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Developing an interdisciplinary science course for non-majors

STANFORD -- Developing an interdisciplinary science course for non- scientists is an ambitious undertaking, according to someone who should know. In the 1980's, Alexander "Sandy" Fetter, professor of physics, co-developed and co-taught what a number of faculty members consider the most successful course of this type: "The Nature of Technology, Science and Mathematics" for the Program in Values, Technology, Science and Society.

Speaking at the "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" lecture sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning on Thursday, May 11, Fetter described the experience that he, mechanical engineering Professor James Adams and mathematics Professor Robert Osserman had developing and teaching the three-quarter course, VTSS 51-53, and discussed some of the implications of that experience for the science core curriculum currently being designed by a faculty committee.

To this day, Fetter is not certain whether to call the course a success or a failure. "It all depends on how you look at it," he said.

On one hand, the students seemed to like the course. During the five years the course was offered, it grew from about 25 to 125 students. Out of that number, a dozen or so switched into science-related majors, such as science policy, after taking the course. His two collaborators each wrote a popular book based on the course: Adams' Flying Buttresses, Entropy and O-Rings: The World of an Engineer and Osserman's Poetry of the Universe.

But the three of them agreed that the course was too idiosyncratic to warrant writing a textbook. Ultimately, the course only survived for a couple of years after the trio broke up and the founders moved on to other endeavors. "At that time, there was no mechanism for keeping it going," Fetter said.

After Adams, who was then head of the VTSS program, recruited Fetter and Osserman, it took the three of them, meeting monthly, about two years to figure out what subjects to cover and how to divide up the work and to develop the basic curriculum. In the course of these discussions, the three scientists worked out an interesting structure for the course. The three team-taught the first quarter together. They divided the second quarter into three sections and a different pair taught each section. In the final quarter, each solo-taught a third of the course.

"All three of us tried to attend all the lectures. That, in itself, made the course considerably more time consuming than normal," he said. "We had no qualms about interrupting each other to say that we had a slightly different take on a subject, but we did it judiciously," Fetter said. "Sometimes we got into an argument. It think it was instructive to the students, showing them that there is no uniformity of views in science."

The three scientists learned some valuable lessons themselves. "Each of us learned from the others just how differently mathematicians, physicists and engineers approach problems," he said.

One of the biggest problems the professors had to overcome was the students' math anxiety. "Stanford students score very high on the SATs and standardized tests, but it was still hard to persuade them that there really wasn't anything in the mathematics [in the course] that they couldn't do," Fetter said.

The three tried to use problems to which the students could relate. For example, Adams came up with the idea for a hypothetical competition. Students were asked to select the diameter wire by which they were willing to be suspended in mid-air. The rules of the competition were simple: The person using the smallest diameter wire would win a fabulous prize, but if the wire broke, the person lost.

In the second half of the first quarter, the professors concentrated on a single topic, radio astronomy, that illustrated how the disciplines worked together. Osserman discussed the mathematical principles used to distinguish a radio signal sent by an alien civilization from those generated by natural processes. Adams described how to build large structures like a radio telescope. Fetter discussed the nature of wave phenomena, including Maxwell's discovery that light is an electromagnetic wave like radio waves.

"At the end of the quarter, we had the students write a brief essay about what surprised them most. It was gratifying to get responses such as, 'For the first time I can imagine how to build something big like a bridge,' or 'I hadn't realized that the laws of nature are universal,' or 'I learned that I can use math in my everyday life,' " Fetter commented.

To maintain student interest, the scientists made maximum use of field trips. The radio astronomy segment, for example, included a trip to the nearby SRI radio telescope. A section on computers and CATscans, co-taught by Adams and Osserman, was highlighted by a visit to the magnetic resonance imaging research center on campus, during which several students received MRI scans.

"That's one of the great things about Stanford. There are so many interesting places that you can visit," Fetter said.

In the final quarter, each of the professors taught three weeks alone. In Adams' final section he had the students go through a simple engineering design project.

"The students had to design a three- wheeled electric vehicle. Not only did they have to figure out the design, they had to make drawings that showed how the vehicle went together, prepare parts lists, find suppliers for the parts and get prices, decide who they were going to sell vehicles to and prepare advertisements. It was a microcosm of the engineering design process," Fetter said.

The students' resourcefulness was remarkable, he recalled. "Starting out with zero knowledge, after three weeks their designs were very impressive. It just goes to show that students can do a lot more than they think they can if they are forced."

This experience leads Fetter to the conclusion that the new science core curriculum is the kind of thing that Stanford should be doing and, if Stanford follows through, its effort could potentially serve as a model for a number of research universities. "I've read that 50 percent of the issues decided in Washington involve scientific issues. It's frightening to think that all the lawyers who are making these decisions not only don't know anything about science but often know the wrong things," Fetter said.

The physicist, who is a member of the committee designing the science core curriculum, added that he has been surprised by the amount of "negativity" that has surrounded the proposal. "The science departments seem to want to divide this up into a quarter of biology, a quarter of chemistry, etc. But that defeats the purpose of such a class," he said.

Still, if the science core curriculum is to become a permanent feature on campus, it needs both a departmental basis and clear support from the administration. Coming up with a plan that will create something sustainable is the key challenge confronting the committee, Fetter said.



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