2009 Seminars

“Live and in Color:  A Scientific and Human Approach to Color”
Ruth Beeston, Professor of Chemistry, Davidson College
The focus of this seminar is an interdisciplinary exploration of “color”: where it comes from, how we perceive it, and the many ways it impacts the human experience.  A fundamental understanding of the nature and sources of color requires some knowledge of the properties of light and its interactions with surfaces: reflection, refraction, transmission, and absorption.  But why are some substances brightly colored and others white, or black, or colorless?  How are pigments and dyes different from other substances on the molecular level?  What role does the illuminating light source play in revealing the color of an object?   How are colors combined to give new hues?  Many of these questions can be addressed with inquiry based activities; seminar meetings will include an assortment of hands-on experiments that explore light, additive and subtractive color mixing, color un-mixing, spectroscopy, and the chemistry of pigments and dyes.

Color obviously plays a critical role in the visual arts.  What are the sources of colored materials used by artists through the ages?  How has the availability of pigments influenced artistic style and convention?  How has the relationship between artists and their materials, evolved?  What stories and meanings are associated with (among many other exotic and ordinary substances) ultramarine (prepared by a painstaking process from lapis lazuli and worth more than gold), Indian yellow (produced from the urine of cows fed only the leaves of mango trees), and the vibrant new transition metal compounds first available as pigments to the Impressionist artists?  How has the quest to please our senses led to the discovery of natural dyes from roots, leaves,  insects,  and snails (the most brilliant of which were reserved for royalty) and to the advent of synthetic organic chemistry?  These questions can be explored through a variety of written sources, as well as the examination of artworks and the creation of our own “cave paintings” and frescoes, using traditional historical palettes.

To consider color only in terms of photons, waves, and excited electrons, or only in terms of paint splashed on a canvas, does not give a complete picture.  Color is a phenomenon that happens in our eyes and brains.  It is the human mind that converts light of varying compositions into color signals and provides associations between colors, objects, memories, and emotions.  What role does color play in fashion, gardening, food, and marketing?  How do colored lights set moods in theatre?  How has color helped us to cope in our material world (what would we be unable to do if we only saw the world in shades of gray)?  What systems have been developed for describing and organizing color?  The basic biology and psychology of color vision will be covered in this seminar (perhaps with guest “lecturers”), and these questions will be explored through online and laboratory demonstrations, field trips, and a heightened awareness to colors around us.  Participants may want to keep a color journal and/or use a digital camera to record colorful encounters or previously unnoticed color relationships.

Other potential topics include color in nature (protective coloration, fall foliage, gemstones…), comparative cultures/religions (festivals, flags, nonwestern traditions), literature/poetry, and linguistics (the evolution of color words in a civilization tends to follow a particular pattern).  The theme of color can be pursued from many directions, forming the basis for curriculum units in a variety of science or non-science fields and for any age group.

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.

“‘Performing’ Experiments:  Exploring Depictions of Science in Theater”
Ann Fox, Professor of English, Davidson College
Science?  Drama? What could the two possibly have to do with one another? After all, the “theaters” we’ll engage in this seminar would, at first glance, seem distinctly removed from one another.  The laboratory and the medical theater: more often than not, they are seen by most of us as the world of dispassionate and practical research, the domain of facts and scientific enquiry.  Their “actors,” researchers and healers, inventors and explorers, are imagined to act in splendid isolation.   What results is of direct, measurable benefit to humankind: medicines, technologies, and changes in thinking that radically reshape our lives in so many ways.  Theater, by contrast, is seen as the world of feeling, fantasy, spectacle, escape, and glorious impracticality.  And while there may be stars of the stage, they can’t make their work without the designers, directors, and cast members around them.  We all enjoy the theater to a greater or lesser extent, but we’re not quite as sure how to measure its benefits beyond sheer entertainment. The scientific method, it would seem, is a world away from method acting.

But what happens if we test the hypothesis that the opposite is true? What might science and theater have in common, and have to say to one another? The divide between the two worlds, it turns out, is not as pronounced as we might think.  Or as one science historian put it in a Wired magazine article on science in drama: “No medium can better convey the immediacy of emotions, and science, after all, entails not only cold logic, but also cauldrons of hot passion.”  And beside this rather juicy point, there are a number of other things drama and science have in common: they both spring from a wellspring of imagination and utterly depend on creative processes; they both rely on collaboration among many people to bring their results to fruition; they both allow their risk-taking participants to trust themselves, and to let failure be a teacher rather than something to be feared; and they both create questions about what makes up our essential humanity, and try to provide answers.  Not surprisingly, then, although we may not have been aware of it, dramatists have long been obsessed with science and its leading men and women, creating works that explore their foibles and depict their methods, in plays by turns serious and hilarious.

The question that launches our seminar is, then: in what kinds of ways has the stage been used for the exploration of science? It has raised a series of important questions: about the creative process, how questions get shaped and how knowledge gets made; the histories of science, medical crises, and scientific controversy; the role of the scientist in society; and the motivations behind and ethics of medical and scientific inquiry.  And sometimes, science is the way into having larger discussion about other issues important to our community and our culture (so, for example, the story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the play Miss Evers’ Boys becomes a way to take a hard look at racism in America).

The next question, of course, is:  why does looking at science in theater matter? It’s not the only way to have conversations about the ideas above, but because theater is a live, performed work of art, there’s an immediacy and communal quality to the discussion that doesn’t happen anywhere else.  Drama humanizes science, making the scientist something more than a (to quote one of my colleagues in the sciences)  “nerd, freak, or outright menace to society.”  In our technological age, building a bridge between the sciences and the humanities, and exploring the creative processes common to them both, has never been more urgent than it is today.

Teachers of all disciplines and grade levels are welcome and will benefit; while no experience reading, interpreting, or performing in plays is necessary, be prepared to engage with filmed and live performances—and perhaps do a little impromptu, in-seminar acting of your own!  We will read a wide range of plays, some by playwrights you may know, and others by playwrights with whom you may be unfamiliar.   How you construct a curriculum unit from this seminar will be up to you, but I will encourage you to use our subject—and especially the devices it uses and the questions it raises—as a springboard to think creatively.

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.

“Innocence Lost:  Children in War and Conflict”
Oscar Lansen, Senior Lecturer, History, UNC Charlotte

Innocence Lost: Children in War and Conflict will give participants the opportunity to explore the causes, expressions, and effects of modern war and conflict on children as perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Using childhood memoirs, primary source materials, eyewitnesses, and case studies participants analyze and discuss the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany, Jewish child refugees and concentration camp prisoners in the Holocaust, child victims of the Vietnam War, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, youth gang members in the United States, victims of ethnic violence in Rwanda, child suicide bombers in the Middle East, and children on opposing sides in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In consultation with the seminar leader and seminar coordinator, participants will decide on special focus issues pertinent to their field, classroom level, and interest. These may include the legal parameters and state sponsorship of child soldiering, the use of art and poetry in rehabilitation, the role of the church in war and conflict, psychological trauma and treatment of war victims, child survivors in the classroom, violence in school, etc.

This seminar is eminently suited for teachers of history, english, visual and performing arts, psychology, political science; as well as others interested in using “peer” sources and reflection with high school students. Seminar meetings will focus around a weekly subject. Time will be divided between content deepening, discussion of readings, and collective participant-driven exploration of pertinent issues. The reading list will consist of a series of childhood memoirs, augmented with expert analysis, primary documents, government and NGO reports, and audio/visual sources. Several eyewitnesses will visit the seminar meetings.

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.

“Understanding Fundamental Ideas in Mathematics at a Deep Level”
Harold Reiter, Professor of Mathematics, UNC Charlotte
A number of mathematicians and mathematics education researchers have recognized the special nature of the mathematical knowledge needed for K-12 teaching and its implications for the mathematical preparation of teachers. In particular, the interviews with Chinese elementary teachers in Liping Ma’s 1999 book Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics awakened many mathematicians to this issue and its mathematical substance. The mathematics to which U.S. schoolchildren are exposed from preschool through eighth grade has many aspects. However, at the heart of preschool, elementary school, and middle school mathematics is the set of concepts associated with the term number. Children learn to count, and they learn to keep track of their counting by writing numerals for the natural numbers. They learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole numbers, and later in elementary school they learn to perform these same operations with common fractions and decimal fractions. They use numbers in measuring a variety of quantities, including the lengths, areas, and volumes of geometric figures. From various sources, children collect data that they learn to represent and analyze using numerical methods. The study of algebra begins as they observe how numbers form systems and as they generalize number patterns. Mathematics is often taught in elementary school as a set of algorithms without developing the conceptual understanding needed to move to higher levels. US teachers often have very good procedural understanding of the arithmetic of integers, fractions and decimals, yet a profound conceptual understanding in teachers is essential, as they must provide their students with this needed understanding for reaching algebra and even higher levels of mathematical thinking.

This seminar aims to show participants that deep understanding of elementary ideas like place value is attainable in elementary classrooms, and that one way to cultivate this understanding is through irresistible problems. The seminar takes the position that learning mathematics can be motivated by interesting problems. The trick is to come up with problems whose solutions either require or strongly motivate the development of the area of mathematics to be learned. One could also take the position that mathematics is about problem solving.

Fortunately, there are plenty of arithmetic and geometric problems that motivate the need for algebraic thinking. And on top of that, solving interesting mathematical problems in an appropriate social setting can really be fun. Have a look at the problems below. You might not be able to solve any of them on the fly. But with two or three partner teachers, you can solve them all. Some of the problems below can be used to build entire lessons. For example, the first problem could motivate the entire section on place-value.

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.