Science of Living Systems

The exponential growth of scientific knowledge has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the impact of science and engineering on all members of society, scientists and non-scientists alike. Within the spectrum of science and engineering activities, understanding life—its origins, the way it changes and is changed by the environment, and the ways in which its span in humans can be extended—continues to be an area of enormous activity. The science and engineering that study living organisms have affected our students in many ways: such studies have led to life-saving medicines, technologies for diagnosing and understanding human disease, genetically engineered plants and animals as new food sources, and the invention of biological warfare agents. The life sciences have also stood at the crossroads of many of the most vigorously debated and transforming public issues of the past centuries, including the theory of evolution by natural selection, the legality of embryonic stem-cell research, and the ethics of human cloning.

General education courses in Science of Living Systems teach central facts and concepts in the life sciences and engineering and relate them to life outside of the classroom or laboratory. These courses do not strive to train students to become future scientists or to enable students to take more advanced science classes; therefore, they are not expected to cover in depth any specific scientific sub-discipline. Rather, general education courses in Science of Living Systems should convey material that is broadly applicable to life after college. To do so, they should:

  • introduce key concepts, facts, and theories relevant to living systems;
  • teach the nature of experiments on living systems, ideally through laboratory experiences;
  • relate scientific concepts, facts, theories, and methods to problems of wide concern; and
  • where relevant and appropriate (as determined by the instructor), discuss one or more of the following: the history, philosophy, contexts, and institutions of the scientific work being taught.

Although much of the connection to real-world problems may be pedagogical, the courses should attempt to provide students with conceptual tools that they can use critically to evaluate scientific claims that they will encounter.

Understanding the science of living systems prepares students to adapt to changes in their lives that will be driven by advances in the science and engineering of living systems. Knowledge of what scientific experimentation can (and cannot) establish further prepares students to participate in society by enabling them to evaluate scientific claims, to consider alternative accounts for empirical findings, and to appreciate the ambiguity that often surrounds such findings. Moreover, scientific knowledge of the living world can provide material essential to understanding the ethical dimension of many issues and decisions that our students will face in the years after college.

See my.harvard for a list of courses that satisfy this category.  Using the Advanced Search function, select Science of Living Systems from the drop-down menu found under FAS – Additional Attributes.

Learn about other General Education categories.