Collegiate Contests and Intellectual Inquisitions
24 December 2006 (collegiateway.org) — Research on undergraduate physics education has shown that university students often maintain two completely different sets of physical laws in their heads: the system of Newtonian mechanics with its principles of force and motion, which they can draw upon in the classroom when called on by the instructor; and the incommensurable Aristotelian system of natural states and impulses, which is how they continue to think about the world as soon as they leave the room. If you stop them on the street and ask them to explain a flying bird or a rolling ball, Aristotelian folk-physics is what you get, because, well, everybody knows that Newtonian mechanics only applies in the classroom, not in the real world. Sheesh!
Split-brained students of this kind are what we produce in all disciplines if the classroom is the only place where we teach. To get our students to think like scholars—to get them to see the ideas and principles they learn in the classroom at work in the everyday world—we have to model that kind of scholarly thinking for them. If the classroom is the only place we ever see students, that can be very hard. But in a residential college setting, where life and learning should seamlessly blend, it’s easy to model scholarly thinking. And one of the simplest ways to do it is by means of ever-running, never-ending contests and quizzes. Here’s how.
First, to be successful in this enterprise you must have an existing means of regular informal communication with your residential college members, such as a weekly college newsletter, a blog, or an email list. Without that it’s hard to make progress.
Once regular communication has been established, just include in your collegiate bulletins a weekly or otherwise occasional intellectual quiz, with the prize being a luxury chocolate bar available for the winner in the college office. Getting them to come to you in person is important: it’s one more opportunity for contact and encouragement within the community. Indeed, it’s better to set up a sheet on the office door for quiz answers, rather than allowing answers to be emailed: that will have people racing down to the office each week as soon as the quiz is posted.
What sort of questions should you ask? Nowadays simple factual questions are often very easy to answer via Google, so you have to be more devious than in days of yore.
Here’s a good and timely example that presented itself today; it’s just the sort of thing that would work well with clever students. (Quizzes that connect classroom learning to world events and anniversaries are especially effective.) I offer it now as a genuine quiz for my Collegiate Way readers: the first person to email me with the correct answer to each question below will win eternal fame by being acknowledged directly on this page, and will receive an Authentic Replica of a luxury chocolate bar in return:
Today, Christmas Eve 2006, is the 100th anniversary of a defining moment in modern history: the first public radio transmission of music and the human voice. Although wireless broadcasts had been made as early as 1896, they were initially used only to transmit Morse code: dots and dashes. But on December 24th, 1906, Reginald Fessenden powered up a specially-modified wireless transmitter he had been developing, and from a point of land called Brant Rock on the coast of Massachusetts, he beamed through the night to ships across the North Atlantic, the largo from Handel’s opera Serse.
In what famous twentieth-century American play does the largo from Serse also appear?
Just a few years after Fessenden’s broadcast, Serse (the man, not Serse the piece of music) appeared in one of A.E. Housman’s greatest poems, in a brief flash that offers us something a bit more realistic than Handel’s portrayal. Housman doesn’t use his name, though. What does Housman call him?
The clock is ticking. Fame and chocolate await.