Design and Implementation of a Synchronous-Online University Course on Mass Extinctions for Non-STEM Majors

Friday, 11 December 2020
David A Boness, Seattle University, Department of Physics, Seattle, WA, United States
With growing evidence of societal misinformation about science it is increasingly important to help college and university undergraduate students not majoring in STEM fields gain some real understanding of what science is as a process and way of knowing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, and undoubtedly after, there is a need for engaging online-only courses that help students understand what science can and cannot do and how the scientific process leads to advances in human understanding even while being done by scientists who often disagree and who operate in a broader societal context. A particularly rich topic for a non-STEM majors science course is the topic of mass extinctions (past and present) because of the extreme interdisciplinarity, the profound importance in understanding how the world is, and the relevance to the students’ present and future lives. At Seattle University we will have taught before the 2020 AGU Fall Meeting during the fall 2020 quarter (ending November 24) a new synchronous-online University Core 3800 Mass Extinctions course, with students majoring in humanities, social sciences, and business enrolled. The course design and implementation results will be presented. A central component of the course is that students primarily read scientific papers published in journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS, along with the book Extinction by Doug Erwin, and synchronous online class time over Zoom is a mix of short instructor lecture and interactive discussion to unpack the challenging concepts and techniques of the papers, as well as student reporting on readings and online asynchronous lecture material. Much of the online synchronous class time touches on scientific debates over evidence and mass extinction causality, such as debates over volcanism, asteroid impact, associated climate change, ocean anoxia, sea level change, anthropogenic land use and greenhouse gas emission, and so forth. In addressing steps towards mitigating the so-called current “sixth mass extinction,” students design policy proposals in small groups and present them over Zoom.