published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, March 2005, Volume 4, Issue 7

The Evolution of the Model: Science, Society, and Global Threats

The course, "Science, Society, and Global Catastrophes" was originally introduced as a SENCER Model in 2001. We recently asked model developer, Theo Koupelis, professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon, to reflect on his experiences teaching this interdisciplinary, multi-campus course and how it has evolved over the years.

Koupelis noted that Science, Society, and Global Catastrophes was developed as a team-taught, interdisciplinary course that aimed to convey the nature, excitement, and role of scientific inquiry as a means of solving real-world problems. The course was organized around the exploration of past and possible future catastrophes that did and can affect our environment, including plagues, extinctions, global warming, ozone depletion, and collisions with space debris. The historical, scientific, and social aspects of each theme were examined from different perspectives, and solutions were proposed and analyzed. Because many of the issues involved unsolved questions about the natural world, the course revealed to students that science is a human endeavor inextricably linked to values, politics, and social factors and that its future course will depend on their engagement and involvement as informed citizens.

One of the main goals of the course was to help students understand how scientific knowledge is structured and how it develops, and how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. It illustrated the value and cost of the scientific enterprise and promoted rational examination of the appropriate public policy choices through the use of unsolved scientific problems and questions. The science content of the course included the physics of meteorites, asteroids, and comets, their role in planetary formation, and impacts with the Earth, epidemiological and statistical data on HIV disease in Africa and the chemistry of greenhouse gases. Mathematical calculations and statistical modeling techniques were used to explore various questions, such as the effectiveness of strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the rate and impact of human population growth, and the past and future effects of asteroid collisions on the Earth.

From "Catastrophes" to "Threats"
Science, Society, and Global Threats, as it is called now, has been taught continuously, once a year, for the past four years. But the course as it is taught today is not the same as it is originally taught. Koupelis explained that there have been a number of changes to the model since its inception (not the least of which was its name.)

"The main change," Theo said, "has been my departure (even though the course has a special place in my heart). I wanted to try something new and I have been involved more recently in teaching another interdisciplinary course on the Philosophy of Science with a colleague from our Philosophy Department. This endeavor," he continued, "has turned into an incredibly satisfying learning experience for both of us and draws a great number of students. I have also been working on creating another interdisciplinary course on Science, Society, and Technology."

Three faculty members continue to teach the model course. In its current form, students can take the 3-credit course to satisfy Associate Degree requirements in Geology, Biology, and Political Science. While the core of the course remains the same, new topics have been introduced. In lieu of the physics component, Theo said that his geology colleague now includes a section on the history of environmentalism in the post-war years, starting with Vannevar Bush's "Science - The Final Frontier" with all its optimism, and then showing how doubts begin to creep in with atomic testing and chemical environmental issues. With participation from a new political science colleague, the course focuses on the connections between environmental and policy issues (international issues and problems of the commons), and a more specific coverage of alternate energy policies. The biology section of the course now explores SARS, chronic wasting disease, anthrax, and smallpox. Finally, an out-of-class interactive computer simulation, created by professors of business, economics, political science and the Dean of Nursing, has been included on policies in Africa on HIV/AIDS.

Theo's experience suggests that models can (and do) evolve quite naturally - that a good course can be sustained despite a change in faculty members and the addition or subtraction of different disciplines.

Science, Society, and Global Threats