When students think of science class, they may imagine lectures about igneous rocks, physics equations or mitochondria. Several new classes at Weber State University are looking to demolish that thinking.
Within the College of Science, nontraditional ways of learning about geosciences, physics and math are being offered to students who want to think of those concepts in a unique way.
These classes mix different scholarly disciplines with traditional science and math classes. Those disciplines include literature, construction machinery and dance.
While two of these classes are honors courses, the principles of their content show WSU finding out how to break away from the standard science education experience.
Dr. Brad Carroll, emeritus professor of the physics department, is teaching a class this semester titled “The Physics in the Plays of Tom Stoppard.” The class dives into Stoppard’s fascination with classical and modern physics and how he infused those concepts into his plays.
Carroll’s idea for the class came about when he was presented with the opportunity to teach an honors course, and Stoppard’s plays were in his repertoire.
“The director of the honors program at the time had asked if I would be interested in teaching an honors course. I wanted to, but I didn’t want to do an ordinary course,” Carroll said. “I’m much more interested in courses that combine disciplines.”
The Stoppard course will focus on three plays: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “Arcadia” and “Hapgood,” along with their connections to physics.
While part of the course curriculum, the books are not actually about physics. They instead have thematic elements that are in reference to physics.
“Along with the plays, we read a conceptual physics book that describes the arc of physics in the plays,” Carroll said. “So, we discuss the physics first then see how the physics appears in the plays.”
The three plays have references to Newtonian physics, quantum behavior, thermodynamics and chaos theory, just to name a few.
Class enrollees have included science and nonscience majors, which Carroll sees as a positive sign.
“For me, an honors class means exploration without fear. In an honors class, you can look deeply at a topic from a number of different viewpoints and disciplines,” Carroll said. “You can challenge yourself to broaden your viewpoint and think critically about the material as you look for alternative interpretations. These are useful skills and attitudes for students in all fields, not just science.”
While applying physics to literature is nontraditional, another type of teaching combines two seldom-fused subjects: mathematics and dance.
“Physical energy in the classroom, far from being a distraction, can be an opportunity to learn for all ages and all disciplines,” said Erik Stern, WSU professor of dance, at a TEDx event. “What if teachers were to say, ‘Put the books away. Push the desks aside. Let’s warm up; it’s time to do mathematics’?”
Stern makes the argument that dance can help students learn about math concepts, such as symmetry, spatial imagery and understanding patterns.
At the TEDx event, Stern and his colleague, Karl Shaffer, used clapping patterns to demonstrate a mathematic principle. Stern instructed half the audience to clap along with him at a 4/4 pace. Shaffer encouraged the other half to follow along with him while he clapped at a 3/3 pace.
While creating a physically exerting and audibly evident pattern, they connected this activity to understanding fractions.
When subtracting one-fourth from one-third, it requires an extra step to make the two denominators equal.
This is what the clapping exercise accomplished. Shaffer and Stern elaborated that it was possible for both the 4/4 and 3/3 clapping patterns to clap at the exact same time if they were made to be equal.
At the present time, there is no class offered at WSU that combines dance with math. However, a week-long summer course is offered to middle and secondary mathematics teachers to learn how to introduce physical problem solving into classrooms.
Those who are selected will learn how to integrate dance, muscle memory and shape-making with their teaching methods, so students of all ages can learn to grasp math concepts that may seem difficult on paper.
Dancing to learn math may not be an average way to learn, yet another honors class at WSU combines the study of geosciences with a technique used by construction teams.
“To Frack or Not to Frack?” is an honors class taught by Dr. Rick Ford, geosciences department chair and adviser for earth science teaching and geology.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “fracking” as “the injection of water at high pressure into a borehole, in order to open underground fissures for the extraction of natural gas or oil.”
With the demand for oil and natural gas consistently rising, fracking has become an increasingly popular way to obtain those resources.
While some call the act of fracking “revolutionary,” others will say it is irreversibly harmful to the environment.
Ford’s honors class will examine the scientific concepts that determine how fracking is done and what effects it has on the natural environment. This class will also go over the connections that petroleum geology, groundwater resources, earthquake seismology and climate change have with fracking.
Although it’s not a new topic for discussion, the subject of fracking has one student thinking about its scientific impact.
“I know all about fracking and what has to be done for it to happen, but I don’t really know about what it does to the environment, so that makes me want to find out what it can do,” said Stephen Hill, construction worker and WSU student. “The world needs oil and natural gas to function. That’s just how things work these days. But, I think it’s cool that there’s a class on campus that’s teaching people all about fracking and the science of what it does to the earth.”
Hill also commented that he would have been interested in taking the fracking class if he had known about it before the spring semester began.
Scientific concepts can be thousands of years old or they can be a recent discovery made just months ago. However, those concepts, whether simple or complex, will be unable to reach wide audiences unless the way they are taught is adapted.
Weber State University is already making strides in that effort, but it’s impossible to know what classes will be held in the future to help students learn about science. However, the answer could be just one pirouette away.
Correction: The Signpost published an article on Jan. 25 about nontraditional science classes at Weber State University. The course WSU 2340 Pattern Play, Mathematics and Movement was offered in Spring 2017 and will be offered in future semesters.