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LTE Seminar: Introducing broader humanities and arts concepts into the biomedical science curriculum
Author: Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement
Published: 31/08/2022

Topic:  Introducing broader humanities and arts concepts into the biomedical science curriculum

Presenter:  Prof. Faadiel Essop

“How can the training of scientists equip them better to function in a 'post-truth' world?"

The above research question formed the focus of a presentation by Prof. Faadiel Essop (Division of Medical Physiology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, and TAU Fellow) at the third Learning and Teaching Enhancement seminar in 2022 on 8 September. 

For his TAU (Teaching Advancement at Universities) Fellowship research project Prof. Essop interrogated the notion that scientists often view their disciplines as 'neutral' and de-contextualised. This 'scientific elitism' can distance scientists from socio-political and historical contexts, such as contemporary pressing issues like equity redress and decolonization and past injustices committed during apartheid.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists have been increasingly thrust into the public domain, often required to respond to outlandish claims/conspiracies and to defend the scientific enterprise itself. However, such responses require deep and critical insights into the nature of the scientific process (e.g. weaknesses, strengths, philosophies, and socio-cultural-political contexts) and its ideal to arrive at coherent truths. Scientists therefore need to be better equipped to operate in the 'post-truth' world (a context in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief). 

The aim of Prof. Essop's project was to develop a new Honours module in Medical Physiology, establishing a suitable pedagogical framework for the introduction of broader humanities and arts concepts into the biomedical science curriculum. Prof. Essop also undertook to assess the uptake of this module by students as well as its potential impact. The hypothesis was that this interdisciplinary module should aid the creation of a transformative teaching and learning experience, leading to well-rounded graduates (with strengthened graduate attributes) who are better equipped and trained to handle (and lead) some of the contemporary societal challenges we face.

In developing the module Prof. Essop used four theoretical lenses:

  • Reflection in learning (Boud et al., 1985)
  • Authentic learning (Rule, 2006)
  • Complexity of the scientific process (Matthews, 2012)
  • Human complexity in learning (Nussbaum, 2006).

Prof. Essop employed a design-based research approach according to which the implementation and success of the new module would best be facilitated by learning environments which ascribed to the following five principles:

1. Choose meaningful, real-world problems for teaching and learning.

2. Employ engaging discourse in class by allowing for open-ended discussions and sharing of diverse views.

3. Promote a holistic and critical understanding of the scientific process (including aspects of history and philosophy). 

4. Promote self-reflection by students to enhance their synthesis and validation of knowledge, and to increase their empathetic capacities and notion of social justice.

5. Employ open-ended and self-reflective tasks together with authentic assessments. 

The new module, entitled “Features of Science", was launched and tested earlier this year. It had to be presented online, but, due to the use of a pedagogy of discomfort which moves students from a safe space to a brave space in the classroom, Prof. Essop argues that it should only be presented face-to-face. 

A survey after completion of the module showed that it had a positive effect on students' awareness of social justice and racial bias in science, the value of open discussions about these issues, the crucial role of learning to think in a reflective manner in developing critical skills as a scientist, and the value of interdisciplinary collaboration (the module involved the Departments of Visual Arts and Journalism). One student commented as follows: “I found the module to be thought provoking and helpful. It has allowed me to reevaluate my empathy towards humanity, to understand the importance of collaboration and honesty in the field and to remember to have ethical neutrality throughout the scientific process." Another expressed the view that “[w]hat was entirely new to me was being taught to understand that scientific thinking goes beyond the linear nature of gathering facts or information but can also involve thinking critically and philosophically about various topics."  

Students' performance in assessments confirmed the benefits inherent to the new module.

Although the short-term impact of the module was demonstrated by the survey and assessment results, the long-term impact will only become clear if the student cohort could be followed to see if they become change agents in society. Interdisciplinary collaboration should also be continued to break down disciplinary silos.

A modified version of the module will be rolled out in 2023. Prof. Essop anticipates an increase in student numbers from 16 this year to potentially 50 next year.