A Multi-Perspective Class Project at Oral Roberts University

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In 2001, Oral Roberts University launched an honors program. Unlike most honors programs, the ORU program is two-tiered, meaning that the top sixteen to eighteen students in every class are considered fellows and the rest of the students who meet the academic requirements are scholars. ORU requires both fellows and scholars to complete twenty-four hours of honors coursework through designated sections of general education classes. One unique aspect of the program is that the fellows are required to complete five of six special interdisciplinary honors seminars as part of their required twenty-four hours. These classes replace traditional general education courses like introductory English, humanities, and social sciences. Two departmental teachers work together to integrate their areas of specialty to create a cohesive synthesis. Disciplinary combinations include: art and English, mathematics and history, science and philosophy, and drama and English. Students find that these seminars provide a more challenging, interesting, and comprehensive educational experience as opposed to the ordinary introductory level courses. One of these classes, “History of Quantitative Thought,” was co-created by a faculty member from the mathematics department whose specialty is quantum field theory and by a colleague from the history, humanities, government department whose specific area of study is the ancient and modern Middle East. They first taught the course in the spring of 2003. The goal of the course was to teach the history of mathematics and in doing so give the students a feel and appreciation for the culture and times in which the mathematics developed. Objectives included a mastery of early number systems, an understanding of Babylonian and Egyptian quantitative thought and culture, a knowledge of Greek accomplishments with special emphasis on thinkers like Pythagoras and Euclid, an awareness of Asian mathematics and its context, and finally, a familiarity with mathematics in Europe during the medieval period. The course investigated the historical and cultural context behind the development of quantitative accomplishments. For example, the professors sought to help students understand the implications of significant mathematical accomplishments during an era without electricity (no computers, calculators, or electric lights), pens, or even paper. Because the object of the course was understanding the historical development of mathematics, it did not concentrate on developing specific quantitative skills but rather utilized the existing abilities of the honors-caliber students in the class. Students came from a variety of majors and mathematical backgrounds. While some students were engineering or mathematics majors, others had not done serious quantitative reasoning since high school. Understanding that mathematics can be frustrating for individuals with limited prior training, the professors sought to make the students’ academic diversity an asset rather than a liability by capitalizing on their multiple perspectives through a class project. The goal of this project was to have the students trace the conflict between science and religion from the ancient world through the early modern period over the earth’s shape, size and position relative to the stars. The class was divided into four groups, each with a variety of students whose educational background would complement each other. That is, each group contained one student with a major such as engineering or mathematics, one with religious studies, one focused on a science, and one or two students from another major. As a result, group dynamics contributed to a multi-faceted understanding of the subject matter. Through group collaboration and classroom presentation, the students worked together to enhance one another’s understanding of the material. Students with a strong science and mathematical background researched and gave an in-depth look at the quantitative side to the assigned subject, while others who understood religion presented an analysis of the church’s reaction to the science, and still others with an interest in history and culture examined the sociopolitical context of that science.