Course Syllabus

Foundations of Science - Semester 2

Foundations of Science (FoS) in Semester 2 is building on our first semester, with more advanced activities in each section, and a chance for students to bring their learning to bear on complex world problems in a section round of our Grand Challenge exercise. This 2nd year common curriculum course will give students not only the foundational tools to begin their exploration of the biogeophysical world, but instill a curiosity in them that will drive their desire to engage with it. We aim to provide both a "deep dive" into two different disciplines, and an interdisciplinary project at the end in teams of four.

The course during Semester 2 includes slightly longer (6-week) ‘Disciplinary Case Studies’ that like last semester are based around two themes - Evolution and Revolution. The case studies are developed to advance a series of learning goals (outlined below). Within the course, students will take two of these six week case studies, and then work together for the last weeks of the class to answer a question related to a "Grand Challenge."  The idea is to gain disciplinary expertise through two of the case studies, and then convene as teams of students and share that expertise toward answering an interdisciplinary problem.

The students are divided into two sections - one that meets at 2:30PM on Tuesday and Friday with the theme of "Revolutions" and one that meets at 4:30PM on Tuesday and Friday with the theme of "Evolution."  A short description of each of these two themes is below.



The intricate forms we see around us in nature - a seashell, a bird’s feather, a blossoming flower - all evolved and were the results of millions of years of natural selection. Beyond our world, the forms of planets, stars, and galaxies are likewise sculpted by the evolution of natural forces over billions of years. Envisioning and reconstructing these forces of natural selection and cosmic evolution require a form of detective work and deep grounding in the disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics. However it is important to stress that the process of evolution is not in the past - our planet, the lifeforms in it, and our universe continues to evolve, often on timescales within our lifespan. The results of human intervention on the biosphere - global warming, reductions of biodiversity, and the depletion of all manner of natural resources are also altering the course of evolution in dramatic and perhaps irreversible ways. In this course we will explore the processes of evolution in its broadest sense - both from the perspective of the past, and for the future, as we apply our knowledge to help study how humans can enable the future evolution of our planet to be more habitable and more sustainable.



Seemingly random events can affect the entire world - as we are all interconnected with networks. Global warming, accelerated by fossil fuels, promises to continue to melt polar ice, and could raise sea levels by several meters in the coming century. Computers and people connected by smart power grids, and networks are now able to affect change faster than ever before. And new technologies can disrupt our lives instantly.  Technology that is on the scale of one-billionth of a meter that will revolutionize medicine and help generate clean solar energy. These stochastic/chaotic disruptions are constantly changing everything in our world. How do these disruptions create opportunities for change? How have humans been involved in processes of disruption using technology and innovation? What are some of the up-coming disruptive technologies and/or natural events that will change they way humans live from here on out? How can some of those technologies help us and other organisms survive on Earth?



Each theme in Foundations of Science has four instructors, offering individual units, and students will pick two of the four case studies available to them in either the Revolution or Evolution themes. The case studies are listed and described below.

Revolution Disciplinary Case Studies

Foundations of Science: Revolutions 2:30PM 

Alessandro Gomez (Yale University) - "Fossil Fuel Energy and the Environment" -

Description:  Despite much effort to promote carbon-free technologies, the majority of the energy supply through the middle of this century and beyond will stem inevitably from fossil fuels. As a result, combustion technologies, coupled with reactants/products treatment and, cost permitting, carbon capture and sequestration will remain central to energy consumption for several decades. The unit emphasis is on timeless fundamentals, beginning with key concepts of thermodynamics, the principle of conservation of energy, first and second laws. We will discuss traditional fossil-fuel power plants and engines that are currently involved in 85% of energy conversion worldwide. We will conclude with some considerations on energy policy and with the "big picture" on how to tackle future energy needs with a progressive transition to a carbon-free approach.

Bryan Penprase - "Global Warming, Energy, and Earth's Planetary Environment" 

Description: From a consideration of light and heat, black body radiation, and simple models of radiative heating and cooling, we will explore how our Earth is slowly warming through the accumulation of Carbon Dioxide and other anthropogenic gasses. The class will discuss why certain molecules are "greenhouse gasses" and how to accurately use computer models to predict what the effects of these gasses will be in the coming decades and centuries. Several case studies in energy generation will be discussed in class, including an examination of nuclear energy (and some of the resulting disasters), solar power (with an experiment with photovoltaics), and other alternative energy sources.

Maurice Cheung - "Networks" -

Description: Everything in the world is interconnected, forming networks at many different scales – not only Facebook and Twitter, but also molecular networks, food webs, ecological networks, transport systems, the World Wide Web and more. This course will introduce you to network thinking and the science of networks, including concepts like graphs, path, hubs, clustering, centrality etc., which will enable you to have a conceptual understanding of the properties of networks, e.g. How do networks grow? What are the consequences of random failures or targeted attacks in networks? Along the way, we will pick up some maths, some biology, and maybe a bit of slime mold intelligence, epidemics, blackouts and Google.

Evolution Disciplinary Case Studies

Foundations of Science: Evolution 4:30PM 

Vinod Saranathan -  "Extinctions and Speciation"

Description: What is the evolutionary history of life on Earth? How did the observed patterns in the history of life arise? What are the evolutionary processes that likely generated these patterns? What is Pikaia and why should we care about the fact that it survived? What is a “species”? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this module. The understanding gained could be brought to bear on whether we are in the midst of another mass extinction event? And if so, what could we predict (if possible) about the future assemblage of species?

Jen Sheridan - "Biogeography" -

Description:  Introduction to patterns of species distributions & diversity, and factors influencing such patterns. Course will introduce students to the field of biogeography so that they understand why organisms exist in the places they do, and what contributes to species distribution and diversity patterns. Additionally, students should be able to apply this knowledge to predict how these will change in the face of anthropogenic factors.

Stanislav Presolski - "Chemistry of Life"-

Description: Life! From a chemist's perspective. The fundamental building blocks of everything that surrounds us will be discussed, from simple gases, liquids and solids, through man-made dyes, drugs and plastics, all the way to the chemistry of living things. We will explore the interactions between matter and energy that constitute our everyday experiences and attempt to make sense of them all through just a few general concepts. Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.

Neil Clarke - "Human evolution, migration and variation: tales of the genome" -

Description: The first human genome (DNA) sequence was ‘completed’ about ten years ago at a cost of about US$3 billion. Since then the cost has gone down by more than 6 orders of magnitude.  The sequencing revolution has already profoundly changed our understanding of human evolution and migration. It will almost certainly have consequences for social behavior and policy.  As a science course, this unit will be focussed on human genetics, sequence variation and evolution, but it is expected that students will gain an appreciation for the potential uses and misuses, interpretations and misinterpretations, of genomic information.

Grand Challenge Project

After completing two of these disciplinary case studies, students will be brought together to help address a "Grand Challenge" question in interdisciplinary teams. Each of the two sections have chosen a Grand Challenge question, which teams of students will answer with projects that synthesize their learning in the two case studies, and bring together the expertise of students in diverse teams. The two questions to address are these:

EVOLUTION: What are some likely future adaptations of organisms and communities to the anthropocene?

REVOLUTION: Design a New Disruptive Innovation that can be used to deal with one of the consequences of global climate change. 

Each of the two courses will divide into teams of four students to provide an array of answers to these urgent questions during the last two weeks of the semester. Students will conduct their own research, which may include library and database analysis, as well as field visits and interviews with leading experts in their area of choice. The instructor teams will provide a menu of possible experimental and field efforts, and also will solicit students to invent their own investigations to help answer these questions. The teams of students will present their results to their peers and their instructors in a poster fair. Copies of these posters will be placed on a web site, and used to help solve some of the most pressing environmental, technical and scientific problems of the day.

 Learning Goals

The immersion into disciplinary topics and synthesis via the Grand Challenge exercise is what makes FoS different from Scientific Inquiry (SI).  In SI, the focus was on the story of scientific discovery. Our desire to deliver deeper discipline-specific content to enable students to go beyond the methods of inquiry into some of the current topics of research within a mix of scientific fields.

The overall learning goals of the course divide into classes that are outlined below.

  • Disciplinary Knowledge: demonstrate a systematic or coherent understanding of an academic field of study
  • Critical Thinking: apply analytic thought to a body of knowledge; evaluate arguments; identify relevant assumptions or implications; formulate coherent arguments
  • Communication Skills: express ideas clearly in writing; speak articulately; communicate with others using media as appropriate; work effectively with others
  • Scientific and Quantitative Reasoning: demonstrate the ability to understand cause and effect relationships; define problems; use symbolic thought; apply scientific principles; solve problems with no single correct answer
  • Self-Directed Learning: work independently; identify appropriate resources; take initiative; manage a project through to completion
  • Information Literacy: access, evaluate, and use a variety of relevant information sources
  • Engagement in the Process of Discovery or Creation: for example, demonstrate the ability to work productively in a laboratory setting, studio, library, or field environment

In addition to these overall goals, each of the five-week case studies will present a series of assessable learning outcomes - which will guide the course content. This method of "backward course design" will enable students to gain authentic knowledge through their own discovery as they work in active learning settings in the classroom, and conduct their own research in the course.


Within Foundations of Science, students will receive grades on each of their two 5-week disciplinary case studies, as well as a grade for their performance in the "Grand Challenge" exercise. The weighting of these grades are below:

  • Disciplinary Case Study I - 40% - based on common grading framework (described below)
  • Disciplinary Case Study II - 40% - based on common grading framework (described below)
  • Grand Challenge - 20% - based on a rubric and multiple evaluations of the final poster.

Each of the Case studies will also share a common grading framework in which a final project, homeworks and quizzes, and an intermediate project all share equal weights from one section to another. The weighting of each component will be fixed from one section to another, giving more of a common experience and workload within the course. However the exact form of the weekly assignments, and intermediate assignments will vary from one instructor to the next.  These weightings that will be used within each of the FoS sections are as follows:

  • Class participation - 10%
  • Final project (also can take many forms; a written paper of 5+ pages with references is most common) - 40%
  • Weekly assignments and Intermediate assignments (can take many forms; worksheets, reading questions, short papers, quizzes in class, short talks) - 50%


The schedule includes the two six-week disciplinary case studies, followed by the two weeks of the grand challenge. An outline of the schedule is shown below, in block format.

The exact schedule for Second semester of AY2015-16 is below. The class begins on January 12, 2016 in your individual section - where your instructor will provide an overview of the new features of FOS for the upcoming semester. Each of the weeks in the five week units is designated with the Roman Numerals. Each instructor will provide a detailed breakdown of their 5-week section at the beginning of the class.

Week Date Comment
1 12-Jan Ia - Begin units
15-Jan Ib
2 19-Jan Iia
22-Jan Iib
3 26-Jan IIIa
29-Jan IIIb
4 2-Feb Iva
5-Feb Ivb
5 12-Feb Va
16-Feb Vb
6 19-Feb Via
22-Feb Recess week
26-Feb Recess week
7 1-Mar Ia - Begin units
4-Mar Ib
8 8-Mar Iia
11-Mar Iib
9 15-Mar IIIa
18-Mar IIIb
10 22-Mar Iva
25-Mar Good Friday
11 29-Mar Ivb
1-Apr Va
12 5-Apr Vb
8-Apr Via
12-Apr Grand Challenge
15-Apr Grand Challenge
19-Apr Grand Challenge
22-Apr Grand Challenge
26-Apr Poster Fair



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