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New courses pose "Big Problems" for students

link to: College ReportThis fall the College inaugurated a series of courses that takes an interdisciplinary approach to solving intractable world issues. The series may well represent a new model curriculum for fourth-years.

image: Robot (courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University)Invited to speak on campus in October, Richard Buchanan, AB'68, PhD'73, a professor and head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, recalled how he and other researchers approached the challenge of building a robot that could assist the elderly. While the project at first seemed fairly straightforward, he said, the research team soon realized how complex it really was. "We began by asking, 'What is a robot?' By the end, we were asking, 'What are the elderly? What is a human being?'" The issue of elder care, he concluded, is a "wicked problem," one that does not have immediately calculable solutions and that requires the integration of many fields of knowledge.

This autumn, College fourth-years had the chance to wrestle with similar dilemmas in the new "Big Problems" series of interdisciplinary capstone courses. Buchanan's talk, "Wicked Problems and the World We Make," inaugurated the 1999-2000 Big Problems Lecture Series, an open-to-the-public forum designed to complement the new courses and feature insights from off--campus experts.

William Wimsatt, a philosophy professor, and J. Paul Hunter, the director of the Franke Institute for the Humanities, are directing the new program. Last year, Wimsatt and Hunter invited faculty members who wanted to work collaboratively to a series of meetings on interdisciplinary teaching issues. Out of this group came the faculty members who agreed to offer courses as part of the series this year.

The first round of Big Problems courses includes Biological and Cultural Evolution, taught by Wimsatt, linguistics department chair Salikoko Mufwene, PhD'79, and linguistics professor Jerrold Sadock; Cultural Evolution and Problems of Globalization, taught by the same trio; and Is Development Sustainable?, taught by environmental studies chair Theodore Steck and computer science lecturer William Sterner, AB'69, MBA'82.

Each course, explains Wimsatt, emphasizes an interdisciplinary take, aimed at getting students to look up from their concentrations to the broader issues at stake. "If a problem gets big enough, it tends to pull in all the disciplines," Wimsatt says. "It also tends to pull in all the other problems." He considers "big problems" to be such matters as cultural identity, the development of language, ethnic divisions, overpopulation, and globalization.

For Wimsatt, having no readily available solutions to such dilemmas is the most exciting part of learning. He says he was inspired to help design the courses by Beloit College biologist John Jungck's BioQuest program. "Jungck pioneered open-ended simulation software, which lets students really investigate problems of their own that don't have answers," he explains. "In that situation the teacher has to act more like a knowledgeable consultant."

That's the role Wimsatt feels he and his colleagues play in the Big Problems courses. "I want to teach science and the problem-solving process more like it's actually practiced," he says. "The tendency, at least in pre-med-oriented biology courses, is to give only the facts and the things that are absolutely certain, and not talk about any theories that are up for grabs, because that's not going to be on the MCATs. That's always struck me as a dishonest way to write about science."

During one afternoon session of Biological and Cultural Evolution, which meets three times a week, the three teachers and some 20 students pepper each other with questions, problems, and ideas. Mufwene addresses the evolution of language and its relation to biology: "Your genotype locks you up at birth, but in language it doesn't work the same way. You are exposed to the way people in the community speak. You develop your own system, but you change and remake this system through your life. If this were a matter of DNA, we would be dealing with DNA that keeps changing. However, in biological species, will doesn't play an important factor. In language, I can refuse to speak like you, I can choose a different course."

The class's reading and research assignments similarly cross disciplines. Required texts include Joel Cohen's How Many People Can the Earth Support? (W. W. Norton), William Durham's Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity (Stanford), and Daniel Nettle's Linguistic Diversity (Oxford). One assignment asks students to analyze the content of their lunches and determine where the ingredients were grown, how they were distributed, and how they were put together to create a meal. For one group project, students are studying the categories of race and how they have changed over time. "The changes are related to other events that are going on--who's immigrating at that time, who feels that it's important to make these distinctions," notes Wimsatt. "To try to reach out from that to the issue of conceptions of race in the time and the culture is clearly a big problem, and it plugs into other big problems."

Dean of the College John Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, says that the Big Problems courses, particularly their interdisciplinary nature, are rooted in Chicago tradition. With his backing, eight to ten more are in the works in areas as diverse as juvenile justice and problems of scale. As upper-level interdivisional courses, Boyer says, the Big Problems serve as "general education for seniors, which allows them to bring together various skills they've gained in the College. They are studying Big Problems as a skills exercise, and that's a very traditional thing here." --B.B.

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