October 25, 2006

Cornell to Offer Class On Revitalizing Earth

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This spring, a new course is being formed: BioNB 321: State of the Planet. Don’t be intimidated by its placement in the Neurobiology department. This course is appropriate for anyone. Even you.
This course is “a series of guest lectures woven together by topics chosen to convey the breadth of problems students will be facing and ways to solve those problems,” said Prof. Rulon W. Clark, neurobiology and behavior, who helped organize the course.
The one who developed the idea for the course, however, was Thomas Eisner, J.G. Schurman Professor of Entomology. Clark said the course has been Eisner’s brainchild for years.
“I decided that a concerted effort should be made to teach anyone, without prerequisites, about the issues the planet is facing,” Eisner said. “I’m surprised at how few students are conversant with these issues.”
Eisner has long been committed to environmentalism, having worked with organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy.
The course plans to address issues ranging from the population explosion to rainforest destruction, from the consumption of resources to global warming. The lecturers will present the problems, possible solutions and the chances of those solutions working.
“We’re going to present bad news with a statistical appraisal of how bad the problem is,” Eisner said. “We’ll try very hard to keep an optimistic attitude and get the idea across that it’s not too late, but it’s late.”
Prof. Mary Lou Zeeman, applied mathematics and biology, University of Texas at San Antonio, is also a visiting professor in Cornell’s department of neurobiology and behavior. She was a part of organizing the course and will help run it next semester.
She understands that some students may at first find the issues addressed to be “paralyzing” and overwhelming but hopes that as possible solutions are discussed students will also feel inspired.
Krystal Rypien grad, studying ecology and evolutionary biology, who played a role in establishing the course, added, “We need to educate people, with the knowledge that the people who come to Cornell are going to do big things in the future.”
“We want any major in any sense to know that they can help the planet with their talent,” Zeeman said. “People think they have to change who they are or change what they study to help the planet. I don’t believe that. I believe you can help it with whatever you are doing.”
In order to emphasize this interdisciplinary approach, a different guest lecture will be brought in for every class period. These lecturers are “artists, scientists, social scientists, historians, economists. … There was interest from all areas.” Eisner said.
In order to recruit lecturers, a team of graduate students sent out e-mails to various faculty around campus to gauge interest. They had approximately 30 lecture spots to fill, and about 60 faculty responded, Eisner said.
According to Clark, the final decisions on who would lecture was based on the professors having something important to say, having a good reputation, and being good teachers. One of the first lectures will be given by Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science Magazine.
“We want the experience to be exhilarating and want the lectures to be so good that the students wouldn’t want to miss a lecture,” Eisner said. “We don’t want to police by grading.”
Rypien had been a teaching assistant for another class that Eisner has taught in the past, the Naturalist’s Way. She said it was a loosely formatted course with no tests or attendance, but every class was packed. She expects the interest in this course to be similar.
“It’s kind of nice to step back and see what’s out there before you’re pigeonholed for the rest of your life,” she said, regarding the course’s broad focus.
Enrollment in the course is expected to reach 300 students, and so Zeeman said that keeping students involved was a concern. In order to try to get lecturers to connect more with the students in the course, she decided to implement the use of clickers.
“We wanted a course where literally hundreds of students can take the course and be engaged,” she said. “Clickers, if used properly, can allow everybody in the room, lecturers and students, see how they feel about a particular issue, or find out people’s knowledge on a particular issue.”
She pointed out that this will help lecturers tailor the lectures so that they could speak to the class more effectively, and will also allow students to see how they view an issue as compared to their peers.
Zeeman said that she will help lecturers structure the clicker questions so that they are used as efficiently as possible and do not disrupt the class.
“I feel our society is becoming more aware now of environmental issues,” said Courtney Song ’09. “It’s kind of refreshing to see that at the university level, Cornell is catching on.” However, she added that the course may not be the most effective way to reach students, saying that a club or organization may be more appropriate.
The faculty, however, are optimistic, Eisner said. Many may not have enough to say to fill a full course, but still want to express their views.
“[Here,] they can add a beam of light to the full color spectrum,” he said. “There are some star teachers involved in this. … [Student response] is the issue of suspense. It’s up to the professors to make it interesting to students.”
The course is two credits, and lectures take place on Mondays and Wednesdays. A three-credit option is also available for students who wish to participate in a discussion section. The course is only offered S/U.
“We don’t want students to feel good; we want students to feel good about knowing about important issues,” Eisner said. “We want it to stir concerns without fermenting discouragement. We want to promote a thirst of knowledge spread by a desire to become involved. By the time you finish this course, you will be so well-informed that you can single-handedly reform the planet.”