Two UNC professors from contrasting backgrounds are teaming up to teach “Time and the Medieval Cosmos,” a course that explores the historical connection between science and religion.
As part of the new Integrated Curricula program proposed by the University's five-year quality enrichment plan, the class will challenge students to learn the science and mathematics behind our solar system while, learning the mass rejection of these findings by medieval society.
Chris Clemens, senior associate dean for natural sciences at UNC, is the sciences and mathematics authority of this cooperative course. He said teaching in such a unique environment has given him a new perspective of ways to teach a subject.
“I’m an astronomer, and Brett is a historian, so he reads history in a way that I don’t know how to do,” Clemens said. “So I’ve been learning from him how to look at history, and context. But when he reads astronomy part of history, he doesn’t know the technical parts. And we get to go back and forth really, in front of the class, teaching the details that each of us are missing, to help understand the full story better.”
Clemens said the confrontational nature of both areas of study provided in this class teach students to consider multiple perspectives when conducting research, a skill he said students can apply to other courses at UNC.
“The answers are not all known, even on something that has been well-studied," Clemens said.
Brett Whalen, professor of history and director of Undergraduate Studies, works in conjunction with Clemens. Whalen provides the instruction of the historical segments of the course and their relations to the scientific discoveries of the time. Like Professor Clemmons, he spoke to the unique learning opportunity present in the course for both the students and professors.
“The value is that they get to see two professors who are themselves, engaging with the material in a new way," Whalen said. “It sounds a little bit cliché, but I feel like I’ve gone back to school, because I’m learning all sorts of new things in the class.”
Whalen said this is a great introductory course for incoming students, as it teaches to them practice various intellectual skills “at the drop of a hat.” With the course tasking them with research assignments, writing and various forms of collaborative work.
“One minute I will be teaching them how to read a primary source text, you're reading Columbus’ logbook, and think about his use of astronomy as a navigator in the 15th century,” Whalen said. “Then they will immediately have to switch over and start thinking about velocity and start calculating formulas for that. And normally you don’t have to do that in the same class. And it’s tricky and not easy, but I really think it helps push the students.”
Sarah Stevens, a first-year at UNC, is taking “Time and the Medieval Cosmos.” For her, the best part of the class has been their passion for teaching, as well as the open structure of the class.
“At first we would be going through a PowerPoint, but then that would deviate into a discussion about how black holes work," Stevens said. "That’s Professor Clemens."
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