General Education Courses Offered

Alyssa Goodman

Prediction: The Past and Present of the Future (Gen Ed 1112)

Human beings are the only creatures in the animal kingdom properly defined as worriers. We are the only ones who expend tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources trying (sometimes obsessively) to understand our futures before they happen. While the innate ability of individual people to predict has not changed much in the past few millennia, developments in mathematical and conceptual models have inordinately improved predictive systems. These systems have integrated comparisons to past results and quantified how “certain” we can be about various aspects of the future -- processes that were, in many cases, inconceivable at one point in the past. This course is a coordinated investigation of the history and future of prediction, beginning with Ancient Mesopotamians reading signs in sheep entrails and ending with modern computer simulations for climate, health, wealth, and the fate of our Universe. In this class, you will design your own predictive systems to critically engage with assumptions about how the world works and situate your explorations in a study of how motivations and techniques for divining the future have changed–and not changed–throughout human history.

Image of two planets

Charles H. Langmuir

How to Build a Habitable Planet (Gen Ed 1018)

Is Earth one of many planets in an inhabited Universe, or is it the result of a low-probability accident? And what does the answer to that question tell us about humans’ relationship to our planet? The aim of this course is to place human beings in a universal and planetary context as we investigate the steps of planetary evolution and their significance to our current relationship to Earth. We will explore the origins of the solar system, life, and the elements, and more, placing humanity in the context of a process that may be universal. This then provides a novel perspective on current environmental problems and how we might deal with them, and the likelihood of alien beings and whether we need to fear them. Assignments include the book How to Build a Habitable Planet, two-hour sections, experiments focusing on the environmental impact of how we live, and a field trip to see power generation and waste disposal. At the end of this course, you will have a greater understanding of the past, present, and future of the planet we call home, and the planetary consequences of your life decisions.

Phil Sadler

Experiments that Changed Our World (Gen Ed 1037)

Facing the edifice of preexisting knowledge, how are breakthrough scientific discoveries made that contradict the existing canon? Twelve great experiments that have transformed our understanding of nature will guide us, first through immersion in the scholarship and popular beliefs of the time. Next, how did the discoverer prepare? What were the motivations, prior experiences, and training that led to the threshold of a fruitful advance? Then, to the degree possible, we will carry out the exact same investigations, building our own simple equipment from scratch, duplicating the challenges of wresting patterns from noisy and incomplete data. Students will compare their results to both private and published versions of the original research. The course will examine the magnitude of the cognitive shifts experienced and the often uphill battle to acceptance. We will build an understanding of the nature of scientific progress, examining how the mastery of natural phenomena leads to new technologies and how these can contribute to further scientific discovery. 

Experiments are drawn from the natural sciences, ancient to modern, from Eratosthenes measuring the earth’s size to Rosalind Franklin determining the structure of DNA. We will consider how these discoveries continue to impact society, as well as the many ethical questions raised. The course will examine the difficulty of accepting new experimental evidence falsifying accepted scientific paradigms and how this remains an issue that plays out in current society. By unpacking these 12 experiments, students will be able to better prepare for their own future discoveries and contributions.