HONR 299: Space-Time!

Course Description

In HONR 299: Space-time!, students explore how the human Syllabus-first-pagerelationship to space and time has changed across history. Following a sciences, technology, and society (STS) model, the course focuses primarily on the last two centuries and how interconnected developments in astronomy, transport technology, geology, painting, photography, physics, and philosophy have altered our sense of the scope, age, and fabric of reality.

The ideas around space and time offer an occasion to see how arts and sciences — as well as our own experiences — work in concert to shape the way we see the world. In addition to emphasizing interdisciplinarity through an STS model, the course also promotes inquiry-based learning by way of creative writing practices, allowing students to engage complex ideas from new perspectives and expand their imaginations.


Course Goals

  • Interdisciplinarity: At its most basic level, the course provides an opportunity for students to see how science, technology, philosophy, and the arts play off one other.  In this vein, students learn to approach an idea from multiple perspectives, while also recognizing how developments in one facet of human endeavor necessarily involve and impact other facets.
  • Creativity in Science: Building on the above, students develop an appreciation for how scientific theory and practice is predicated on creative thinking, particularly the mind’s ability to use analogies to make connections between seemingly diverse phenomena or to make sense of otherwise abstract or complex ideas.
  • Creativity in Practice: Nearly all of the assignments in this course are forms of creative writing. In this context, creative writing is treated as a method of inquiry, one that is particularly suited toward developing cognitive skills like synthesizing divergent ideas, incorporating multiple perspectives, and employing metaphor and analogy to promote understanding. Such skills are extremely valuable to all methods of inquiry, hence their importance.

Summary of Course Outcomes

HONR 299: Space-time! was first offered for the first time in Spring of 2017 to a full roster of 20 honors students with a wide variety of majors across the arts and sciences.  In line with the course goals listed above, I was particularly interested to see how effectively creative writing assignments could be used to promote interdisciplinary and inquiry-based learning. Students wrote three short pieces of speculative fiction following the model of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, a longer piece of science fiction (approx. 4,000 words), and a reflection piece that touched on the role of creativity in science and their experience with creative writing as a mode of inquiry.

My hope was that incorporating creative writing practices into a STS course would allow students to explore course concepts from multiple perspectives as well as to posit and explore novel questions. Additionally, I hoped that students from liberal arts backgrounds would see how familiar tools could be used toward concepts normally beyond their purview and that students in the sciences would gain a new appreciation for how creative writing could help them dig deeper into already known concepts. Based on their reflective statements, those hopes were realized:

mechanical engineering major: “This creative process allows for unique ideas to come forth that an ordinary discussion would not provoke. . . . [T]he creative writing process was truly able to lead me to new perspectives that I had not previously considered when planning my story.  Because of this potential for discovery that I experienced first-hand, I am convinced that creative writing can indeed be a valuable tool for understanding the cultural or philosophical consequences of a scientific theory or technological advancement.  Creative writing requires these scientific ideas to be considered more thoughtfully and in depth to create a convincing world in a story, and this thoughtful reflection can provoke insights in a way that few other methods can.”

philosophy major: “Now going into the process, I am more focused on specific elements of class discussions that I want to make sure I expand on. . . .The creative writing assignments . . . allow me to look at something from different angles and see its effects. What makes creative writing exciting is that you have room to think outside the box and examine ideas through different perspectives. Through analogy and creative writing, I am now much more willing to try to understand scientific ideas. While I may not be able to engage the ideas as a physicist, or engineer, I can engage them by looking at how this idea might affect the human experience, society or religion. I was skeptical about this course because of the science and creative writing element, but I think I am more open now to critically engaging different fields of study in philosophical ways.

physics major: “In the process of writing creatively with a premise in mind, I found that, more often than not, my goal while writing would shift from what I had originally intended it to be. As I wrote the Space-Time Dreams, insights that I gained from what I had just written influenced what I was about to write. The format of the story forced me to examine the implications of my ideas from multiple perspectives, and this process led me to consider things that I would have never thought of otherwise. I appreciate the value of this technique when examining scientific thoughts much more after experiencing it in this way. Being on the creative end of this process has helped me more fully understand the thoughts behind it and the cultural and societal influences affecting it.”

These sentiments were corroborated by anonymous evaluation surveys conducted by myself and Purdue University in the final week of the class. In response to the survey I created — taken by 18 of the 20 enrolled students and following a Likert scale of agreement — all respondents strongly agreed that the course increased their understanding of the ways in which different disciplines or fields can intersect and influence each other. 72% strongly agreed that course readings and creative writing assignments brought them to a more complete or more nuanced understanding of scientific concepts explored in class, while 89% strongly agreed that the creative writing assignments allowed them to consider the social and personal implications of those concepts in new or significant ways. In terms that echo the AAC&U VALUE Rubric for creative thinking skills, 83% strongly agreed that the creative writing assignments proved a productive means to explore unfamiliar concepts; 67% strongly agreed that it was an effective mode in which to develop unique ideas or questions; 67% strongly agreed that it was a productive means to explore alternative or diverge perspectives; and 72% strongly agreed that it was a productive means to transform an initial idea into a new or more evolved concept. All other respondents answered “somewhat agree” to these prompts.

Nearly 75% of the students responded to the official Purdue University course evaluation, with all respondents providing the course and instructor a maximum score of Excellent (5 out of 5 on a Likert scale). All respondents strongly agreed that course assignments met learning objectives (5/5), and that the course encouraged them to think critically (5/5).