Ezra Shahn Professor of Biology
- A. B. 1955, Bard College
- Postdoc. 1965-1966, The Wistar Institute, Univ. of Pennsylvania
- Ph. D. 1965, University of Pennsylvania
- Biophysics, History of Science, Science Education
My major activities are currently involved with science teaching in general, and the more specific problems of improving science literacy among nonscience majors. I spent several years working with Professor Grant on developing the SOCRATES Center as a unique supplementary instructional facility supporting our freshman course. Subsequently, I coordinated the development and implementation of a multidisciplinary divisional course, Foundations of Science, designed specifically for non-science majors.
In preparing for this course, it became apparent that while there is no widely accepted definition of science literacy, a critical component involves the ability to "read between the lines." More than the need to acquire a specific body of knowledge, it is necessary to be able to understand, or "follow an argument;" to interpret and make inferences. This, in turn, requires a functional appreciation of the "language" in which the argument is phrased, both everyday language (including its more sophisticated modalities) and the logic that is inherent in scientific disciplines. Our approach to conveying this appreciation has been to confront students with the compound question "What is a scientific concept, and where does it come from?" This is done by pursuing an essentially historical narration of three major themes that are crucial to the modern world view: the development of the heliocentric theory, the realization that matter is fundamentally particulate in nature, and the appreciation of the fact that the earth and the life on earth that we see today have a history that can be inferred from available evidence.
Besides lectures and reading, this course includes an emphasis on writing unusual in science courses; several essays are required each term that are criticized and revised before evaluation. This is intended to develop critical thinking skills as well as provide a means of assessment of student performance. These "verbal components" of the course are organized so as to repeat, as frequently as possible, the process of concept modification as it has occurred throughout these themes. The course also includes a lab as a necessary component of acquiring familiarity with the properties of the outside world which is the subject of science, as well as the ways in which this world is approached. The labs are also used to introduce the appropriate ways of handling and interpreting data.
The course has provided initial evidence that we are able to involve students in appreciating the scientific enterprise. We have also observed that the use of writing as one means of teaching science to this group of students is a potentially effective way of reinforcing concept acquisition.
My most recent activity has been work on a manuscript with a tentative title of "My Eye's Mind: Looking at Art, Thinking of Science." This work is concerned with a variety of episodes in the history of science with discussions that are each motivated by consideration of a work of art that is contemporaneous with the science in question. This project has grown out of my work with the Foundations of Science Course and several Honors Colloquia: "Science in Art," "The Age of Alchemy," and "Leonardo and His Times."
- Shahn, E. Contributor to "Resources for Science Education" Project 2061, Oxford University Press (1997).
- Shahn, E. Reflections on sacred and profane science and other dichotomous relationships. Perspectives 25: 89-106 (1995).
- Shahn, E. Science as another culture/science as a part of culture. American Behavioral Scientist, 34:210-222 (1990) .
- Shahn, E. On science literacy, Educational Philosophy and Theory (20)2:42-52 (1988 ).