Stanford freshmen to consider the cosmos

In Thinking About the Universe, freshmen will explore profound questions about the cosmos – its beginnings, structure, extent and fate – with a philosopher, an experimental physicist and a theoretical physicist as their guides. The course is one of the new offerings in the Thinking Matters program, which is designed to help students transition from high school to college by introducing them to a multidisciplinary approach to learning that emphasizes critical analysis, close reading and creative problem solving.

When philosophy Professor Thomas Ryckman heard he had a kindred spirit on campus – a physics professor named Peter Michelson who was also interested in creating a freshman introductory course about contemporary cosmology – he sent him an email.

"I envisage a narrowly tailored 'how and why thinking about the universe has changed' type of course, along historical-philosophical-astronomical-cosmological lines," wrote Ryckman, whose research focuses on the philosophy of physics. "If a course of this type is of any interest to you, I'd be happy to discuss it over coffee or lunch."

Michelson, an experimental physicist whose research focuses on high-energy astrophysics, responded with an enthusiastic "yes." He suggested increasing the teaching team – and academic perspectives – to three by bringing in Peter Graham, a theoretical physicist who designs experiments to understand the nature of dark matter.

As they were planning the course, Ryckman, Michelson and Graham could often be seen huddled in discussions at Bytes Café in the Science and Engineering Quad – Ryckman and Michelson with pads of paper and pens, and Graham with a laptop.

That was two years ago.

Today, Ryckman, Michelson and Graham are busy preparing lectures and finalizing the syllabus for Thinking About the Universe: What do we know? How do we know it?

The class will be offered winter quarter as part of Stanford's Thinking Matters program.

Now in its third year, Thinking Matters was one of several new initiatives Stanford launched following a comprehensive examination of undergraduate education.

Thinking Matters courses are designed to help freshmen make the transition from high school to college by developing a sense of what constitutes a genuine question or problem, and how to address it in a creative and disciplined manner. The courses emphasize critical analysis, close reading, analytic writing and effective communication. Freshmen must take at least one Thinking Matters course as part of their general education requirements.

In lively lectures and small-group discussions students discover collaborative ways to solve problems and understand issues. The courses also introduce students to a multidisciplinary approach to learning that will help inform their future academic pursuits and intellectual lives.

"Thanks to faculty members coming forward with exciting proposals, the Thinking Matters program has succeeded in providing freshmen with an 'on-ramp' to college-level learning, helping them to engage productively with the intellectual life of the university," said Russell A. Berman, a professor of comparative literature and of German studies, and the faculty director of Thinking Matters.

What is “Thinking Matters”?

For more than 90 years Stanford has delivered courses specifically intended for — and required of — freshmen that are suited to their distinctive character and needs. Thinking Matters courses foreground significant and enduring questions and approach them from multiple perspectives. In high school, students may have spent a great deal of time providing answers to questions with a ‘right answer’ like those on the SAT exams. In Thinking Matters, the main goal is to help students develop the ability to ask rigorous and genuine questions that can lead to scientific experimentation or literary interpretation or social policy analysis. Thinking Matters also helps students discover, in a lively lecture and seminar format, collaborative ways to approach solving problems and understanding issues.

Learn more about Thinking Matters