Wednesday, January 17, 2018

From the Lab to the Lectern

By Helene Ragovin

The case for teaching humanities and communications to science undergraduates

Hugh Gallagher

Public speaking and writing are core skills in science, “as much as being able to master vector calculus,” says Hugh Gallagher. Photo: Alonso Nichols

In academia, few words are as tightly bound as “arts and sciences.” But in practice, the two disciplines are not always such close companions. Bridging the gulf between them and helping students stretch their academic outlook can be difficult on any campus.

The challenge of how to integrate the two has captured the attention of physicist Hugh Gallagher, an associate professor in the School of Arts and Sciences. He started by developing an upper-level physics class in 2009 that incorporates communication and public-speaking skills. Now, as a Tisch College Faculty Fellow, he is exploring the evolution of science education, focusing specifically on the role of liberal arts in the education of scientists.

“Like most faculty, the opportunity to reflect on these issues comes infrequently,” says Gallagher. “But there are times when you are confronted by something and you have to step back a little bit.”

The something in this case came as Gallagher was preparing a syllabus for a class on thermal physics, which has applications in a range of contexts, from cosmology to chemistry to engineering. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame 20 years before, Gallagher had taken the same course. He quickly realized he was preparing his course much the same way it had been taught to him: lectures, homework, quizzes, exams.

“I had this déjà-vu moment,” he says. He was designing the course for students who were going on for their Ph.D. in physics, which is typical in the field. But, he thought, “What about the student who really loves physics and wants to be a high school teacher? Or who wants to be a science writer, or go into public policy? How do you serve students like that?”

That aha moment “made me think in a broader way than I had before,” Gallagher says. “What would I like to be teaching students? What kind of skills would I like them to learn? There is this notion that your job as a professor is to push students to become academics, and if they decide to do something else, it’s because they stepped off that track. But you’re not preparing them for other destinations.”

Dual-Track Approach

Gallagher decided to take a different tack. With help from the Tufts Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, he devised a different approach for his thermal physics course. Now the class has a two-track grading system: one placing a greater weight on mathematical and analytical work, as measured by a traditional final exam, and another on the presentation of a group project. Early in the semester, students choose which focus they want to pursue.

Both skill sets are vital for students who intend to go into scientific research, Gallagher says. Being able to present a group project is important: the days when a scientist could toil in solitude in a lab are long gone—if they ever existed at all.

“I work in experimental particle physics,” says Gallagher, whose scholarship includes several experiments at Fermilab, the giant national research facility. “I do work with a huge [number] of collaborators. I don’t care what branch of science you want to go into—you will always be working with collaborators. There are always people you need to communicate with.”

As a result, undergraduates need experiences that teach them about collaboration and stress communication skills, particularly writing and public speaking, Gallagher says.

“The history of science is littered with people who had good ideas, but didn’t get credit for their insight, because they didn’t publish it, or they didn’t forcefully defend it, or step onto the public stage to present their ideas to a broader audience,” he says.

Public speaking and writing are core skills in science, “as much as being able to master vector calculus,” Gallagher adds. As a self-described shy undergraduate, he went into science with all the usual skills to succeed, but faltered in graduate school because he was a poor public speaker.

“Public speaking is a unique talent and skill that you have to practice, and that takes time,” he says. “College is the place to start working on it, not in your third year of grad school, when you have some result that you want to put out to the larger scientific world.”

As a Tisch Faculty Fellow, Gallagher is taking a long-perspective view of the same kinds of issues, focusing on the intersection of teaching, research and active citizenship. He is one of 10 full-time faculty fellows this year.

“The Tisch fellowship is an excellent opportunity to think of ways we can tap into the strengths and skills that undergraduates have and to get involved in what a physics degree could be,” Gallagher says. “Our students will be the next generation of people contributing to the discussion about science education. They will be the next generation of policymakers—and I want scientists to be at the table. I don’t see why the physics majors of today can’t be those people.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

Posted November 29, 2010