INSIDE Chico State
0 November 13, 2003
Volume 34 Number 5
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Relativity? Think Aristotle

Louis Buchholtz

Louis Buchholtz, Physics
Photo by Kathleen McPartland; graphics byChris Ficken

Cultural Timeline Project gives students a context for technical concepts

How would a scientist explain the forces shaping an idea whose time has come? For Louis Buchholtz, CSU, Chico's theoretical physicist, the process involves choral music.

"My heart is in physics," he admitted, "but I also believe very strongly in the liberal arts idea that we're of one fabric -- that science is a cultural, not a technical study." Having discovered that most of his students possess neither a personal nor a societal cultural context in which to understand the concepts he teaches, Buchholtz, along with Justin Stimatze, his grader and a computer science, physics, and mathematics major with a flair for creativity, set about creating one for them. The result is the fledgling Cultural Timeline Project, a multidisciplined and multimedia adjunct to his standard curricula.

"You caught us at a very early stage in this," Buchholtz said. "I've been trying out things for many years, but finally I've said, 'Enough! We're going to do this seriously now.' We're going to embed physics in a cultural background. We decided to work from the time periods principally associated with the origins of what students are studying technically." Buchholtz explained that each student will receive a cultural disc that includes several timelines with highlights of all the things he'll present during the course. The timelines will be linked to databases, which are updated continually. Five minutes out of every class, students will look at a different cultural concept -- art history, music history, economic history, or political history. They can then go home and dig deeper into the database.

Buchholtz's own interest in choral music -- he's a tenor in the St. John's Episcopal Church choir -- has helped him provide a cultural perspective. "I chose choir music because, as far as human beings are concerned, it's the oldest art form, but it's what students know least," he noted. "So I bring in Latin student drinking songs, just to make contact. The responses from students are many. First of all they're stunned: 'This is a physics class. Why are we listening to music?' The second response is, 'What's a choir?'"

At the end of one semester, Buchholtz offered students a CD of the music and was surprised by the response. "I had to burn this stuff onto a disc, so I said, 'Anybody who wants a copy can have one.' They came in. They wanted it. They're hungry for it."

A critical theme of the Cultural Timeline Project is appreciating nonmarketable values. "Kids today are under a tremendous amount of commercial pressure," Buchholtz said. "Commercial interests do everything in their very considerable financial power to further the commercial process. So if you have an allegiance to things other than buying, to things that have no market value, like participation in music, you're not pursuing their game.

"I think this has overwhelmed students to such a degree that they have nothing else left. They don't know history. They don't know the art forms. They don't know what to latch onto. These cultural things give them an orientation and a structure within which to work. So when they see the great ideas -- when they think general relativity -- they'll be thinking Aristotle."

One of the project's long-term goals is to find a place in other departments, disciplines, and, ultimately, other universities. Judging from his own students' initial response, Buchholtz believes he's on the right track. "They don't leave the room," he observed. "They don't go away. They stay after lab for an hour and a half, and they talk about it. That tells you they want it. It's my unsubstantiated contention -- I have absolutely no facts -- that if you gave these kids culture for five minutes out of each class, they would come away with a thousand percent more than what they now have."

Taran March

 

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