Matt writes about the difficulties of physics pedagogy, in particular the lack of focus on new research. As I have no experience with upper-level physics courses, I can't judge whether his claim that biology departments are better than physics departments at teaching students about current physics is correct (though I suspect it is). I should point out, however, that not all undergraduate biology courses are equal in their emphasis on current research; while there exist courses that focus heavily on critical reading of current research, there are far more that contain almost no critical reading whatsoever, to their great detriment. To downplay critical reading in undergraduate science curricula is to shortchange future scientists, and it's not just because of the lack of exposure to new research.
In biology, there are two extremely important reasons for including current research in the curriculum (in addition to the obvious reason that it's good to know what's being discovered): reading current research papers is the best way to learn about research techniques, and it is essential for young scientists to be able to critically evaluate research data.
By saying that paper-reading is the best way to learn about research techniques, I'm not trying to say that reading a random Nature article is going to teach you how to do a Western blot (it won't). Rather, I mean that, in reading current research, a student can learn the values and limitations of each technique--what it can confirm, what it can't confirm, how to modify it to look at an unusual system, and so on. These are the problem-solving tools of science; students who begin a research project without this knowledge will be sorely disadvantaged.
To get back to Matt's post, he asked how classes involving current literature generally work. Here's the biology standpoint. There seem to be two major approaches--either a discussion class associated with a topical course or a class that resembles a journal club. In the former, the topical course (molecular biology, cell biology, etc.) is supposed to give one sufficient background to understand the paper. Discussions are usually led by a small group of students who present background information and direct discussion of the research results. Journal-club-style classes are less formal; one person gives a short talk on the background of the paper, and the other participants present the figures. It's not unusual in these classes to assign a "flawed" paper (usually one that still has some real and interesting results, however) to facilitate critical discussion of the paper's problems.
I think that both of these formats (particularly the latter) are underutilized in undergradaute curricula. I would definitely like to see a required journal club/seminar/"topics in [field]" class as part of all undergraduate curricula. Unfortunately, that'll be a while, but at least undergraduates who go out of their way to hone their critical reading skills will be rewarded by being better prepared for (and more likely to get into) graduate school.Posted by Susan at February 3, 2004 02:28 PM