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Emerging Disciplines, Evolving Coursework

Faculty innovation influences the classroom experience

Research by Dartmouth faculty not only creates knowledge within existing fields, it builds links between once-separate areas of study and translates into new academic programs for students. Three programs of study, two new and one recently redesigned, offer examples of how faculty research shapes what Dartmouth students experience in the classroom.

Fabio Pellacini & students
Fabio Pellacini (left) and his Projects in Digital Arts students (from left) Colin Treseler '09, Kevin Walker '08, Andrew Pinkham '09, and Thomas Donahoe '09. Dartmouth's new minor in digital arts draws on faculty from both the sciences and the arts to teach this emerging discipline. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Multiple perspectives
"In redesigning the biology major," reports Chair of Biological Sciences Thomas Jack, "we created an Introductory biology course (Biology 11) that is topics-based. The traditional introductory biology class at most colleges is a survey course that covers a wide range of topics. For Bio 11, we choose one topic and cover it in detail from multiple perspectives." Jack, who co-taught a Bio 11 course, DNA to Diversity, with Professor of Biology David Peart last fall, found that even though Bio 11 is an introductory course, "the problems I'm addressing in my laboratory and thinking about on a daily basis are integrated into the course material. That makes the course exciting to put together and to teach."

Jack notes that the course's goals are "to give students a sense of how biologists think about problems, and to share the excitement of scientific discovery. From the start, we're engaging students with the notion that the science isn't a done deal, which is especially important given that our students are able to start their own research very early in their careers here at Dartmouth."

Integrating ethics
Dartmouth's new minor in applied and professional ethics grows out of the work and research being done at the College's Ethics Institute. "In particular," notes Executive Director Aine Donovan, "the Ethics Institute faculty seminar that teaches methods of integrating ethics into the liberal arts curriculum has served as a foundation for many of the courses that may be counted towards the minor." Donovan points out that faculty from a wide range of disciplines list their courses as applicable to the minor: "government, education, economics, engineering, literature, to name just a few. The Sayles Fund for Faculty Research has also been a catalyst for new courses that have ethics as a key component."

Where science meets art
Dartmouth's new digital arts minor crosses the campus, as well as traditional academic boundaries, drawing faculty and courses from the Departments of Computer Science, Television and Film Studies, and Studio Art, as well courses in theater, music, and psychological and brain sciences.

You'd imagine that John Kemeny, Thomas Kurtz, and others who, from the 1960s on, advocated widespread computer literacy at Dartmouth would be pleased with a program that unites computer science with so many disciplines. That blend, Computer Science Research Professor Lorie Loeb suggests, brings two complementary streams of faculty research into the digital arts curriculum. Alongside the mathematics-based work of the computer scientists, she notes, many of the digital arts-associated faculty members are practicing artists, who bring their own evolving work and aesthetics into the classroom.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Fabio Pellacini points out that in a field undergoing rapid change, while it's important for students to learn how to work with the tools that are available at the moment, it's crucial to be open to learning how to work with what comes next and to know what questions to ask of a new technology. "From my own research," he says, "and from my work at Pixar Studios, if a student asks, 'Why can't we do this?', I can answer that it's already proven mathematically impossible, or that somebody is working on it.

"One really important thing I teach is knowing when to stop," he continues. "If, for example, an animation tool isn't giving the desired results in, say, 10 minutes, it is possible that it never will. By teaching fundamental concepts you can recognize why and when it's time to move on and try something else."

The habit of curiosity and the expectation of the same from their students are among the most enduring and valuable qualities that actively researching faculty bring to the classroom. For Dartmouth students, that's a lasting benefit of taking courses with faculty who are not only passing along the knowledge of their field, but exploring and expanding it as well.

by KELLY SEAMAN

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Last Updated: 5/30/08