Brainstorming a new class

27 Dec

I’m not certain whether I can push this through or not where I teach, but I’m interested in designing and teaching a course on the nature of science and addressing some of the philosophical questions around science. I brought this up with my wife on the way to the airport yesterday to discuss it and we identified two central problems: What is the appropriate scope of a class like this? i.e. Should it address just a few central questions or cover more of the reach of science? Secondly, how much can I really expect students to read in a semester? Many of my students are part time and have full-time jobs and children they are managing around their academic schedules.

Let me be honest, I really want to do this course because I want to read or re-read a lot of these books and do a much better job when I have to discuss it in front of a class.

Here’s the rough draft outline of what I would love to teach in a perfect world. I’d love to get comments and suggestions about how to shape this course. More readings, key chapters of books to excerpt from the books I identified or others, etc. Also, if you’ve taught or taken a course like this, what was the reading load like?


The Nature of Biology: A Reading Course

A Proposal for a one credit course in biology focusing on reading, discussion and writing assignments.  Student grades come entirely from written and oral discussion – no tests

Format: Meet once or twice a week for one and a half  hours to discuss readings, organize schedules and discuss writing assignments

Assignments: Ongoing discussion groups online – every student must write at least one post with a significant contribution AND at least one reply to another student’s post for each book read.

Objective: To consider the physical and chemical laws of the universe and assess how these come together to ‘create’ biological life. Also, to discuss what we know of the origins of the universe, the earth and life itself. How does science teach us to think about these things? How do we know what is real and what is not?


Unit I: The Nature of Science

  1. What makes us think that we can believe what our senses tell us? What is reason and how can we make rational decisions in this world?
    1. Something on the nature and philosophy of science
    2. How can we tell the real from the make believe?
      1. Show the scene for 2001 when Dave Bowman is running around the inside of the Discovery.

i.     “What are we seeing?”

ii.     “How is it possible that he can run continuously and keep going around in circles?”

iii.     Why do we need an explanation at all. Can’t we just accept what we see?

  1. Dawkins, The Magic of Reality
  2. Massimo Pigliucci, Nonsense on Stilts

Unit II: Physical Origins

  1. What do we know about the universe?
  2. How did it begin and how will it end?
  3. We are all star-stuff: Basic Physical and Chemical Laws
    1. a.     ____________, Carl Sagan
    2. Origin of Earth
      1. a.     The Earth, the Moon and the Solar system – some video…. What if we had no moon?

Unit III: Biology

  1. What is Biology?
    1. What makes Biology Special, Ernst Mayr
    2. Life is United
      1. Something on Evolution??? Mayr again? –or- Why Evolution is True, Coyne
      2. Craig Venter on creating synthetic life in the lab

Posted by on December 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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6 responses to “Brainstorming a new class

  1. Cat

    December 27, 2012 at 10:48 am

    A professor I TA’ed a class for at Purdue required that we all (TA and students) read an article called Myths of Science. I can’t remember who it’s by, but it was really thought provoking to teachers that are trying to break the idea that science is hard and no mistakes are ever made throughout the process of discovery.

    I know I have a copy around here somewhere, and if I can find it, I’ll be able to give you the author name so you can find yourself a copy. =)

    • downhousesoftware

      December 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Cat. I’ll look into that.

  2. audreygrey

    December 28, 2012 at 2:38 am

    I’d take that class in a heartbeat. Your exploration of what if’s definitely appeal. I’m no help on the practical questions you ask but I can say that it sounds like a fascinating experience, and one I’d sign up for.

    • downhousesoftware

      December 28, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Thanks for the comment Audrey. I’m really just trying to design a course that I would like to take too. Not to mention that, if I’m teaching it, I would have no way of weaseling out of doing the reading.

      Best of the Season to you

  3. Ashley O.

    December 28, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Although, I share the same concern about the school approval, I think that your proposal is worth the shot. I think that some excerpts from Einstein’s ‘Physics and Reality’ would fit nicely with the sensory/reality section. I’m sure your already aware, but Carl Sagan has some great videos that might be worth viewing in class oppose to reading his books. I’m not sure whether this course would be covering philosophy, biology, physics, etc….but the questions your asking are intriguing and the discussions to follow would be worth taking the class 🙂

    • downhousesoftware

      December 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm

      Thanks Ashley. I think it would be an interesting dialog to have and also provide a place for those discussions outside of General Biology. I’ll have to pick up a copy of Mehra’s book, it sounds like just the thing for this class.
      I hope you’ve been enjoying your holidays.


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