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Faculty Awarded Support to Create Innovative Curriculum

Awards fund development of creative interdisciplinary courses over the summer

  • Course to merge hard sciences and humanities to understand human experience
  • Class to design virtual walking tour of classical influences in Chicago
  • Students to creatively apply math skills to everyday, real-world situations
  • Award sponsored by Alumnae of Northwestern University and provost’s office

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The latest recipients of Northwestern University’s Award for Curriculum Development will spend the summer honing three new undergraduates courses designed to adapt time-tested concepts in the classics, mathematics, neurobiology and the humanities to the modern world.

The award, a $12,500 grant sponsored by the Alumnae of Northwestern University and administered by the Office of the Provost, is designed to support the development of innovative course materials and new modes of teaching over the summer in preparation for the upcoming academic year.

Susie Phillips, associate professor of English, and Indira Raman, professor of neurobiology, will develop a course to understand the human experience by merging neuroscientific, literary and artistic perspectives -- disciplines generally thought to be at opposite ends of the academic spectrum.

The course by Francesca Tataranni, senior lecturer in classics and director of Latin instruction, will focus on the legacy of ancient Rome as reflected in the architecture, art and other forms of cultural production in Chicago.

And the course by Eric Zaslow, professor of mathematics, will look to understand human behavior, the environment and science and technology in the age of big data through   quantitative reasoning.

Taught by faculty in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the three courses represent the kind of innovative, interdisciplinary teaching faculty do every day, Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer said.

“These excellent proposals are very much in keeping with Northwestern’s commitment to providing an outstanding undergraduate education experience for our students,” he said. “I look forward to continuing to work with the Alumnae of Northwestern University in support of this very important part of the University’s mission.”

Thought Experiments: An Exploration of Knowing Through Neuroscience and the Humanities

The goal of the course is to teach students how to think with and through very different disciplines, learning how to bridge the gap between subjects that would appear to speak different languages.

“Until a couple of centuries ago, scholars made no distinction between science and literature or science and art,” Phillips said. “Indira and I wondered what it would be like to revive this older paradigm and reintegrate these supposedly disparate ways of thinking about thinking into a single classroom. We’re absolutely thrilled that this award will enable us to do just that.”

Reading works like Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” alongside scientific writing on neurophysiology, neuropyschiatric disorders and animal behavior, students will explore different perspectives on what constitutes thought, what free will is and isn’t, and what tools we have for making sense of some of the most fundamental aspects of human experience -- emotions, memory, perception, ethics and knowledge.

“We laid down a challenge for ourselves in setting the goal of creating a multidisciplinary course -- one that incorporates totally distinct disciplines, methods and perspectives, rather than one that spans the interface between related disciplines,” Raman said. “It is a pleasure to know that those who reviewed the application are interested in that challenge and that they were willing to validate it.”

Ancient Rome in Chicago

In her course, Tataranni will teach 21st-century students about the continuing influence of ancient Rome in modern America, particularly in Chicago.

Students will work on individual projects and present their research in the form of a video essay. Using software designed by Northwestern’s Knight News Innovation Laboratory, the entire class will then work jointly to design a virtual walking tour of all the places in the city where “memories” of ancient Rome appear.

“We see or walk by neoclassical buildings and are exposed to a variety of uses of classical imagery almost every day, which we completely take for granted,” Tataranni said. “Specifically, the focus of the class will be Chicago, the quintessential modern American city, and the way it has used classical antiquity, in particular Roman culture, to assert its own modernity.”

Expressing her gratitude for the award, Tataranni said, “This award has enhanced the potential of my class immensely.”

Quantitative Reasoning

Zaslow’s course will be part of Bridge, a residential five-week program that provides intensive instruction in pre-calculus mathematics and chemistry.

Students will learn to apply quantitative skills to a wide range of topics and problems that will not only help them succeed in future courses at the University but also in everyday, real-world situations.

The course will develop a student's ability to "argue with numbers,” Zaslow said. “They will apply basic mathematical skills in making reasoned, quantitative arguments to address questions from a variety of real-world concerns and a host of academic disciplines.”

The course will cover, for example, computing compound interest, assessing the value of a college degree, estimating the cost/benefit of undocumented workers and deciding whether health insurance is worth the expense.

“Society continually reminds me how much our citizens need to be able to understand numerical arguments when making personal financial, medical, environmental and political decisions,” Zaslow said.  “I am inspired by the idea that creating a course in quantitative reasoning and, more broadly, creating a platform and vehicle for teaching it, might actually make a bit of difference.”

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