“What is ‘Science as a Way of Knowing’? It’s a way of teaching science, and learning about science, that stresses critical thinking,” says John Shanahan, director of the Liberal Studies program.

"In SWK classes, students experience science not as a bunch of static facts but as a process of discovery and discernment. And that kind of perspective is really important. College-educated people should be able to distinguish real science from pseudo-science in a world where it’s increasingly expedient, politically and economically, to muddy the water between the two.”

Mark Potosnak, an associate professor in Environmental Science and Studies (in photo), elaborates:

“SWK is not a ‘name this, name that’ look at science. Rather, it presents science itself as an activity. Students still learn basic content, but that content serves a different purpose: It illustrates how science works. So, SWK includes a lot of reflection. We might ask, in an experiment, why follow one hypothesis and not another? What do unexpected results tell us? A failure in an experiment is okay; in fact, it’s an expected part of the process. SWK is a more dynamic way to understand the natural world.”

By 2017, undergrads will take one SWK class, in addition to one lecture and one lab class, to satisfy a Liberal Studies requirement. (The Liberal Studies program is the common curriculum taken by all students in the seven undergraduate colleges of DePaul University).

New Learning Outcomes

“Science as a Way of Knowing” became part of the scientific inquiry domain within Liberal Studies after the 2010-2011 academic program review.

Maggie Workman, an instructor/laboratorian in Environmental Science and Studies (in photo), recalls one driver behind the innovation: “More than 50 percent of graduating seniors said they did not feel competent in scientific literacy. Clearly, students weren’t picking up on the ‘nature of science’ in their lectures and lab classes.” 

A group tasked with fixing this deficit recommended the SWK approach, including these specific and explicit learning outcomes:

1)    Students will understand the scientific worldview. 
“They’ll know which types of questions science can answer, and which it can’t,” says Shanahan. “They’ll understand what a theory is, what a hypothesis is, what constitutes scientific evidence, and how science differs from other ways of looking at the world.  Our graduates should be able to address rival vocabularies:  What does it mean to hear someone say ‘science is just another belief system’? Or that evolution is ‘just a theory’? False claims need to be wrestled with and argued against.”

2)    Students will understand the nature and process of science. 
“SWK is a 'meta’ way of looking at the process of science,” says Potosnak. “What is science good at? To know that, you have to know how it works. In an SWK class, science is not about listing and cataloguing; it’s about the connections in complex systems—not the names of the trees, but how forests work."

Life Skills

“As students learn the deep background to theories—about how it takes time and effort for a scientific theory to become accepted; about how scientists are creative and collaborative—they appreciate that science works within the support or constraints of a culture,” adds Workman, who teaches an SWK- version of Introduction to Environmental Science. “SWK classes demystify science, and that makes it more interesting and relevant to our everyday lives. Students like being able to reflect and contribute to a conversation about why science matters.”

“SWK is about understanding statistics and studies, appreciating biases in both sides of an argument, but also knowing when you’re getting played by the use of emotion,” says Potosnak. “That’s important in a world that’s full of things that looks like science but aren’t. Thinking critically isn’t important just in academics; it’s a life skill.”

Shanahan agrees: “New SWK classes might come from many departments—including history, philosophy, and religious studies—because the ‘nature of science’ touches many disciplines and the ‘lessons learned’ are universal.”

For guidelines in developing an SWK class, read about these best practices: 
http://academics.depaul.edu/liberal-studies/teaching-in-lsp/Documents/SWK%20Best%20Practices.pdf


Current SWK Classes

Biological Sciences

  • BIO 104 EVOLUTION AND SOCIETY
  • BIO 120 THE SCIENCE AND ART OF VISION
Chemistry

  • CHE 104 CHEMICALS, DRUGS AND LIVING SYSTEMS
Education

  • EDU 125 THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN COGNITION
Environmental Science and Studies

  • ENV 101 INTRO TO ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE WITHOUT LAB
Physics

  • PHY 200 LIGHT AND ATOMS
  • PHY 205 EINSTEIN'S PECULIAR IDEAS