Unique science course blends three disciplines into one lab

Interdisciplinary Studies 137 was offered at Augustana in the Winter 2018 three-week term as a science credit course for non-science students.

Tia Lalani - 06 February 2018

Students in professor Blockland's physics section test tuning forks to find the frequency.

What could observing germ transfer, discovering the frequency of unlabeled tuning forks, and measuring the eruption of diet coke after a Mentos has been popped into the bottle all have in common? They make perfect experiments, of course, covering the sciences of biology, physics, and chemistry. What do they have in common at Augustana? You get to experience all of them in a single class.

As part of the new calendar, Interdisciplinary Studies 137 began this year as a three-credit course in the Winter 2018 three-week term. The course number, 137, is a reference to the fine structure constant (nearly equal to 1/137) which is "the measure of the strength of the electromagnetic force that governs how electrically charged elementary particles and light interact" (NIST Reference). You don't need to know that in order to take this course. In fact, if you did, you probably wouldn't be allowed to enrol in it.

IDS 137: Science Laboratory Experiences was specifically created for non-science students. There are no prerequisites, aside from an opposite condition: enrollment is closed to students who have six or more total credits in biology, chemistry, environmental studies, or physics.

"This is a class for students who need science credits, but who are intimidated by lab courses," explained one of 137's three professors, Brian Rempel, who teaches chemistry at Augustana and was responsible for all of the Mentos explosions. "We're not teaching content, we're teaching how scientists think and learn about the world. Students come into this class and see the scientific process. They leave thinking, 'this is what chemists [or biologists or physicists] do'."

A pair of students measure the fizz height (not the technical term) diet coke reaches under different variables once mentos have been added.

Rempel, alongside physics professor Ian Blokland and biology professor Sheryl Gares, spent time in the summer developing this course, which included one week in each of their lab sections for a total of three weeks, twelve-or-so experiments, countless lab reports, and students who were enjoying as much as they were learning.

"It's been great!" exclaimed Leanne, a fourth-year psychology major looking for science credits. "It's very hands-on which is a different kind of learning, but it hasn't been overwhelming."

Lavencia, a first-year kinesiology student, agreed. "I learned a lot, and I'm way more comfortable in a lab setting now."

Many of the students in the course previously had limited experience, usually from high school, in a lab setting, and found that the three weeks were manageable.

Brendan and Torrenz, both first-year psychology majors, were a little less enthusiastic about lab courses in general, saying that if they had to take one for the full semester they might not have had the same positive experience.

That, however, was exactly the point of the course.

"These experiments were built to be intuitive," explained professor Blokland. "Anyone who has read through the course material can complete them."

And the three professors weren't marking based on perfect results, but rather, on whether the students completed things like pre-lab questions, lab records, lab reports, and data analysis.

Blokland was impressed by his students who excelled at some experiments to a greater degree than he had seen science students do in the past because they had a different way of thinking about an experiment. The tuning fork experiment, for example, was a piece of cake for his section that included a large number of music majors.

"Overall, it seems like the students had a good experience," said Gares. "It was also a great way to offer students a first-hand look at the experimental process to figure out what they might want to pursue if science becomes a part of their future."