Why Science 1–2 mattered

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a pivotal time for Wesleyan’s liberal arts curriculum. It was during these years that the school began to experiment with the college system, the interdisciplinary three-year majors like the College of Social Studies and the College of Letters. In keeping with this interdisciplinary approach, the university began to loosen its distribution requirements and provide more classes geared towards non-majors. One of the resulting courses, Science 1–2, illuminates the Astronomy Department’s role in furthering Wesleyan’s liberal arts mission.

In the decades following World War II, there was a general feeling among the science faculty that Wesleyan’s traditional science requirement for undergraduates—one year of an introductory level course with a lab—was unsatisfactory. As Astronomy Professor Thornton Page put it in the 1960 Wesleyan University Alumnus, the science requirement at Wesleyan had been the “bane of many a non-scientist’s undergraduate years,” and that the necessary courses were “as inappropriate for the non-science major as a cookbook for a would-be gourmet, or a lecture on grammar for a theatre audience.” Page explained that non-science majors would benefit from a more general understanding of the fundamentals of science, how the sciences relate to each other, and the contemporary research being done in those fields, rather than taking separate introductory courses in individual subjects. By spreading the course across the entire academic year (hence the 1–2 designation), students would receive a more comprehensive introduction to the fundamentals of science across disciplines.  A similar course, Humanities 1–2, offered a complementary approach geared towards science students.

First taught in the fall of 1959, Science 1–2’s primary goal was to teach humanities and social science majors the fundamentals of a broad range of scientific disciplines through lectures, labs, and independent projects. The course was divided into three broad topics: Space and Motion, Matter and Energy, and Life and Time. Multiple professors from biology, physics, astronomy, mathematics and chemistry lectured during each section. After each topic there was a two-week reading period during which students developed their own personal project in conjunction with a faculty advisor. The projects culminated in a final paper, the best of which were then chosen at the end of the year by a committee of peers to be published and distributed around campus in a scientific version of a college literary magazine. This structure gave students a broader overview of the field of science than a typical first year introductory course would, while still emphasizing laboratory research and asking students to hone their quantitative and analytical skills.

Science 1–2 essay collections from the 1960s. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

Science 1–2 essay collections from the 1960s. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

The astronomy department played an important role in Science 1–2. Thornton Page himself was one of its main designers and promoters. His research interests in extraterrestrial life were taken up eagerly by his students. Every pamphlet listed an essay on flying saucers as an honorable mention, and one even printed such an essay. His enigmatic personality, too, must have resonated with students. One essay explored the logic behind Zeno’s paradoxes through a Socratic dialogue in which the figure of Socrates was named Thornton.

An excerpt from the essay about Zeno’s Paradox. This student has named his Socrates figure Thornton. Three Sides of the Coin, May, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

An excerpt from the essay about Zeno’s Paradox. This student has named his Socrates figure Thornton. Three Sides of the Coin, May, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

The essays about aliens and Zeno’s paradox also illustrate the freedom that the students had in deciding their final essay topic. The essays in the pamphlets are an eclectic mix, ranging in style from formal laboratory write-ups to a summary of current knowledge about a subject. Several themes, such as continental drift and Zeno’s paradox, do crop up multiple times, but every student’s take on the matter is different. In addition, the fact that multiple essays over different years discuss similar subject matter highlight that at least the core components of the curriculum stayed the same from year to year. The broad range of topics, however, illustrate that emphasis was continually placed on introducing students to multiple disciplines and cultivating the interdisciplinary approach to subjects that a liberal arts education can provide.

While not a specific academic area of the class, the influence of the Cold War and the Space Race can be seen in many of the essays, reflecting the how those politics permeated even small liberal arts universities at the time. One student discussed the necessity of Civil Defense in relation to the “dreadful possibility of nuclear war erupting…at any time.” The student used the science behind nuclear fallout and his understanding of motion and mechanics to determine whether the United States could survive a nuclear attack. Another essay discussed the possible existence of life on other planets. The author summarized the contemporary understanding of Mars and Venus’ atmosphere and surface features, highlighting the surprising amount that astronomers knew at the time. However, he also discussed some of the more comical theories of the day, such as assuming that vegetation on Mars will be found once NASA sends its first robotic laboratory to the planet. All of this research was fueled by the United States’ competition with the Soviet Union.

Not every essay was as eccentric as the ones discussed above. Here is an excerpt from a laboratory report about the movement of oil and water through rock. The report is thorough and the drawings are incredibly detailed. Motion, Method, Motivation January, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

Not every essay was as eccentric as the ones discussed above. Here is an excerpt from a laboratory report about the movement of oil and water through rock. The report is thorough and the drawings are incredibly detailed. Motion, Method, Motivation January, 1961. Astronomy Department Collections, Van Vleck Observatory.

The course, it seems,lasted just under a decade, disappearing from the Wesleyan course catalogues by 1967. Instead, to fulfill their science requirement, students only had the option to take a “year’s course involving laboratory work.” This change may reflect a reaction to the protests and unrest that permeated college campuses at that time. However, the interdisciplinary goal of Wesleyan and the Astronomy department was not eradicated. Today, the department offers many classes for non-majors at all levels, including a freshman seminar that explores the relationship between science fiction and science fact, and the origins of that initiative can be traced back to interdisciplinary classes such as Science 1–2. These essays highlight that a broad understanding of multiple disciplines constructively influences writing and research.

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One thought on “Why Science 1–2 mattered

  1. Pingback: The Most Interesting Man of the Van Vleck Observatory | Under Connecticut Skies

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