October 8, 2007

Students Explore Great Scientific Breakthroughs

First-Year Seminar provides students with working knowledge and historical context of discoveries that revolutionized society

There have been numerous scientific breakthroughs that have revolutionized society, but have some done more than others? This is the question Steve Kurtz, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is posing to students in his First-Year Seminar course “Great Breakthroughs.” The class is critically exploring and then ranking some of the most profound discoveries in science and technology.

  • Alec Bernstein ’11 Reflects on ‘Great Breakthroughs’ Course.

According to Kurtz, the scope of course includes great concepts (Newton’s laws of motion, theory of evolution, laws of thermodynamics, etc.), great achievements (the Apollo moon landing), great inventions of economic importance (the plow, irrigation, wastewater systems, the automobile, and the airplane), and great inventions of intellectual importance (the printing press and the world wide web).

Kurtz’s inspiration for the course came from the book 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium, which ranks the 1,000 most influential people of the past millennium.

“It’s a compelling idea to compare people of such vastly different ages who made such diverse impacts on the world,” Kurtz says. “Similarly, I felt that technological comparisons would result in a similarly interesting debate. For example, what is more important: Newton’s Second Law of Motion, or the atomic bomb? How does one even begin to make that comparison? How to we weigh the relative importance of scientific laws versus inventions of major economic importance versus great achievements of negligible importance to human welfare?”

The course’s central component is an in-class debate on this issue, which Kurtz will use to maximize his students’ critical thinking skills.

“The debate is ‘What are the great breakthroughs of human history?’” Kurtz explains. “This debate requires the comparison of inventions with concepts (is the automobile more important than Newton’s first law?). It requires the comparison of vastly different eras, and the comparison of breakthroughs that were great achievements, but benefited few (moon landing) versus breakthroughs that benefited many while lacking glamour (wastewater systems). These comparisons can only be made if students use sound evidence in thinking with clarity and precision.”

The course is also very hands-on. Labs sessions focus on dismantling and constructing the inventions and technology students are learning about in class. Kurtz’s aim is for his students to achieve a working knowledge of technology and the ability to apply the science as well as an understanding of the context of each breakthrough.

“I felt that the combination of working knowledge of technology and an understanding of historical context would lead to interesting debates,” says Kurtz.

Students in the course are Jeff Beatty (Milford, N.J.), Glen Beringer (Hockessin, Del.), Alec Bernstein (Colts Neck, N.J.), Tom Capotorto (Tobyhanna, Pa.), Max Glose (Buffalo, N.Y.), John Gotta (Parlin, N.J.), Will Karr (Yeadon, Pa.), Tyler Kempner (Seaford, N.Y.), Tommy Kondash (State College, Pa.), Zainab Nandawula (Mukono, Uganda), Marty Racenis (Hopkinton, Ma.), Katie Starkweather (Cincinnati, Ohio), Sarah Strang (Winter Haven, Fla.), Ross Tilchin (Bethesda, Md.), Tyler Turri (West Islip, N.Y.), and Andreas Wallner (Larchmont, N.Y.).

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