Frontiers of Science


Core Curriculum

For more than 80 years, the heart of the undergraduate experience at Columbia College has been its Core Curriculum, a set of courses that introduces every student to the great ideas of Western literature, art, music, history, and philosophy. For many, the Core, which constitutes a substantial portion of a student’s coursework in their first two years of study, is a defining experience. All Columbia students share and can discuss a common set of works and themes drawn from the central ideas of Western culture. Yet following its adoption, the Core Curriculum long neglected an essential contribution of Western civilization: Science.

Emerging from the Renaissance as an original, creative, and profoundly powerful approach to the natural world, modern science has provided us with a fundamentally new view of the Universe. Beginning in 2004, the University's 250th year, we introduced all Columbia undergraduates to the study of this new view, and the modes of thought that lead to it, by instituting Frontiers of Science.

Frontiers of Science is explicitly not a discipline-based course comparable to high school science courses with which students are familiar. Instead, it is designed to instill skills more generally characteristic of the scientific approach to inquiry, in the context of several scientific disciplines. This term's modules, which include elements of neuroscience, astrophysics, Earth science and biodiversity, work well for a general audience. The first two put larger questions of reality, our place in the Universe, and who we are as humans into scientific context. The Earth science and biodiversity modules connect to important societal issues. All of the modules have been very well received in the past.

Lecturers and Seminar Leaders

We have a fabulous group of lecturers and seminar leaders this term. All are committed to teaching across disciplinary boundaries, and to sharing their personal excitement for science with students. Many faculty members have received awards for their teaching. Biographies are available at the following website:

Lectures and Seminars

Twelve lectures, scheduled for Monday mornings throughout the semester, are an essential component of the course, introducing ideas and skills that are reinforced and extended in homework assignments and seminar activities. Each module involves three lectures. All of the lectures are delivered by faculty actively engaged in research at their respective scientific frontier. Each lecture will be informative and well presented, even entertaining.

Seminars, which also meet once a week, include focused discussion of lectures and assignments, as needed, along with activities designed to illustrate a scientific approach to the world. We plan to draw attention to newly reported discoveries, as they may bear on the course, and to pertinent current events.


Readings drawn from scientific articles, popularizations and excerpts from books have been selected to complement lecture and seminar material. In addition, we have a list of recommended books for each theme of the course - for students who wish to go beyond the formal assignments. All of the recommended books are accessible to a non-specialist audience.

To teach students the basic intellectual tools of a scientist, we also provide them with a set of tutorials that are introduced as part of the reading assignment at various points during the semester.  The optional on-line text "Scientific Habits of Mind" provides context for the topics discussed in the tutorials.