Volume 22, Number 2 April 1993


A Proposal for an Extended Core Program

Paul Harris

The standard two semester college core science sequence is incapable of meaningfully presenting all of the important advances in science which have occurred to date. Either one presents a rather small number of topics in the maximum detail that the students can absorb (as we attempt to do at my institution), or more typically in the United States, one broad-brushes through all of modern science with the result that understanding and believability are sacrificed to completeness of content.

One way of rectifying the choice of presenting a small number of topics in detail is to offer science electives. In my institution, the Center for Worker Education of the City College of New York, a BA-granting evening program for working adults, we have been offering a semi-cohesive four semester science elective program in addition to our required two semester core science program. The elective program has two courses in the history of science, a course in solar systems physics, and a laboratory electricity-electronics course. In spite of the small number of topics treated and the slowness of the courses, the enrollments have been disappointing. Our average elective has an enrollment of eight out of a student population of approximately eight hundred. Yet, as Massey (1) has stated, "...a world class educational system will view the [learning of math and science] not as something that is isolated from the rest of life, but as a central part of life."


The spirit of Massey's statement is reflected in my proposal; science is "central" to mankind's present way of life and the proposed core program has science as its underpinning. The basis of the proposal can be thought of as based in part upon the marvelous work, The Timetables of Science by Hellemans and Bunch (2), but with their "general" social sciences/humanities column of events expanded to occupy approximately half of their presentation.

There are changes which can be made to insure that a larger percentage of students receives a realistic science education. The changes are radical, doable within current constraints of available time, and long overdue. How overdue can easily be judged by the fact that the curriculum requirements in mathematics and science, for non-science majors, remains essentially unchanged (3) in American universities since the 1930s. Yet since the 1930s there has been a blossoming of the sciences and technologies which are related to our understanding of our place in the universe as well as the tempos of our everyday lives.

There isn't any way to return to the classical curriculum (4) of the trivium and the quadrivium. Also, simply to complain as Snow (5) had done about the anti-science attitude of the intellectual "luddites" will not solve the problem. It is necessary to work within the competition for time.

I propose that the entire core social science, humanities, and science programs be reconstituted and integrated. As a brief but pointed example of the approach that I envision, consider the way in which science can be integrated into a lecture concerning the joining of continental America. That joining (Promontory Point, 1869) can be taught simply in terms of railroads, the politics of financing, and the sociology of cheap imported labor, or it can also be taught in terms of the physics, chemistry, and histories of the technologies of steam and metallurgy. I propose that we begin to back away from the simple approach to an approach which also emphasizes the fundamental things which made such events possible. The strength of the box containing high pressure steam, the thermodynamics of steam, the load bearing capacity of rails, and the inventiveness of scientists and engineers from the time of Priestley and Cavendish were of fundamental importance to the joining of the continent. Without a box capable of containing high pressure steam, and valving capable of transferring that steam power to wrought iron (6) track of then novel design (7), there would not have been any need to import Asian labor to lay rails or Finnish labor to dig coal along the Wyoming railroad tracks.

Below follows a brief outline of a sequenced twenty-four credit core program. The program explicitly addresses total background rather than, for example, "scientific literacy" as it is usually addressed (8). The spirit of the program is meant to be more important than the arguable details.

A multi-discipline core program

Core 11: Language and writing. 4 credits.

  • Language/word origins. Commonalty and the history of language. In addition to the Indo-European, the African and Far Eastern are to be treated. Social implications (SI). 6 weeks, 2 quizzes.
  • Structure of the human voice box and ear. Comparison with other primates. SI (e.g. of speech). 2 weeks, quiz.
  • History of paper and writing. Physically and chemically how do they work? Printing and moveable type, spread of printing. SI with emphasis on early politically important literature and the democratization of the intellect. 6 weeks, essay.
COMMENT: Human speech has often been cited as the driving force which served to separate homo sapiens from other primates. For an alluring recent popularized statement of that aspect of the "great leap forward" see Diamond's (9) The Third Chimpanzee.

Core 12: History and science of modern communication techniques. 4 credits.

  • Chemistry and physics of photography, spatial resolution. 2 weeks.
  • Light sources and optics (early light houses and the Fresnel lens), early movie houses. 3 weeks, quiz.
  • Magnetic induction, radio, and television. Detectors and phosphors. 3 weeks, quiz.
  • Vacuum tubes and semiconductors. 3 weeks, quiz.
  • Digital technology and storage. 3 weeks, essay on the SI of modern communication techniques.
COMMENT: The ending essays of each of the courses in the proposed program are meant to preserve the essay on social themes of presently offered core humanities courses.

Core 100: Great social ideas (with a science background). 4 credits.

  • The relationship between early mining, agriculture, and slavery. 3 weeks.
  • The universal abolition of slavery. 3 weeks, essay.
  • The growth of universities in the 13th century. 2 weeks.
  • The growth of craftsmanship and economic freedom. 2 weeks, essay.
  • Migration through the ages with a background in boat building and navigation. 4 weeks, essay.

Core 102: Great science ideas (with a social science background). 4 credits.

  • Early astronomy for navigation and the agricultural calendar. The Justinian calendar. 2 weeks, quiz.
  • The conceptual revolutions of Copernicus and Kepler. 2 weeks, quiz.
  • The conceptual revolutions of Newton and Faraday. 2 weeks, quiz.
  • The history of the use of metals. The properties of copper, iron, steel, and aluminum. The history of mining. 3 weeks, quiz.
  • The history of the science of agriculture. The science of selective breeding. 3 weeks, essay on SI.
  • The science of the industrial revolution. 3 weeks, essay on SI.

Core 104: Modern physical science ideas (with social science implications). 4 credits.

  • The constitution of the atmosphere. The science of flight and its implications. 3 weeks, quiz.
  • The science of rocketry and implications for our species. 2 weeks, quiz.
  • Atomic physics, nuclear physics, and special relativity. New ways of thinking and new forms of power. 5 weeks, quiz and SI essay.
  • Modern astronomy and cosmology. The new religion. 4 weeks, quiz and SI essay.

Core 106: Modern bioscience ideas (with social science implications). 4 credits.

  • Chemistry based upon valency. Burning of carbohydrates and photosynthesis. 2 weeks, quiz.
  • The chemistry and statistics of proteins and DNA. Crick and Watson. 3 weeks, quiz.
  • Wohler and urea, acids and bases and Miescher, Mendel, Griffith, and Avery et. al. Transformation, transduction, and lysogeny. 4 weeks, quiz
  • The Cambrian explosion of life forms. 3 weeks, SI essay.
  • Theory of evolution from Darwin to Margulis. Genetic engineering. Are we our own God? 4 weeks, SI essay.

The above core sequence would typically displace a sequence containing a radically different point of view. In my institution, for example, the first sixteen core credits presently involve "Literature, Film and Human Experience," and "Work, Family and Community." It is replaced with subjects which are much more fundamental to the way we live. Indeed it is my firm belief that the proposed core program can only help to strengthen humanities and social science education by presenting a firmer base for their traditional considerations to build upon.


The most important events in human history probably involve the cultivation of fire, agriculture, metals usage, the medical sciences, electronics, the atom and the nucleus, and the towering twentieth century all encompassing achievement of space flight. It's time to recognize what we have done as a species and begin to emphasize within education the science/technology that separates us from other Earth-based life forms.


1. W.E. Massey, Am. J. Phys. Vol. 60, 295 (1992).
2. A. Hellemans and B. Bunch, The Timetables of Science (Touchstone, 
New York, 1991).
3. At the City College of New York the mid-1930s' degree required ten
credits of science while the present requirement is for six credits of
science plus an additional three credits of either astronomy,
mathematics, or physics. 
4. R. Taton, editor, History of Science: Ancient and Medieval Science
 (Basic Books, New York, 1963), page 470. 
5. C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures: and a Second Look (Cambridge U. Press,
Cambridge, 1964), pages 10-11, 29-30, 72-73.  
6. L. Warburton, Railroads: Bridging the Continents 
(Lucent Books, San Diego, 1991),page 21.  
7. R.W. Howard, The Great Iron Trail: The Story of the First 
Transcontinental Railroad (Putnam Sons, New York, 1962), pages 27-29.  
8. R.M. Hazen and J. Trefil, Science Matters (Doubleday, New York, 1991); 
J. Durant, G. Evans, and G. Thomas, Public Understanding of Science
Vol. 1, 161 (1992).  
9. J. Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee (Harper Collins, New
York, 1992).  Pages 54-55, 141. 

The author is at the Center for Worker Education and the Department of Physics, City Collegqe of New York, 138th Street and Convent Avenue, New York, New York 10031.