Innovations in Education – July 2020

Editor’s note: Innovations abound in our discipline as evidenced by the two articles in this section. In the first, Phillip Sloan (Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame) tells about taking history of science to a most unusual audience, and in the second, Paola Bertucci (Yale University) shares details of a website created as a final project along with the students of a graduate seminar, when the COVID-19 lockdown made it impossible for her to teach her class as she usually would have.

History of Science Within the Walls 

by Phillip R. Sloan

The re-entry of individuals with felony convictions into the community is difficult. Rates of recidivism—relapse into criminal behavior—in the United States are shocking, estimated at over 60%. One effective way to address this issue has been to offer education and training to prison inmates, as evidenced by the dramatic drop in recidivism rates generally to below 10% in graduates of college in prison programs.

In 2012 the Holy Cross College of Notre Dame and the University of Notre Dame created the Moreau College Initiative (MCI) at the Westville Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Westville, Indiana, in collaboration with New York’s Bard College Prison Initiative.

Students of the 2016 life sciences course taught at the Westville Correctional Facility, with their teachers, Br. Lawrence Unfried (center) and the author (second from right).  Photograph by Peter Ringenberg.

Students of the 2016 life sciences course taught at the Westville Correctional Facility, with their teachers, Br. Lawrence Unfried (center) and the author (second from right).  Photograph by Peter Ringenberg.

Offering two- and four-year degree programs to students serving between three and ten years, the MCI currently boasts 55 students with an approximately 60 percent ethnic minority composition. In the years since its inception, the program has developed its own signature curriculum, and is staffed by faculty and advanced graduate students from the two participating institutions.

I became involved with the MCI in 2013, developing courses in the history and philosophy of science as a way to assist in teaching the biology, physics and chemistry courses offered in our curriculum. Such classes pose a particular problem for our students because many of them have had no scientific or mathematical training. Moreover, traditional laboratory classes are difficult, if not impossible, to conduct. Another, more generalized problem is that unlike colleges, students have no ready access to internet sources.  

I have now completed three semester-long courses, two in biology and one in mathematics, physics and astronomy. My approach to all of them is based on the pedagogy developed in the science component of my home department, Notre Dame’s great books major, the Program of Liberal Studies

The biological science course, titled, “The Science of Life” ran concurrently with a parallel first-year level college biology course, and students were encouraged to cross-register for both. In this case, I had excellent results linking the history and philosophy of the life sciences with general biology using the text, Biology: The Network of Life, developed over a twenty-five year period by two biologists and former HSS President Paul Farber for the General Science curriculum at Oregon State University. This text couples its presentations of contemporary life science with Farber’s detailed and accurate commentary on issues in their history and philosophy, and was supplemented with a substantial reader of selections from primary sources along with my commentaries. 

Each of this course’s five units was accompanied by some kind of practical or laboratory component. For example we opened with the exploration of basic concepts in the philosophy of science, utilizing a “white can” experiment developed by my Notre Dame colleague Michael Crowe. From here we moved to in-class observations on pulsation and breathing; these observations, along with readings from texts from antiquity in medicine and basic physiology, formed the background for a detailed study of William Harvey’s treatise on the circulation of the blood. Also in this section we read portions of the papers of Antoine Lavoisier and Pierre Simon LaPlace on animal heat and respiration. 

Perhaps the most effective linkage between biology and history was achieved in the unit on genetics, where we were able to integrate discussions of Mendel and early chromosomal genetics with some simple laboratory work on yeast, corn, and fruit flies. Another substantial unit concentrated on Darwin’s work including the reading of substantial portions of the Origin of Species and his contemporary critics, and culminating in a “Darwin debate” in which the students role-played the positions of several of the great actors in this historical debate. We ended the course with a discussion of issues involved in understanding scientific change and development, focused by a reading of the Structures of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn and criticisms of his analysis. 

Unlike the biology course, the newer “Mathematical Cosmos” course is free-standing, although it too is intended to assist students taking the regular courses in physics and mathematics. Because of the weak mathematical preparation of many of the students, the course opened with a unit devoted to working through all of Book I of Euclid’s Elements, with a valuable commentary by Michael Crowe. With this background we have subsequently been able to read and analyze a selection of primary texts by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, utilizing Michael’s excellent Mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein, supplemented by my own materials. I have been impressed with how much the students have gained from this course, even with the interruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, which forced me to move to a “recorded lectures” format, and abbreviate the final portion of my syllabus on more recent physics. 

In my years of teaching at the MCI I have found my students to be mature, eager to learn, with considerable time to devote to study. Housed in their own dormitory, they are able to help one another with difficult materials. Some upperclassmen have served as my teaching assistants. It has been my distinct privilege to bring my own expertise and learning in the history of science to this underserved and often ignored, sector of our population. I would be pleased to share syllabi and other materials with any interested. Contact me at

Pandemic Disruptions and Teaching Innovations 

by Paola Bertucci

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I was teaching a graduate seminar on the visual and material cultures of science. The seminar was meant to get the students to work on the little known, yet superb, collection of artifacts in the History of Science and Technology Division of Peabody Museum at Yale. I was blessed with a particularly heterogeneous, creative group of students—coming not only from the History of Science and Medicine Program, but also from Art History, Physics, East Asian Studies, English, Divinity School, and School of Architecture—and was eager to get their input on this collection. During the first part of the semester, the students familiarized themselves with the questions and methods of visual and material studies of science. I had envisioned the second part of the semester as an exploration of the HST collection, whereby the students would work hands-on on the instruments, approach one or more from the perspective of their own discipline, and present a creative project or a traditional paper centered on the instrument of their choice. 

The pandemic made all of this impossible, and the transition to online teaching challenged me to think of other ways to complete the seminar. I tried to turn the problem into an opportunity, and the frustration into an inspiration: What could we do thanks to the present situation, rather than in spite of it? I wanted the class to focus on a project that would acknowledge the present and help us understand it better. The history of science prepares us to ask questions about scientific and political authority, trust, expertise and evidence; all topics that are crucial to understanding our present. Epidemics, on their part, magnify social inequalities and conflicting interpretations of what “public” health should be for. So, I thought that the students could direct their browsing towards exploring moments in the past with those questions in mind. Since we were working on the visual and material cultures of science, it made sense to turn our attention to the visual and material history of epidemics. One of my goals was to give some direction to the compulsive browsing we were all doing. It is easy to lose motivation when the present becomes overwhelming and physical distancing makes it even harder to feel engaged. That is why I thought that a collective project could be the right solution. 

The idea of a website came from the students. One of them volunteered to design it and helped the other students to create their pages. We gathered online to discuss work in progress and exchange feedback. We shared knowledge, hopes, frustrations, and concerns and were happy with the end result. 

The launching page of Epidemic Histories, created by the author and her graduate students

The launching page of Epidemic Histories, created by the author and her graduate students

Epidemic Histories is a website about epidemics past and present. It focuses on material and visual sources organized around themes that emerged from our collective interests. Each contribution is signed by its author and includes references to primary and secondary sources. Visitors can find accessible materials for teaching, or, more generally, for reflecting about how people live and have lived with epidemics, the various forms that racism takes in times of crisis, how containment strategies reflect conceptions of the state, the double standards that are in place in the celebration or stigmatization of health care professionals, the moral messages implicit in artistic representations of death and disease, and more. 

It is still very much a work in progress and I will use it again in my teaching. I wish to express my gratitude to the students who contributed to this project. It helped me navigate the lockdown as much as it helped them. 

Here is what the graduate students have to say:

Jessikah Diaz: Working on the Epidemic Histories website was an excellent way to study the implications of a pandemic—without focusing solely on the one we’re currently living in. 

Kristine Ericson: The website became a tool for us to continue thinking about visual culture at a time when all of our interactions were moving online. As soon we were unable to visit the museum collections in person and were physically separated from one another, it only made sense to translate our work to a digital format.

Iris Giannakopoulou: Epidemics, as all major crises, lay bare the problems, obstacles and injustices of our systems. Not only our health, social, political and economic systems, but also the epistemological, scientific and more broadly cultural structures of our societies. Epidemic Histories is our collective effort to learn from the past, understand the present challenge and hopefully contribute to a better future.

Michaela Haffner: The Epidemic Histories website was a fantastic project that spurred us to think about the current pandemic through a historical lens. The spittoon, in particular, enabled me to delve into the experience of tuberculosis at the turn of the twentieth century by studying an innovative development in material culture. The spittoon not only illuminated emergent public health practices for disease containment, but the small sputum receptacle also revealed how objects regimented and choreographed patient behavior—much like masks do today—and how medical objects can be domesticated and assimilated into everyday life.

Julia Holz: Initially for my final project I was drawn to the idea of examining a sewing machine in the Peabody collection, exploring the idea of devices that are seen differently because they are primarily associated with the home. Once our course moved online, I tried to reimagine this theme in the context of mask making during times of pandemic and how domestic work could be an important way for people to feel engaged and useful during a situation that made one feel quite powerless. Reading about mask making in the 1918 influenza pandemic and how similar it was in comparison to today also unexpectedly made me feel a sense of hopeful connection to those who have endured times of epidemic in the not so distant past.

Alicia Petersen: Following the outbreak of COVID-19, I was feeling uninterested in studying early modern Europe, which is a problem I never thought I’d have! But reaching back into the distant past felt trivial when faced with current, human suffering. Epidemic Histories helped me to reconnect to my work by analyzing past coping mechanisms for death and disease for insights into our present circumstances. 

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