Teaching in Evolution

5 July 2019

As Carleton counts down to the opening of a new science center, we asked current and emeriti science professors to reflect on how teaching in their disciplines has changed.

What was it like teaching science at Carleton in the 1950s?

Bill Child: It was a pretty traditional approach to teaching, mostly lecture. We didn’t even try to venture into interdisciplinary teaching.

Bill Titus: So what was technology like? What technology did you use?

Jerry Mohrig: Chalk.

Titus: And the mimeos. I still remember the smell.

What role did research play?

Child: It existed on a very small scale.

Mohrig: When I came in ’67, one of the major goals was to identify research funds. The assumption was you had maybe one student, possibly two.

Arjendu Pattanayak: Now you’ve got freshmen knocking on your door. I get calls from accepted students saying, what are the research opportunities?

David Liben-Nowell: In computer science, we have a supply and demand issue. But we’ve started to talk about comps as a research-like experience for all of our students. It’s not a perfect match for true research, but it’s closer than many other experiences students get.

How has a typical Carleton class changed over the decades?

Pattanayak: It’s backing away from the canned transfer of knowledge. It has to be something different. It has to be experiential.

Ed Buchwald: I was hired to come to Carleton because I didn’t lecture. I told the students I wanted them to push the desks around in fours, and then you were going to explain things to each other, and then I was going to have you speak to the rest of the class. I never talked for more than 15 or 20 minutes in a class my entire career.

Pattanayak: This move toward experiential learning is moving even further with civic engagement, so you’re not just explaining things to each other in the classroom but going into middle schools, high schools to work with students.

Mohrig: What we moved to was to start with asking students, why is this interesting? We’d invite a chemist to campus, then get a group of students who found their work interesting. The students read a few papers, and then talked together in a room with the expert chemist. I thought that was a marvelous experience.

As a pre-med student in the early 1920s, Carleton alumnus Arthur Hunt ’25 wrote that he had time for just two electives. That’s changed a lot, hasn’t it

Cindy Blaha: Students are now valued for their intellectual curiosity and exploration. Med schools are increasingly looking for people who can talk to others about other ideas.

Joe Chihade: Part of the thing that has changed is an acknowledgment that you can’t know everything. The amount of scientific knowledge that exists compared to even 10 years ago — it’s just overwhelming. There’s no way that an individual human can contain all of that knowledge. The important thing is to be able to learn what you need.

Liben-Nowell: The number of double majors is significantly higher now, and the number of people who are doing a science and art or science and literature or some combination that crosses divisions of the college — this speaks to this idea of well-rounded pre-med students.

Where is science education heading? How might the new science center facilitate that?

Chihade: Being able to see what’s going on in all the disciplines is going to be great. For me, the most exciting space is the computational research suite that’s going to have computer scientists and physicists and biologists and chemists and astronomers all basically in one shared research lab essentially with no walls.

Liben-Nowell: I was in the meeting with the architects where that space came to be. It was originally designed as several adjacent bays with walls separating them, and the comment that sparked it was, can we knock these walls out? Which is as metaphorical and literal as you like. And the answer was, yeah!

an artist's book
Still Sense, 2008 by Jody Williams ’78
Minneapolis, Minnesota: Flying Paper Press. Gould Library Special Collections

Carleton past and present science educator panelists

  • Bill Child, P ’79: Professor of Chemistry. At Carleton 1956 to 1990
  • Ed Buchwald: McBride Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies, Emeritus. At Carleton 1967 to 2002
  • Jerry Mohrig: Herman and Gertrude Mosier Stark Professor of Natural Sciences, Emeritus. At Carleton 1967 to 2003
  • Bill Titus: Professor of Physics, Emeritus. At Carleton 1970 to 2017
  • Cindy Blaha, P ’05, ’11: George H. and Marjorie F. Dixon Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Started at Carleton in 1987
  • Arjendu Pattanayak: Professor of Physics. Started at Carleton in 2001
  • Joe Chihade: Professor of Chemistry. Started at Carleton in 2004
  • David Liben-Nowell: Professor of Computer Science. Started at Carleton in 2005