Interdisciplinary programs like Science One invite people to live near the edges of their experience

Lee Gass

Interdisciplinary programs like Science One invite people to live near the edges of their experience, where knowledge is uncertain and understanding at the level students and faculty come to expect is elusive.

When I was teaching in Science One, members of the team spent a lot of time talking about individual students and collaborating in our work with them; ganging up on them if you will. A big benefit of true, real-time team teaching is that when one of us was “up” tending to the business of our discipline, the rest of us were paying attention. We paid attention to each other, and that sometimes generates fascinating discussions later. “What in the world were you trying to do when you did XYZ?”, one of us would ask. It wasn’t always easy to answer, or even to remember doing the thing in question, but because we knew our colleagues really wanted to understand, we gave the best answers we could come up with. Especially when we acted without a conscious strategy, those kinds of conversations took us to the edge and extended it.

We also paid attention to students and thought about what we saw, sometimes in ways that the one who was up wouldn’t notice. We would notice patterns in the kinds of questions individuals asked, for example, and talk about them in our weekly planning meetings. “What do you think Sally really wanted to know when she asked PQR in class today? Your response seemed perfect to me, but it went right over Sally’s head. I think something is going on with her…”

One day, early in the third year of Science One, the Director Julyet Benbasat said with a note of concern in her voice, “You’d better talk to Roger”, and I could read her feeling for Roger in her face. That began a series of events that had everything to do with living on the edge. The story that follows is about Roger Donaldson, but many similar sequences about other students unfolded regularly throughout the year.

“Roger doesn’t think he can do well in biology. He’s worried. He says biology is too hard for him. I encouraged him to talk with you about it.”

“What’s hard about biology?,” I said.

“I know, I know. I tried to reassure him, but he wouldn’t listen to me about it. He needs to talk with you.”

That was a strange thing for me to hear. How could Roger Donaldson have trouble with biology? He was a math and physics whiz who had competed internationally in those areas. He grew up in an academic family, he was used to arguing, he listened well and respectfully, and when he spoke, people listened carefully. He rarely spoke unless he had something to say, and what he said was usually interesting.

Day after day, Roger sat right in front of me with his hat on backwards, giving me an excellent chance to observe his engagement. As far as I could tell, he was fully and deeply involved continuously in whatever was happening in the class, and his intelligence and interest were palpable. For example, if someone made a mistake in class, Roger was likely to catch it as it was happening. With that background, it seemed strange to me that Roger would think he was in trouble in biology.

The next day, as I started in to Julyet’s office, I noticed that Roger was standing at her desk talking with her. I waited silently at the door, and Roger didn’t notice that I was there. As their conversation drew to a close, Roger began to back away from Julyet’s desk, but didn’t turn around and notice me until he was nearly to the door.

“Hi, Roger!,” I said at nearly point-blank range, and turned sideways in the doorway to let him by. He crab-walked toward the narrow gap I had left, and the closer he got the slower he moved. Before he knew it we were stuck, bellybutton to bellybutton and looking each other in the eye. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Roger said “I’d like to talk about something”, I said “How about now?”, and so we talked right there in Julyet’s doorway.

“I had a dream about you the other night. We were in a classroom, and you asked me a question I couldn’t answer. That bothered me, because it seemed like I should have been able to answer. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know some little fact, either - - you don’t ask many questions like that. It was that I didn’t understand. I realized that I didn’t know how to think about it. I got the horrible feeling that I can’t do biology.”

“What’s hard about biology, Roger?”

“Well, physics and mathematics are easy because you can solve them. But how to you solve biology? There are too many kinds of systems with too many variables, and it is never quite certain how they relate to each other. It’s too complex. I can’t do it. I don’t know how to think about it. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Aw, Roger,” I said. “Biology’s not hard. If it was hard, do you think they would have let me do it?”

That stopped him. He just stood there in the doorway with me for a while and thought about what I had said.

Gradually, he lightened, brightened, and then grinned at me, trying hard not to agree too enthusiastically with my assessment of my own ability. “Thanks,” he said, and crab-walked out into the hall. That was the last any of us heard about Roger’s disability in biology. He embraced complexity, embraced uncertainty, embraced his monumental ignorance about living systems, and got on with his life in Science One.

Like I said, that happened during the first few weeks of Roger’s university career. A lot happened in his life before Thanksgiving, and a lot more happened before Christmas. On the Christmas exam, I asked a doozie of a question, with no warning at all to help them prepare. Under the heading “Science” on the biology exam, I asked the students to

“Discuss the importance of imagination, invention, and creativity in science. Show how they function in scientific discovery. You may discuss examples from any scientific discipline. Include insights into how your creativity has aided you (or hindered you) this term in Science One”.

Here is how Roger responded, for about 10% of the credit on the exam. I haven’t edited what he wrote.
“Scientific thinking is an art in making associations between ideas. We take what we know (or in many cases, assume to be true) and associate ideas in some new way. Any new abstraction, by definition, is a creative form and should be celebrated as such. For example, Einstein’s attempt in a thought experiment to ride a light beam created contradictions that evolved to become the Special Theory of Relativity.

Abstractions are not limited by any means to the world’s greatest minds; even my own growing scientific mind is being shaped by creative connections. Through a study of shape, volume, and surface area, I connected the mass of a tree to the cross-sectional area of its roots and showed that a tree is bounded by a maximum mass. Further abstracting, this leads to greater conclusions that trade-offs exist everywhere in nature and even in the most complex systems, such optimizations show why the world is as it is.

Within abstractions, I have also discovered hindering assumptions. My tree example does not account for flexibility of materials or specific root absorption rates. These depend on unknown quantities. Thus I have also learned that abstractions must be taken in the context of our ignorance, lest they lead us astray.”

As this website was being constructed in spring 2008, Roger was completing his PhD in mathematics at Cal Tech.