How Science Got Reduced to 150 Concepts
Riaz-ul Haque, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor (Emeritus)
University of Illinois at Chicago.
It was serendipity which did it. If I were asked to design a new
curriculum for science, I would have probably done the same thing that
anyone else would have done. I would have gone to the library and would
have come out with a massive compendium as a curriculum much like the one
many of our learned and professional societies came out with after the
Sputnik launch back in l957. As a matter of fact, those compendia,
impressive as they were, did more harm to science than fix it.
My situation probably fits more with Pasteur’s statement that Chance Favors
the Prepared Mind. Hailing from a developing country, I had first hand
knowledge of what was wrong there.
After coming to United States
to seek some remedies, I realized that the problem was just as acute here
as anywhere else. Here, unfortunately, it was masked by the successes of
science and the products and services it produced and provided which made US
economy the envy of the world. Yet, amidst all this success, it was the
student who was suffering quietly believing that if he is not able to get a
full grasp of science, something must be wrong with him. He, therefore,
resorted to “making the grade and graduating approach”. This way, he got a
degree to be sure but he became a technocrat not a scientist.
I saw serious local and global consequences of this form of “graduation and
credentialing.” What kind of advise this person would be able to give to
the local and foreign governments, their Presidents and to the United
Nations, I wondered.
Yet, science to me being a logical subject was not supposed to be all that
difficult. My question then was, “are we, as teachers and scientists, doing
something wrong and blaming it on the students?”
To test this “hunch” I decided to teach science to people with no science
background. I did this by placing a public service ad in one of the local
radio stations (WLS).
The ad simply said: I am looking for people to work in my lab; I will train
you I am looking for people without science background. This was quite
unusual so much so that even the radio station called to get clarification.
Doc, is there a typo in here, they inquired. Assuring them that there was
none, they aired the ad.
Twenty five people, ages 16 to 55 showed up. They were a collage of
humanity representing various ethnic groups, males and female, some were
high school dropouts, including one who was told that now that he has
passed the truancy age, he can legally drop out of school. Some being
Spanish spoke very little English, if at all.
I put this group in a
borrowed classroom kindly made available by the Chicago Board of Education.
Mrs. Marjorie Moleneaux, then Science Director of
the Chicago Board of Education, worked closely with me on this adventurous
The first class was held in the Dunbar
Vocational High School.
Unfortunately, such an ethnically mixed group was not well received there. So,
the next day the classes had to be moved to the St. Mary’s high school on
the near west side on the Taylor street
I started the classes with no preconceived structure or curriculum. I just
wanted them to know science as I knew it and as it historically developed
over the past 200 or so years.
My first class consisted of showing them germs from my own mouth under the
phase microscope. After all isn’t that how Leeuwenhoek started. He, of
course, had no phase microscope for it was not invented by Zernick until l935. He had to make and contend with his
own primitive microscope. But what he saw with that microscope took mankind
to a new and exciting journey which brought us to where we are today. It
was thus appropriate, very appropriate, to get this group started from the
After kidding around about the state of my oral hygiene and getting assured
that there was nothing wrong with it and that the germs, one sort or
another, are part and parcel of each and everyone’s mouth, they wanted to
see what dwelt in their mouths also.
That simple beginning led us to isolating and identifying microorganisms,
making media, sterilizing, making Percent, Molar and Normal
solutions, diagnosing diseases by serological means such as agglutination
and precipitation reactions. The group understood the concepts and was
gobbling them all up.
The entire course was 20 weeks long, meeting three times per week for a
total of 9 hours per week. This amounted to an actual hands-on lab training
of 180 clock hours. The remarkable thing was that this lowly group of
students, stuck in dead end life situations, found jobs in labs by their
own efforts. No one had to be given a referral to go anywhere and no one
was coaxed into granting them an interview or giving them a job. The
students did it all on their own.
A small graduation ceremony was then held where certificates were awarded
jointly signed by me (Riaz-ul Haque) and the then Superintendent of the Chicago
Board of Education, Dr. James Redmond.
Chicago Tribune carried the story of this graduation and that is how the
Labor Department got interested in this teaching approach.
All this was happening back in the sixties, the era of equal rights, when
people seeking social and economic justice were demanding their fair share
of the prevailing affluent pie.
The Labor Department saw a possible solution of this dilemma in this new
teaching approach. I was thus asked to give a seminar to the key employers
of the Chicago area. The
seminar was attended by Abbot Labs, G.D.Searle, Libbey McNeal, Sherwin Williams and many more employers
of the same stature.
The consensus of the group was that they will hire the people that I train
provided the trainees were specially trained to meet the needs of the
respective employers. This made sense. Why should a pharmaceutical company
hire a person who knows making and testing paints or treating water or
sewage? They felt that their needs were more specific.
The group was thus asked to provide specific lists of skills and concepts
relevant to their fields directly to me or through the Labor Department.
This they all agreed to do but six months passed and no such lists were
received either by me or by the Labor Department.
One day, sitting in a restaurant, waiting for a friend to join me, I
decided to make a list of what should be the background of a person if I
were to hire him for my lab. Using the available napkins, I began to make a
list of items that I felt would be essential. Surprisingly, this list
turned out to contain only150 items and it was so complete and all
inclusive that even I was surprised at the outcome. I was expecting that
the list, considering the apparent complexity and vastness of Science would
have hundreds if not thousands of items.
Nonetheless, I still felt that this list represented just my ideas and that
the list may be relevant only to my needs and to my lab. I thus decided to
conduct a survey to see how wide an application this list might have. My
intent was to improve the list as well as enable employees to customize the
list to meet their respective needs by adding or deleting items of the
The survey gave the participants four choices asking them to see if a
particular item was essential for them, could be useful, or was not al all
necessary for their line of work. They were also given the option of adding
or deleting items from the list.
The survey was sent to a diverse group of employers and labs, including
those who participated in the Labor Department’s Seminar. They were,
however, not told that this list had anything to do with that seminar. I
wanted the list to come to them out of the blue sky, so to speak, so they
could give their unbiased opinion not tainted by the guilt feeling that
this list might produce for having not done their job as they had promised.
The response was more than I expected but the remarkable thing was that no
body changed anything in the list. Here then we had a list of skills and
concepts that if one possessed them, he or she can be employed in almost
any lab or can embark upon any science based career.
This list then became the curriculum of the Institute. So far, over the
years, I have put through approximately 3,000 students of various age
groups (the younger one being 12 and the older 65), various ethnicities,
males and females, various educational background including high school and
college dropouts, including some who were physically or emotionally
challenged including hearing impaired. They all learned remarkably well and
gotten on into areas of work they had not previously thought possible. A
few who chose areas other than science as their avocation, nonetheless,
found themselves to be better prepared to deal with day to day life
situations. They seem to have lost the fear of science or fear of life and learning
in general, thus becoming more adapted to a changing society as well as
Transplanting this system of teaching science locally and globally could
most likely transform society as we know it now. Busy people involved in
creative activities are not likely to have time for mischief, violence or
terrorism. These latter sprout when one feels that
they are being left out of the main stream of life and if someone convinces
them that this is being done on purpose, the results are even more
With understanding science and knowing not only how it affects their lives
but also how they can be the architects of their lives and of their
societies generates pride in them due to their achievements which also
builds hope for the future. Such people are likely to be global partners
The Institute’s programs originating with this serendipitous beginning can
help us achieve that hopeful end.
I am, therefore, inviting you to join in this much needed task, now fortunately,
made doable due to the finding that science is not all that difficult and
also because it has enabled us to establish a Science Skills Center where all
basic and applied science concepts and skills are taught in a systematic manner
in a hands-on fashion using all the tools and the instruments scientists
use to do science.
Besides joining, I am also inviting you to have your children and
grandchildren benefit from this serendipitous finding.
In addition to the Science
we were also able to integrate all of our fragmented knowledge into a
comprehensible whole which ahs given rise to the Center for Integrative
Learning see: www.centerforintegrativelearning.org.
This center shortens the time needed to truly learn as it enables the
students to learn on their own for which they can earn college credits via
the CLEP program (college level examination of proficiency) and speed up
their college graduation saving both time and money plus learning a whole
lot moiré in a short time. As humans we are forever condensing and
integrating while our educational system goes the other way, fragmented and
breaking knowledge apart into bits and pieces and scattering them over a
long period of time. Just that fact
alone suffices to give us ADD!
For more information on
joining the Center and also on tours, workshops and classes which are open
to all ages, contact the Center at:
729 S. Western Avenue,
Chicago, Illinois USA
Phone: 312-243-7716; Fax: 312-243-2041
INFORMATION: In order to understand what can be done and why it is
not happening now see:
What ails education at: http://www.iibbt.com/whatails.htm
An inspirational story of a hearing and speech impaired
person who refused to settle for becoming a janitor, see it at: http://www.iibbt.com/Judy.html
How just a peak through a microscope can teach hygiene
and also give a start towards learning science. See it at: http://www.iibbt.com/sepah-eDanish.html
There is much more: Register by sending us an e-mail at:
and we will keep you posted of further developments.