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Course Pedagogy

Course Pedagogy

Most science students, and that includes those at PhD-candidacy level, have had few occasions and little motivation to think of science as an object in and of itself. Another way to say this is that most practicing scientists have very little time (or interest) in anything resembling philosophy of science. That makes complete sense --- the best approach to most problems is the most practical one --- make a plan, perhaps with help from a more senior colleague, and then get on with doing the task --- experimentation, calculation, theory development or whatever can be done to make progress. One's skill as a scientist is at first measured by proficiency at this craft stage of doing science; excessive contemplation would be hard to distinguish from paralysis.

But then at some point in time, and for many science students this does not arrive until the time to write a thesis or dissertation, you have to tell your colleagues and then the world at large why you did what you did, and how one's research has advanced the collective understanding. At that point it can be helpful to step back away from one's research and consider science as an object in itself, and that means to consider some limited, specific aspects of philosophy of science. In other words, it is finally time to be thoughtful, as opposed to energetic, which works well up until about this phase.

This course aims to help PhD candidates begin that stage in the development of their science thinking and science careers. The practical aspect of this is to communicate one's findings. The course is intended for students who are beginning to write their PhD thesis, and so beginning to struggle with weighty questions of interpretation and (we will name a few below). When this course works well, it is because it attempts to provide a useful set of ideas and vocabulary that are relevant to this stage. I discourage students who are not actively writing (or at least planning to write) their thesis from taking this course because for them it will not be relevant.

The course proceeds by readings and seminar. There are three course segments, in the first six weeks the topics could be described as philosophy of science (lite). Each week there is large topic --- in week one, the goals and scope of natural science --- and a series of subquestions that are intended to cause some reflection on one's own research, e.g., What are the goals of your thesis research? This topic is clearly an enormous bite to take in one week, and we can not expect to come to a clear, concise answer that fits all. In fact, that is never the goal of this course. Rather, the goal is to try to take a larger perspective on one's research, and to learn the concepts and vocabulary that make it possible to frame an answer that suits each person and their research individually. There is an enormous range of activity that could usefully be called natural science, and no one simple description that will convey it all. Then at the end of the course, we come back to the same question, ready to frame a more cogent or at least more thoughtful response.

The readings are an essential component of the course (there is no lecture). The readings have been chosen carefully to be accessible to students having no background in philosophy of science, and with care to see that they will be relevant to the topics and questions at hand. These articles are by and large not the most advanced, scholarly writings on a given topic, and they should be seen as an introduction.

The classes begin with brief comments on the readings --- often as simple as "Did you find the reading useful or interesting?" --- with everyone required to say something. The class then continues with a discussion of the question at hand. Again, everyone is given the chance to say something by literally going around the table. There are no right or wrong answers, and almost no judgment of good or bad answers, either. Rather, the aim is to encourage and engage each student in a discussion of his/her research on the topic of the day.

The second segment of the course is a brief, two week digression on the ethics of science. This may seem a bit out of place here, but it has turned out that this has been the most well-received aspect of the course. Years later I have had participants ask "how is the Ethics Class going?", and came to realize that this was perhaps the most important part of the course. All scientists run up against awkward or uncomfortable problems surrounding questions of authorship, especially, and for many students this seminar may be their one and only opportunity to think about and discuss the ethics of science. The primary reading source is the superb, concise booklet published by the National Academy of Science, "On Being a Scientist." This booklet makes clear that science ethics goes hand in hand with the day to day practice of science, especially when it comes to collaborations and communications.

Finally, there is a roughly four week segment on Communication in Science. By now we have come to think of science as, in part, a public, collaborative process, and communication of one's research in the form of seminars and formal scientific papers is an essential step in making research findings available. It is here, too, that the most pressing and common problems of science ethics crop up. Students are given the opportunity to present a short 20 - 30 minute seminar on their research project. I urge that the students devote most of their effort to the first and last part of their research story --- what problem and why, and what they learned --- rather than the vast middle part, the research activity itself. These seminars are often times only partly successful in the latter aspect, in case the student may not have not completed a significant fraction of their research at the time they reach this step.


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