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A Race Through Time and Space

A Race Through Time and SpaceFive professors join together in an effort to make science accessible to the masses.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.09.09] There is a popular relay race taking place on the Medford/Somerville campus, but you won't find it anywhere near Ellis Oval. This race is happening within the chemistry department and spans about 14 billion years.

Welcome to Chemistry 5, "From the Big Bang to Humankind," an introductory-level science distribution course taught by five professors, each from a different scientific discipline, passing the educational torch from one to the other as they explore the origins of the universe, Earth, life, humanity and beyond.

The course, geared toward first and second year non-science majors, was first offered in the spring of 2008 and is currently in its second run. In the past year, course enrollment increased from 80 students to 120 as its popularity grew through word of mouth, according to Professor of Chemistry David Walt, who started the course.

His fellow instructors are Eric Chaisson, director of the Wright Center for Science Education, Chemistry Professor and Chair Krishna Kumar, Associate Professor of Biology Catherine Freudenreich, anthropology lecturer Lauren Sullivan and Boston University geologist Andrew Kurtz. The chemistry department's project coordinator Meredith Knight is also involved in managing the course on the administrative end.

Walt says the idea for the course came in 2006 after he attended a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) symposium where attendees discussed getting more students interested in science and exposing them to a broader picture of the field.

"The idea is that rather than have students learn a lot about one particular field of science, this course is intended to give them a broader perspective and help them see the relationship between different fields and how each is integrated," says Walt, who is funding the course through a $1 million grant he received from HHMI in 2006, when he was named a HHMI professor.

Chaisson, who has taught a similar survey course at Harvard for the past 27 years, says he jumped on the chance to be involved when Walt contacted him a year ago.

"The course appeals to students at Tufts because they are hungry and looking for an intellectual world view of science," Chaisson says. "They are looking for scientists to come out of the lab and articulate to the non-science majors what it is we do and why we are so excited about it."

"Typically and culturally, scientists are just not good communicators, me included," Chaisson adds, "and its one of the greatest issues of science education. What Walt has done with this course is to bring together some of the best researchers on campus to open those lines of communications."

The course covers the beginning of the universe and the "big bang" theory and moves to from the composition of a lifeless earth to the molecules of life and how they came about. From there the class discusses the evolution of single-celled to multi-cellular organisms and ultimately the development of human life.

"Students really get exposure to astronomy, astrophysics, earth sciences, chemistry, biology and anthropology," Walt says. "They get a look at the real core of science, but all with the common theme of bringing them from 14 billion years ago to the development of humans."

Walt says they have made some minor changes since the first class, trying to build coherence among teaching styles and exams. He is happy to see the students as engaged and excited as the professors themselves.

"The enthusiasm of the faculty is infectious," Walt says. "The students enjoy coming to class. They find the material fascinating even though it may not be applicable to their career goals. For the first time they are see science as relevant and interesting."

"Students see it not only as a survey course, but as a narrative," says Aaron Price, one of the course's teaching assistants. "Through speaking with a few students, I know that at first it can be challenging to look at science that way. But after an initial shock, they seem to really like it."

"We are not worried about saying, 'Hey, we are telling a story,'" Chaisson says. "There is nothing wrong with teaching through stories; in fact, it is a very powerful way to disseminate science. This is a course for everyone, it is everyone's story."

By Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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