Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes

THEO KOUPELIS
Professor of Physics and Astronomy
tkoupeli@uwc.edu
UNIV. OF WISCONSIN-MARATHON
Wausau, WI 54401

Abstract

Science, Society, and Global Catastrophes is a team-taught, interdisciplinary course that aims to convey the nature, excitement, and role of scientific inquiry as a means of solving real-world problems. It is organized around the exploration of past and possible future catastrophes that did and can affect our environment, including plagues, extinctions, global warming, ozone depletion, and collisions with space debris. The historical, scientific, and social aspects of each theme are examined from different perspectives, and solutions are proposed and analyzed. Because many of these issues involve unsolved questions about the natural world, the course reveals to students that science is a human endeavor inextricably linked to values, politics, and social factors and that its future course will depend on their engagement and involvement as informed citizens.

One of the main goals of the course is to help students understand how scientific knowledge is structured and how it develops, and how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. It also strives to illustrate the value and cost of the scientific enterprise and to promote rational examination of the appropriate public policy choices through the use of unsolved scientific problems and questions. The science content of the course includes the physics of meteorites, asteroids, and comets, their role in planetary formation, and impacts with the Earth, epidemiological and statistical data on HIV disease in Africa, and the chemistry of greenhouse gases. Mathematical calculations and statistical modeling techniques are used to explore various questions, such as the effectiveness of strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the rate and impact of human population growth, and the past and future effects of asteroid collisions on the Earth.

Science, Society, and Global Catastrophes involves approximately 60 students and 5 faculty across five campuses of the University of Wisconsin system. The campuses are linked by compressed video. Assignments emphasize critical thinking and writing skills, and include group projects, interpretation of data, analysis of journal articles, mathematical and statistical modeling exercises, and essay questions.

Goals

  1. To understand how science is structured and develops, and to study the historical development of scientific ideas through the use of contemporary problems.
  2. To learn how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science.
  3. To illustrate the value and cost of the scientific enterprise and to promote rational examination of the appropriate public policy choices.
  4. To examine how scientific knowledge and risk assessment can interest and impact public policy making.

Proficiencies

We will address the following proficiencies in this course.

I. Clear and Logical Thinking

(a) Analyze, synthesize, evaluate and interpret information and ideas.
(b) Construct and support hypotheses and arguments.
(c) Distinguish knowledge, values, beliefs, and opinions.
(d) Select and apply scientific and other appropriate methodologies.
(e) Solve quantitative and mathematical problems.
(f) Interpret graphs, tables, and diagrams.
(g) Integrate knowledge and experience to arrive at creative solutions.
(h) Evaluate situations of social responsibility.
(i) Make decisions based on an informed understanding of the moral and ethical issues involved.

II. Effective Communication

(a) Read and listen with comprehension and critical perception.
(b) Recognize fallacies and inconsistencies.
(c) Respond to the media actively and analytically.
(d) Write clearly, precisely, and in a well-organized manner.
(e) Develop a large and varied vocabulary.
(f) Respond orally to questions and challenges.
(g) Work collaboratively as part of a team.
(h) Gather information from printed sources, electronic sources, and observation.
(i) Use computer technologies for communication and problem solving.

III. Aesthetic Response

(a) Employ and expand the imagination.

The Course

Syllabus

Syllabus for Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes

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Course Format

The course arose from our participation in the AAC&U’s Summer 1996 Institute in Vermont; the purpose of the Institute was to help schools improve and strengthen their general education programs. I wrote a proposal to develop our course during 1997 and we offered it for the first time during Spring of 1998. This course was one of the first truly interdisciplinary courses offered at any of the UWC campuses. During the same period the UWC was introducing the Interdisciplinary Studies (IS) requirement as a mandatory component of its Associate of Arts and Science degree. As a result a number of courses following the Learning Communities or team-taught model have been introduced.

Understanding Context

The schedule given in the syllabus does not include the specific day-by-day assignments given in class. There are two reasons for this: First, the number of assignments and corresponding references is such that if included in the syllabus, it would make the syllabus too long. Second, announcing assignments in class gives us the flexibility to make any necessary changes based on the daily interaction in class. It also provides an incentive for students to show up for class. Assignments can be found on the course’s web site. Examples of reading assignments for a section of the course are given in the “References” sections below.

We have considered offering this course as a 4-credit lab science course but have not done so yet. I believe the course offers some excellent opportunities for fieldwork with area community organizations and state science institutions. We will probably add a lab component in the near future.

We have not found a text that adequately covers the topics we cover in this course. Instead, we offer a number of handouts, which include our own notes, as well as different chapters and articles from books and magazines.

Linking Science and Social Issues

Science and the Scientific Method

A general introduction to what is “science” and “the scientific method.” Many people do not understand the power and the limitations of science, a dangerous situation in a world increasingly dependent on its technological applications.Scientific subjects such as environmental problems, the energy crisis, AIDS, medicine, engineering, space exploration, etc. have become front-page news. What we do about the problems existing on our planet and the way we react to the new developments affects, like it or not, not only our personal lives but also everybody else on the planet. In that sense it is our duty to make sure we understand the problems and take a part in the efforts to solve them.

The following is a partial list of articles on the subject of this section, which also includes examples of the processes involved in specific scientific discoveries.

References:

  1. “A Method of Inquiry”: George F. Kneller, 1978, in Science as a Human Endeavor (Columbia Univ. Press).
  2. “The So-called Scientific Method”: Henry H. Bauer, 1992, in Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (Univ. of Illinois Press).
  3. “On Scientific Method”: Robert Pirsig, 1974, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Morrow & Co.).
  4. “Can We Know the Universe?”: Carl Sagan, 1979, in Broca’s Brain (Random House).
  5. “Science: Conjectures and Refutations”: Karl Popper, 1962, in Conjectures and Refutations (Basic Books).
  6. “Evolution as Fact and Theory”: Stephen Jay Gould, 1983, in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (W. W. Norton & Co.).
  7. “Einstein: The Thinking That Led to the Theory of Relativity”: Max Wertheimer, in Productive Thinking (HarperCollins Publisher).
  8. “The Making of a Discovery”: Anne Sayre, 1975, in Rosalind Franklin & DNA (W. W. Norton & Co.). [On the search of the structure of DNA.]
  9. “Fission”: Luis Alvarez, 1987, in Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (Basic Books). [On the discovery of nuclear fission and other breakthroughs in atomic physics.]
  10. “A Feeling for the Organism”: Evelyn Fox Keeler, 1984, in A Feeling for the Organism (W. H. Freeman & Co.). [On the life and work of Barbara McClintock.]
  11. “The Germs of Dissent: Louis Pasteur and the Origins of Life”: Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, 1993, in The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science (Cambridge Univ. Press).

Science and Society

Many people believe that scientific research is a routine, cut-and-dried process, as objective and unambiguous as scientific results. They miss the fact that science is an intensely human process, full of human virtues and limitations, value-laden judgments, and personal desires, which nevertheless converts the work of individuals into the enduring edifice of scientific knowledge. The public must understand the choices that scientists make in their work as individuals, the ethics involved in reporting scientific results, and the social context in which personal and professional decisions are made.

The following is a partial list of articles and books addressing the issues mentioned above.

References:

  1. John Ziman, 1984: An Introduction to Science Studies: The Philosophical and Social Aspects of Science and Technology (Cambridge Univ. Press). [A broad overview of the philosophy, sociology, politics, and psychology of science.]
  2. Rosemary Chalk (ed.), 1988: Science, Technology, and Society: Emerging Relationships (AAAS). [A collection of papers from Science magazine on ethics, scientific freedom, and social responsibility.]
  3. Joel Primack and Frank von Hippel, 1974: Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (Basic Books). [Case studies of scientists interacting with the political process.]
  4. John P. Dickinson, 1984: Science and Scientific Researchers in Modern Society (UNESCO). [A study commissioned by UNESCO on the relations between science and other intellectual and political activities.]

Evaluating Learning

Modeling Exercises

Modeling Exercises for Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes

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Discussion/Essay Questions

Discussion/Essay Questions for Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes

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Group Project for Asteroid Collisions

Group Project for Asteroid Collisions for Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes

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Group Project for AIDS

Group Project for AIDS for Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes

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Related Resources

Understanding Context

References:

  1. “A Method of Inquiry”: George F. Kneller, 1978, in Science as a Human Endeavor (Columbia Univ. Press).
  2. “The So-called Scientific Method”: Henry H. Bauer, 1992, in Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (Univ. of Illinois Press).
  3. “On Scientific Method”: Robert Pirsig, 1974, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
    (William Morrow & Co.).
  4. “Can We Know the Universe?”: Carl Sagan, 1979, in Broca’s Brain (Random House).
  5. “Science: Conjectures and Refutations”: Karl Popper, 1962, in Conjectures and Refutations (Basic Books).
  6. “Evolution as Fact and Theory”: Stephen Jay Gould, 1983, in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (W. W. Norton & Co.).
  7. “Einstein: The Thinking That Led to the Theory of Relativity”: Max Wertheimer, in Productive Thinking (HarperCollins Publisher).
  8. “The Making of a Discovery”: Anne Sayre, 1975, in Rosalind Franklin & DNA (W. W. Norton & Co.). [On the search of the structure of DNA.]
  9. “Fission”: Luis Alvarez, 1987, in Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (Basic Books). [On the discovery of nuclear fission and other breakthroughs in atomic physics.]
  10. “A Feeling for the Organism”: Evelyn Fox Keeler, 1984, in A Feeling for the Organism (W. H. Freeman & Co.). [On the life and work of Barbara McClintock.]
  11. “The Germs of Dissent: Louis Pasteur and the Origins of Life”: Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, 1993, in The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science (Cambridge Univ. Press).
  12. John Ziman, 1984: An Introduction to Science Studies: The Philosophical and Social Aspects of Science and Technology (Cambridge Univ. Press). [A broad overview of the philosophy, sociology, politics, and psychology of science.]
  13. Rosemary Chalk (ed.), 1988: Science, Technology, and Society: Emerging Relationships (AAAS). [A collection of papers from Science magazine on ethics, scientific freedom, and social responsibility.]
  14. Joel Primack and Frank von Hippel, 1974: Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (Basic Books). [Case studies of scientists interacting with the political process.]
  15. John P. Dickinson, 1984: Science and Scientific Researchers in Modern Society (UNESCO). [A study commissioned by UNESCO on the relations between science and other intellectual and political activities.]

Background and Context

Intertextual Notes

UW Marathon is one of the 13 freshman/sophomore campuses of the University of Wisconsin Colleges (UWC), spread across Wisconsin. Each UWC campus offers a transfer curriculum for the baccalaureate degree, professional studies, and a general education associate degree. The UWC is one of 15 institutions within the UW System, including 11 comprehensive universities granting bachelors and masters degrees, two doctoral universities, and UW Extension. Total enrollment in the UWC is about 11,000 students, with UW Marathon being the third largest campus.

This is the syllabus we used the last time we offered the course in Fall 2000, which included a Distance Education component. During that term we offered the course live to students at our campus (about 25), and via compressed video to four other campuses of the UW Colleges. Total enrollment for the class was 61 students.