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MHC French professor Margaret Switten and Robert Eisenstein, director of the Five College Early Music Program, look at a medieval manuscript page using the CD-ROM they developed.

The faces staring from the digital high-resolution computer screen are centuries old. Garbed in colorful royal robes and knightly headgear, the men and women are framed by Gothic arches. The professor's mouse highlights the text that surrounds them, and medieval language is translated into twenty-first century English. A move of the cursor, and the classroom is filled with music and lyrics written eight hundred years ago to help tell the story recorded by a bygone scribe, and the colorful illuminated page of a medieval manuscript is replaced with a detail of an abbess's hand or a courtier's facial expression. Suddenly the medieval world does not seem so very far away. The thirteenth-century court of Alfonso X, the Learned, has come alive in a Mount Holyoke classroom.

Across Mount Holyoke's campus, innovative pedagogical approaches such as this one are opening new windows into spheres as diverse as the medieval world, ecosystems of campus vernal pools (seasonal pools that provide wildlife habitats), and statistical methodology. Course material is being approached through vitalizing curricula, using the latest technology, in classrooms not limited by walls.

Says Donal O'Shea, dean of the faculty, "Many aspects of teaching at Mount Holyoke have remained unchanged since the College's founding--an emphasis on challenging students to think for themselves and on academic excellence. Building on this foundation, innovations in scientific equipment, advances in technology, and programs that encourage hands-on and interdisciplinary learning have provided new tools with which to stimulate learning and provide a broader range of experience." What follows is a small slice of what's going on inside the College's classrooms.

French professor Margaret Switten, who specializes in medieval language and poetry, and Robert Eisenstein, director of the Five College Early Music Program, are using technology to bring the medieval experience into the classroom. A grant
from the National Endowment for the Humanities Teaching with Technology Program is enabling Switten and Eisenstein to develop an innovative interdisciplinary CD-ROM that approaches the medieval lyric as a fusion of music and words. The CD incorporates audio and text materials from manuscripts dating from the late eleventh to the fourteenth centuries.

When completed, the CD will disseminate a variety of medieval source materials not readily available in this country, coupled with explanatory information that makes the materials accessible to teachers and students. The program is currently being tested around the country and has been used in two Mount Holyoke courses so far.

Mohini Sridharan '00 has been sharing a lab with Sean Decatur, assistant professor of chemistry, since her first year at Mount Holyoke and has immersed herself in independent research in Decatur's area of specialization--the study of how protein molecules fold. This biological process is fundamental to life and plays a crucial role in energy production, metabolism, and the use of DNA information.

Through her work with Decatur, Sridharan has honed her skills as a scientist while making valuable contributions to cutting-edge research. She has also been inspired to pursue a Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, in the fall of 2000.

This year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Decatur a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program grant of more than $400,000, an award that supports exceptionally promising college and university junior faculty who are committed to the integration of research and education. This four-year grant, one of several high-profile grants awarded to Decatur, will provide Mount Holyoke chemistry students with the opportunity to work with him synthesizing and purifying proteins and performing spectroscopic measurements.

"Doing independent research has enabled me to learn how to think actively about an interesting problem in biology and to mature as a scientist," says Sridharan. The student/faculty relationship is mutually beneficial, says Decatur. "Students often push research in new and different directions. They make important intellectual contributions to the work and help push it forward."

George Cobb, a leader in the area of statistics reform who has chaired the Mathematical Association and American Statistical Association's Joint Committee on Undergraduate Statistics since 1991, believes that statistics is "almost impossible to learn unless you get your hands dirty."

Statistics 140, taught by Cobb and offered for the first time in fall 1999, made use of an innovative hands-on curriculum that Cobb and two colleagues designed and are outlining in Statistics in Action, a textbook to be published in 2001. Cobb, Robert L. Rooke Professor of Statistics, uses a variety of unusual activities to teach students the basics of statistical methods, ranging from experimental design to regression analysis.

In one exercise, a catapult was used to launch gummy bears in the air, exploring such principles as sources of variability, the value of protocol to keep things constant, and the use of randomization to protect against bias. During data collection, students contended with catapult misfires and the most effective way to record them. Cobb maintains that when students have a hand in creating data, they are more interested in analyzing them and learn from being part of the production process.

English major Sarah H. McKinney '00, who was initially apprehensive about Statistics 140 because math is not her strength, did fine. Says McKinney, "The experiments not only made the class more entertaining, but they were a useful way to illustrate basic statistics."

Emily Monosson, visiting assistant professor at Mount Holyoke's Center for Environmental Literacy, has designed a new multidisciplinary course to explore water--from humans' needs to the importance of water in ecosystems ranging from aquatic to desert. The class will look at the historical role of water in driving human settlement, exploration, and development, which will lead into an examination of how humans have portrayed water through art and literature. Finally, the group will turn to the College's local watershed--the Connecticut River, examining it through an ecological, historical, artistic, and personal lens.

The technological lens is providing new ways of looking at ancient history. Using the Web, students in lecturer Megan Williams's spring-semester religion class, Magic and Astrology in Greco-Roman Religion, pursued answers to questions such as Who were the worshippers of Mithras? What spells did the Greeks and Romans cast to lure lovers? Why was it once forbidden by law to divine the horoscopes of emperors? The class centered around the ancients' most private spiritual preoccupations and practices—those that occurred on rooftops and in graveyards. A major component of the course was the creation of a class Web site, for which students researched topics, ranging from the study of horoscopes in Greek antiquity to the ancient magician's working library, and scanned visual imagery, such as ancient art, coins, and drawings. Visit the site here.

Mount Holyoke classes are not only extending beyond the College's classrooms via the Web, but are also expanding outdoors xinto the campus landscape. Under the auspices of the Center for Environmental Literacy (CEL), students and faculty are inventorying habitats and animal and plant life on campus. As a first step in this process, Peter Houlihan, CEL program coordinator, and students spent the spring surveying and certifying campus vernal pools, which provide a spring home to a wide variety of wildlife species--from frogs to newts. Research projects and courses that utilize the campus environment are already being undertaken, but will increase once the survey is complete. Using the campus wetlands as her laboratory, Katherine K. Thorington '00 recently completed an eighteen-month study of pollination and fruiting success in the Eastern skunk cabbage, studying 137 reproductively active plants in two campus sites.

Mount Holyoke professors are involved in innovative classrooms on campus as well as off--and with students as young as age six. Philosophy professor Thomas Wartenberg is using Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books to encourage first-graders to ask big questions about subjects ranging from the nature of friendship to the definition of reality. Working with University of Massachusetts philosophy professor Gareth Matthews and teacher Mary Cowhey during the last school year, Wartenberg used an innovative curriculum that the three designed to promote discussion and higher-order questioning among a group of first-graders at the Jackson Street School in Northampton.

Eight students in Cowhey's class formed the Philosophers Book Club and met with Wartenberg for class discussions. The lessons seem to be paying off. Not only have students enjoyed discussing such traditional philosophic questions as "How do you know that you are not dreaming now?," but Cowhey has noticed that the young "philosophers" are now more likely to take positions and back them up, to press for evidence, and to ask questions--no matter what they are studying. Wartenberg is considering involving Mount Holyoke students in the project through the College's Community-Based Learning Program.

Medieval courts on computer, the aroma of skunk cabbages, cells dividing on video, proteins undergoing synthesis, and spring peepers singing--these are but a few of the sights and sounds in Mount Holyoke classrooms at the dawn of the twenty-first century. To see more, there's no need to get a course catalogue--just visit the registrar's Web site.


Copyright © 2000 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Don St. John. Last modified on August 3, 2000.