At Shimer College the reality is that the Natural Sciences are so exciting that you can’t leave the room! It happened one day a few years ago in one of the introductory Shimer science classes to a student who had never really liked or understood the science he had “suffered through” in high school. But on this day, as the class talked through and repeated a centuries-old experiment, he started to squirm - and finally confessed that he needed to relieve himself but could not leave the room because he was so excited about what was happening.
At Shimer, we study natural science in its historical development. This offers students a deep understanding and appreciation of science as a human endeavor. Students share their understandings in small groups, with the instructor guiding discussion and debate. Questions of the strengths and limitations of science arise naturally through the study of original sources authored by renowned scientists.
Four courses make up the natural science sequence: Laws and Models in Chemistry, Evolution, Genetics & Animal Behavior, Light, Motion & Scientific Explanation, and Science in the 20th Century. Among the original sources read in these various courses are: Einstein’s Relativity, Newton’s Optics, Feynman’s QED, Lavoisier’s Chemistry, and Darwin’s Origin of Species.
We start by looking at the ideas of the very first recorded “scientists,” philosophers of the 6th century B.C. We then talk about atoms, about the theory of evolution, about aggression among animals, about light and the theory of relativity. We eventually move up to the study of quantum physics and molecular biology. During each of the courses we ask significant questions that link the sciences with the humanities. What things need to be explained? How are they explained? What does explanation mean? What is revealed about the nature of reality?
In addition to learning to understand and appreciate scientific thought, an important objective of all the classes is the encouragement and practice of skills that make possible lifelong learning. To this end, certain commitments and competencies are expected to be developed within the natural science sequence. These include:
· Commitment to one's own learning
Measured by class attendance and by participation, especially letting others know what you do and don't understand.
· Reading the source materials for the class carefully and completely
· Asking genuine questions within the discussion
A genuine question is one for which you sincerely seek the answer. Non-genuine questions include questions to which you know the answer, questions designed to impress, questions perceived as the “right” question, leading questions, most rhetorical questions, and any other that you don’t really care to hear the answer.
· A growing ability to recapitulate someone else’s
point of view
Measured by the other person agreeing that you’ve done full
justice to his/her position.
These objectives are part of what makes the so classes exciting. We talk to one another! We attempt to understand one another! We seriously engage the authors we read, the experiments we try. And the excitement keeps happening!
Don P. Moon
President Emeritus & Professor of Natural Sciences