an exhibition from beginning to end-in all aspects-and that has been cited for its contribution to Dickinson joining Williams College in graduating the most museum professionals among liberal-arts colleges.

But, "Doing Science" and discovery-based teaching/learning extends well beyond academics and into some surprising places at Dickinson-for example, into Student Life. "Connectivity" is reaching new levels of complexity and applicability. Dickinson presents its students with a series of axioms to guide their thoughts and action while at college and to serve as reasonable mentorship for what lies beyond in the wider world. We call these the Dickinson Dimensions. And for the past few years, the Dimensions have been guiding the evolution of our residential life/student development effort. More and more opportunities are being created for and with students to exercise these dimensions in residential activities that increasingly cross with academic life. Here are a few of the Dimensions:

  • Associate confidently in unfamiliar environments
  • Move beyond that which is comfortable to embrace intellectual risk and gain self-knowledge
  • Use the energy created by these connections to generate meaningful action
  • Exert intellectual flexibility and innovation
  • Discover new knowledge to shape the future
  • Search out facts to support opinion
  • Think independently but objectively, and act responsibly

Each of these Dimensions, applicable to all meaningful aspects of human activity, can be advanced through application of the scientific method and we are assisting our students to appreciate just that. Scientific pursuit involves moving confidently into unfamiliar settings that involve considerable risk-taking as a student asks what the problem is and poses a hypothesis to determine a solution. Intellectual flexibility is required and the method itself assists a student in sorting out ultimately fact from fiction. The hypothesis is either proven or refuted. You know where you stand at the end of the process. You have, as a student, gained an objective, pragmatic "take" on the world and you have done it by your own independent engagement.

We are now about the business of linking even more compellingly our students' academic track at college and their non-curricular activities. In so doing science is about to help us overcome a gnawing deficiency in American residential higher education-the almost insurmountable divide between academics and student life where distrust and suspicion reside in both parties.

What I have talked to you about today is not just "workshop" science or discovery-based pedagogy. It is all about CHANGE-DIRECTED PEDAGOGY-a way of teaching that pervades life in and out of the classroom and that is a powerful preparation for substantive contribution and leadership in the rapidly evolving world our students face ahead. For Dickinson discovery-based learning is now a powerful and essential part of our total BRAND. We have harnessed our disparate pedagogical innovations in all disciplines over the last few decades and now set them moving in the same direction as one college.

I wish you well in your future endeavors as you perhaps take what appears to define successful undergraduate science teaching at the liberal-arts college into a different institutional environment. Again, five key areas, I believe, must be examined and adjusted to the research university setting for successful adaptation: mission, classroom size, classroom design, pedagogy and disciplinary ownership.

Hopkins may well be especially successful precisely as an entrepreneurial research university experimenting with and adapting into the traditional course-setting digital technologies and thus achieve some of the advantages of science instruction at a liberal-arts college-albeit on its own terms. "Successful" is defined here as appealing to all modes of identity recognition needed by a human being to learn-to include among contemporary students, digital recognition. Digital technologies' capacity for customization and one-on-one instruction could well achieve intimacy of learning and identity affirmation comparable as that at a liberal-arts college without compromising your research imperative. Ironically, your historical practice should not cause you to resist experimentation. Whereas at small liberal-arts colleges, there is often a tendency to defend vigorously what you, at Hopkins, currently do not possess-a brand critically dependent on small classes, close student-faculty in-person contact and, by definitional necessity, little to no direct instructor-replacement instruction via technology. Many of your current and prospective students and faculty will not expect of you an exclusively high-touch, in-person instructional platform as might be expected of liberal-arts colleges. In fact, the types of students you attract may very well have already fused their physical identity with their digital identity, thus making it easier for you to introduce digital learning and have it accepted at your tuition price point. Additionally, you possess reputational leverage and proven scalability that will attract necessary third-party financial support for the complex ambition of approximating that human "intimacy" necessary for total learning through digital technologies. You may well at once embrace your original mandate to "create new knowledge" and posit a new pedagogy for science teaching. In so doing, you will distinguish yourself by the quality of the experience you offer your undergraduate students that deftly matches the emerging realities of acquiring knowledge with institutional capacities and distinction.

Thank you for permitting me to be part of your dialogue.

*I wish to thank the following Dickinson professors for their insights about our science program:
Tom Arnold, Associate Professor of Biology
Marcus Key,Professor of Earth Sciences and Joseph Priestley Professor of Natural Philosophy
Priscilla Laws, Research Professor of Physics and Astronomy
B. Ashton Nichols, Professor of English Language and Literature, Walter E. Beach Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies

Jeff Niemitz, Professor of Earth Science
Neil Weissman, Professor of History, Provost and Dean of the College 

Published Jan. 17, 2013