Art meets science, and vice versa

It has been said that while cooking is an art, baking is a science, but maybe each contains elements of the other. Maybe there is no distinct line between the two.

By Colleen MacPherson

It is an idea that will be explored in a new first-year class being offered this fall in the College of Arts and Science. The Art and Science of Almost Everything will be a discipline sampler for students, explained Gordon DesBrisay, "a way to introduce discipline options by demonstrating them."

In its first offering, the course will explore the topic of beauty "although it could just as easily have been fire, or light or disease." Nine faculty members from a range of disciplines—astronomy, biology, psychology, art history, English, computer science and so on—will each do a unit consisting of two lectures about what beauty looks like to them.

"This course has been years in the making," said DesBrisay. "It's tied to curriculum renewal and really came from our first-year curriculum renewal committee. Our curriculum is one of the most Byzantine on Earth, but the diversity of our programs also means it's full of rich opportunities, and renewal is about unleashing the opportunities we have. This course reflects who we are as a college."

There were some partic- ular challenges in setting up the course, he said. It will be open to students with fewer than 30 credits and will be taught as one large section in this fall's pilot. It will be writing intensive but also include discussion groups. Each of the nine units will have an assignment devised in such a way that it can be marked by a team of teaching assis- tants who will remain constant throughout the course.

Deciding where The Art and Science of Almost Everything sits in the revised curriculum also took some time.

"It's categorized as a general elective and will apply to any degree but it doesn't meet the particular criteria for any degree so it's something of a hybrid."

For faculty members who have signed on to teach a unit, DesBrisay described it as a rare opportunity. "You get to talk about the stuff that really gets your heart thumping, and then you get to walk away because you have a day job. Think of this as a prestigious week of volunteerism and an energizing labour of love."

There was no shortage of people willing to get involved, he said, calling the group "an all-star dream team." He stressed, though, that the course "is definitely not an incoherent mishmash under the guise of interdisciplinarity. We want this to be a showcase course for the college. We want to help students think about multiple academic disciplines in interesting ways that inform their own choices."

DesBrisay said he would ultimately like to see The Art and Science of Almost Everything initiative expand to include a capstone seminar course in the final year of students' programs, a revisiting of broad perspectives on a single topic but with "senior students from different corners of the college bringing their disciplinary expertise to bear on a designated problem facing the world. It's on the agenda for future discussions."

For DesBrisay, the course's success will come in helping students find their passion but also in showing them what are likely unfamiliar levels of intellec- tual energy.

"We want to expose them to what real passion about a subject and real expertise can lead to. Students may never have seen that before; they don't necessarily know what it means to deeply know something. Or what an exciting prospect that is."