Project Details

A. Conceptual Framework

The Current State of Big Questions and Liberal Education

Here is a big question: Why are the "Big Questions" asked naturally by children but pursued only under duress by most students? Is it because many of the attempts at answering those questions come across as arcane or irrelevant? Is it because they are provided with little or no context? The questions are, after all, "big" because their answers have the potential to make a significant difference to human understanding. They are also "big" because the answers are outstanding, in the sense that they are either unknown or lack consensus. Shouldn’t students want to explore such questions?

Our observation of higher education is that most liberal arts universities (including Samford) do a relatively good job of introducing students to the big questions in one or two required "big questions" courses, primarily via "Great Texts." The big questions are not, therefore, disregarded, but simply relegated to specific humanities courses, then left to die a slow death (unless, perhaps, the student remains in a narrow range of humanities disciplines). There is, therefore, a disconnect between the content of most courses and the big questions, and this is particularly true of science and math courses where the emphasis is (necessarily) on acquisition of a certain level of technical insight and proficiency. As a result, students advancing past their freshman year may see little relevance to the big questions (particularly as those questions relate to their course of study). These students, therefore, are not likely to think routinely about the big questions and are even less likely to contribute to the search for or production of answers to them. Even science and math students with inherent interests in the big questions may feel that they must sacrifice that interest for the traditional pursuit of their chosen discipline. Perhaps this is one reason that many, if not most, people (even, or especially, after they are out of college) think that the big questions are at best unanswerable and at worst irrelevant and have, therefore, all but given up trying.

Working Hypothesis

The major hypothesis of this project is that the big questions can be used to productively frame both pedagogy and research in progressive levels of faculty and student engagement. In particular, we believe that the big questions can be used to amplify and structure domain specific knowledge and inquiry in the traditional scientific disciplines, including mathematics. Furthermore, it is our contention that modern scientific knowledge and research holds the promise of illuminating many of the big questions in a fresh and appealing way. For example, physics and mathematics have much to say about chance and determinism, neuroscience and psychology speak to freewill and consciousness, computer science investigates issues related to intelligence and, together with neuroscience and psychology, explores creativity, and chemistry and biology (indeed, all sciences) contain theories that directly pertain to what it means to be human.

We believe that educational experiences will be richer when students see and understand the relationships between big questions and their chosen discipline. Furthermore, students exposed to this method of classroom engagement will be more likely to make an eventual contribution to knowledge pertaining to the big questions. Seeking to understand traditional science and mathematics in a big questions framework and using that framework to help guide research exposes individuals to new ways of thinking about those questions. It also increases the chances that they will contribute new insights toward their answers (including the possibility of providing new scientific and mathematical evidence to support or refute existing perspectives). An important corollary is that, without some training in the sciences, there will be aspects of the "big questions" that will be inaccessible, if not invisible, to those who might venture to pursue them. The irony here is profound because, under the present educational scenario, the anticipated insights must come from the group least prepared to provide them.

Finally, lives framed by big questions are richer than lives framed by little ones (including lives framed by rote application of technical principles). We think it is far better to have big thoughts about little things (e.g., quantum physics) than little thoughts about big things (e.g., transcendence).

A Novel Means to Integrate Big Questions and Liberal Education

This project incorporates a two-pronged, synergistic approach to test both the pedagogical and research components of our hypothesis. Specifically, we plan to:

Implement a pilot program to incorporate a big question framework into traditional science and math courses. That is, we plan to intentionally structure select science and math courses such that the material to be learned is presented in the context of one or more big questions. The objectives are to show students how the material they are learning can be used to encourage thinking about specific big questions and to utilize big questions to make the course content more relevant and meaningful. The keys to our strategy are its intentionality and formality. We envision science and math courses where big questions are woven into the very fabric of the course rather than being mentioned sporadically or not at all. Thus, our plan seeks to demonstrate how to interleave the required course content with big questions to the benefit of both.

Create specific faculty-student research projects in traditional scientific and mathematical disciplines, framed by big questions and aimed at providing new insights into those framing questions. We believe that practically any scientific research agenda can be viewed from a big questions perspective with the results understood in terms of the questions framing that research. Besides increasing the inherent interest in the research (i.e., by helping to identify it as a potential component of a much larger picture), this approach can be utilized to help select between competing projects. It also opens up new publication possibilities for the researchers. We envision a faculty mentoring relationship with students modeled on the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, but one in which big questions are inherent in the project design and objectives.

Incorporating Big Questions in the Classroom

We suggest that a big questions framework can be employed in the conduct of virtually any course in the natural, computational, and social sciences and in mathematics. Our plan is to initially pilot this strategy in courses selected from the following areas: biology, scientific inquiry, introduction to computer science, economics, statistics, and mathematics. In this initial pilot effort we will be refining the content/big question relationships, developing course presentation methodologies, and evaluating the effectiveness of our efforts. The initial pilot effort will be followed by the addition of courses from other disciplines. Consider the following example as an illustration of the integration we envision between traditional course content and select big questions:

Course: Introduction to Computer Science

Typical content: algorithms, information encoding, logic, computer architecture, processing hierarchies, abstraction, language, alternative computing paradigms, machine intelligence, artificial life, self-organization and emergence, computability, computational complexity, models of computation, the future of computing, societal and ethical issues

Sample "big questions" with which to frame course content:

1. What does it mean to be human? Language, intelligence, and creativity have long been considered hallmarks of human distinctiveness, but the advent of computing and robotic technologies provide unique perspectives from which to examine the issue of what it means to be human. Progress in man-machine interfaces suggests that this issue can now be addressed in light of these technologies by asking, "What will it mean to be human?" The prospect of progressing from a cell phone in every pocket to a chip in every head has far-reaching implications for this age-old question.

Related big questions include: Is creativity primarily an illusion or an inescapable consequence of human existence? How can mechanistic views of humans be reconciled with perspectives of meaning and value? What is thought? What is understanding? What are the limits to human intelligence? What is consciousness? Could a machine be conscious? What would that mean for humans?

Sample Computer Science topics relevant to this area include digital computer design, brains and neural networks, artificial intelligence, robotics, and self-replicating machines.

2. Under what circumstances can simple components governed by simple rules produce complex behaviors? A variety of technological existence proofs (e.g., the creation of complex computing devices based on simple binary logic) suggest how complexity can occur as the by-product of human ingenuity. Furthermore, computational principles of self-organization and emergence suggest that even the complexity observed in nature can potentially be understood from the perspective of relatively simple rules operating on basic structures. Language and intelligence, for example, appear to arise from the interaction of large numbers of neural components and even life itself is encoded in simple strings of DNA.

Related big questions include: What is life? How can structurally based operations (such as language and other aspects of intelligence) convey meaning? Are there universal principles of self-organization and emergence? What are the ramifications?

Sample Computer Science topics relevant to this area include coding systems, programming, Boolean logic, artificial neural networks, cellular automata, and self-assembly.

3. How can random processes yield meaningful results? Human existence appears to be shaped by a fascinating interaction of deterministic and random forces, but this very interplay presents a number of dilemmas for both scientists and theologians. Computational models provide interesting insights into issues such as the nature of randomness, the relationship between randomness and determinism, and how constrained randomness might be productively exploited to produce many of the effects observed in nature.

Related big questions include: In the large space of possibilities, how do significant creatures and behaviors arise? Can concepts of free will be reconciled with either random or deterministic world views? How can one be a good scientist without embracing a stifling determinism? Is it possible to embrace free will without appearing scientifically naïve? In what ways are views on transcendence affected by perspectives on randomness and determinism?

Sample Computer Science topics relevant to this area include random number generators, cellular automata, Monte Carlo simulations, and genetic algorithms.

Incorporating Big Questions in Research

We believe that, just as in the classroom, a big questions framework can also be productively utilized in the conduct of serious science and mathematics research activities. Consequently, we plan to sponsor faculty-student research projects that are intentionally oriented toward the exploration of a scientific or mathematical question where a better understanding holds the potential to illuminate one or more big questions. In liberal arts institutions this work will most likely be done as summer research projects. Examples of science-oriented research that can potentially be used to illuminate big questions follow:

Big question: What is creativity?

If "chance is the only source of true novelty" (Crick), then how can creativity ever be viewed as one of the hallmarks of humanity? Are we just a stage on which the random processes of chance and necessity play out or is there a transcendent aspect to creativity? More specifically, structural operations originating with the genetic code appear to produce systems that achieve meaningful levels of creativity. How is this possible? What would prevent comparable manipulations of other symbols from achieving similar effects (i.e., in machines)? What would such accomplishments portend for human conceptions of worth and dignity?

Research question: How can meaningful creativity result from structural manipulations of symbols?

Discipline: Biology
Research agenda: Explore emergent properties originating with creative evolutionary processes.
Discipline: Computer Science
Research agenda: Model creativity in artificial systems.

Big question: How do memory and perception define what it means to be human?

Memory-robbing diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) and lesions that lead to perceptual deficits (such as hemi-spatial neglect) suggest that individuals are largely defined by their memories and awareness of self. When these systems fail to work properly, some essential aspect of what it means to be human appears to have been lost.

Research question: Can scientific activity restore meaning to those suffering from cognitive deficits?

Discipline: Psychology
Research agenda: Explore the cognitive foundations for meaning and purpose.
Discipline: Sociology
Research agenda: Evaluate attitudes and responses toward impaired individuals.
Discipline: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Research agenda: Design artificial systems to replace lost functionality.
Discipline: Biology
Research agenda: Investigate the genetic bases for cognitive disease.

B. Work Plan (Up Arrow)

We are engaging in a two-year project, with courses conducted in each of four semesters and research projects performed during the second summer. The first summer will be utilized for detail planning activities to elaborate the mechanisms outlined here and to prepare for the first semester of pilot courses at Samford University. Throughout the project we will be recruiting new faculty participants so that in subsequent semesters we can add to the number of courses taught at Samford and expand the program to other institutions. Samford University is a member of the Birmingham Area Consortium for Higher Education (BACHE) which includes (in addition to Samford) Birmingham Southern College, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Miles College, and The University of Montevallo.

Between semesters we will utilize our mini-term period (Jan-term) and the second summer to train the new participants, all the while evaluating and refining our techniques and strategies. These activities will lead to the production of materials that can be utilized to facilitate duplication of our efforts at other locations.

Dissemination activities (beyond those involving the other pilot institutions) will include website development (with extensive links to materials), conference presentations, and journal article submission.

It is important to note that the prerogative to implement the initiatives planned for this program fall within the normal autonomy that any faculty member possesses with regard to ongoing decisions about how to conduct existing courses and what research agenda to pursue (and how). We think this is a major strength of our plan, in that one can expect strong results without the upfront need for administrative approval for extensive curricular change. We anticipate the possibility that project results will suggest more extensive changes at certain institutions, but the benefits we postulate are independent of such.

C. Institutional Impact (Up Arrow)

This project is intended to produce an immediate and lasting effect on students taking classes structured within its guidelines. Our strategies will make the big questions more relevant, add new appeal to traditional subject matter, and help students (and faculty) see the practical nature of the big questions. From the outset we anticipate that these enriched classroom experiences will result in better engagement with course material and better retention. They will also support the development of critical thinking skills because any progress toward answering them will most likely come from reducing them to smaller questions that can be answered—the natural modus operandi of the sciences.

In addition, we believe that intentional concentration on big questions and the perspectives provided for thinking about them in science and mathematics courses will help to produce a mindset that will make a student more likely to apprehend and appreciate such questions outside the classroom and long after the course is over. Such insight can be contagious and contribute to enhancement of the intellectual climate on all of the campuses involved. Furthermore, the knowledge that what one is learning has far reaching implications is one of the greatest steps any student can take because it is critical to developing life-long curiosity and a thirst for understanding. Such students are also more likely to perceive their own potential to contribute positively to the production of future insights (and therefore more likely to consider graduate studies), even as they are acquiring the tools with which to do so. All of this, of course, constitutes a novel means of supporting the liberal education emphases of our respective institutions.

Finally, we also believe that our efforts have significant potential to increase dialog among faculty on the big questions. An advanced degree does not, of itself, confer immunity from tunnel vision and stereotypical thinking in one’s chosen discipline and may even contribute toward it. We thus believe that a renewed engagement with big questions can be a liberating experience for faculty as well as students.

D. Broader Impact (Up Arrow)

One of the main hypotheses of this project is that the scientific and mathematical disciplines have significant potential to improve understanding of the big questions and to postulate plausible answers to them. Because of this, we think it imperative that students and faculty everywhere learn to see the connections between the big questions and those disciplines, as this will provide a broader base from which to expect positive results. To that end, a major objective of this project is to pilot an approach that can be readily duplicated at other locations. In particular, we envision a scenario in which our techniques can be transferred to and emulated at other institutions of higher learning (including non-liberal arts schools) and even at high-schools. This, we think, will leverage the results of our work far beyond the important impacts on the campuses involved in the pilot program. Consequently, we intend to disseminate our work to a broader base via website, publication, and presentation.

We also think that discussions of the type we are proposing here can take place in venues other than traditional classrooms (or standard research environments). For instance, Samford University sponsors a variety of faculty-led student cadres that can be customized to a variety of topics including those addressing big questions from a science perspective. We expect many other institutions have similar programs. There is also the potential for study groups at non-academic institutions (e.g., churches, synagogues, mosques) to explore big questions via the mechanisms outlined here. Besides providing new insight into the big questions, this could have the added benefit of increasing science understanding in many of those situations.

Ultimately, we think that a concerted effort to integrate science and mathematics education and research with the big questions has the potential to help students see the importance of all forms of knowledge (i.e., not just science and math) with regard to improving comprehension in their chosen fields. This is because what we are really trying to convey is the importance of analogical reasoning and metaphorical thinking in developing the insights necessary for comprehensive understanding in any field of study. Students usually fail to appreciate the potential for a true liberal education and often, as a result, resent certain required courses. However, we expect that students exposed to courses and research framed by big questions will be more likely to appreciate the potential value of any source of knowledge as they realize how the power of metaphorical thinking opens the door to a web of interaction and insight that enables even apparently unrelated disciplines to inform one another.

E. Evaluation Criteria (Up Arrow)

The success of this project can be evaluated by ascertaining (1) the extent to which the proposed components are implemented and (2) whether the proposed methods produced the desired results. The first of these criteria will be documented via progress reports and a final report posted on the project website. In particular, we will post information pertaining to the specific courses and research projects conducted within the big questions framework so that the implementation goals are clearly visible. The course plans and methods that we make available will also provide testimony to project success.

Of course, the major objective of the project is to affect student learning and faculty engagement and this will be assessed in several ways:

Concept mapping. We think that the visual feedback provided by concept mapping techniques will make this one of the most important tools we could use to assess the development of student insight into the relationship between course material and the framing big questions. Consequently, we will require that all courses taught for this project use, at a minimum, a before and after appraisal of student understanding via concept mapping.

Writing assignments. Writing is a powerful formative assessment tool. When students are required to write their understanding of a problem and the resources available to deal with it, two things occur: (a) the student must organize material and think about it and (b) the instructor receives feedback as to the student’s progress. Each course will, therefore, contain several writing assignments that specifically focus on the relationships between big questions and course material.

Faculty portfolios. These will document faculty engagement with the proposed process, highlight successes and failures of specific methodologies, and provide helpful suggestions for instantiations of future courses.

All three of these assessment methods will be used in the dissemination process to help convey the motivation for conducting courses within the proposed framework and to provide supporting materials for those wishing to implement this approach in their own courses. Faculty leading summer research projects under this grant will be required to implement the concept mapping and portfolio assessment components.