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In residential immersion program, Stanford freshmen take a new approach to scientific inquiry

Stanford recently completed the first year of SIMILE: Science in the Making Integrated Learning Environment. This residential learning program focuses on approaching the study of science, technology and medicine by exploring their historical, cultural and social contexts.

Jeremy Moffett People building a structure

For a study of medieval technology, Dr. Andrew Rasmussen, left, shared with SIMILE students his modern version of a trebuchet, a type of catapult. Students helped assemble the device and made adjustments to optimize its performance.

As a Stanford freshman, Kate Nelson spent an entire year exploring the history of science – an intellectual journey that began in ancient Greece with the invention of geometry and ended in the present-day United States with political battles over global climate science.

It was an academic trek that took her back to the 17th century – with a trip to the Special Collections reading room in Green Library to examine a 1681 catalog of the "natural and artificial rarities" of the Royal Society of London – and into the present day, with a behind-the-scenes tour of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, led by the curators who create educational exhibits for 21st-century visitors.

Nelson was one of 22 freshmen enrolled in the Science in the Making Integrated Learning Environment, a residential academic program – best known as SIMILE – that recently completed its inaugural year. In the program, students approached the study of science, technology and medicine by focusing on their historical, cultural and social contexts.

"I've always been interested in the interdisciplinary connections between the arts, science and humanities, so I was really drawn to the SIMILE program, because it offered an interesting opportunity to look at science through the humanities," Nelson said. "I was also interested in participating in a program where I could get to know my professors from the start."

The SIMILE students lived together in Burbank House, an all-freshman dorm. They attended morning lectures in a classroom on the first floor of the residence and met in small discussion groups in the dorm's library or in one of its seminar rooms.

They shared the dorm with freshmen enrolled in the first year of another residential education program, Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture, known as ITALIC.

SIMILE – course and community

As a residential education program, SIMILE was both a course – SIMILE 93 – and a community of students living together in Burbank.

Students who completed the yearlong program fulfilled a variety of pre-major requisites, including writing and breadth requirements. Students had the freedom to take two or three additional classes outside of SIMILE each quarter.

The program included hands-on projects, field trips and lectures by guest speakers, including faculty from Stanford and other universities. Slideshow highlights of selected events can be found on the program's website.

Jeremy MoffettStudents working on birds with taxidermist standing by

SIMILE students Maria Diaz-Gonzalez, Michael Doshi work with taxidermist Alicia Goode at the Oakland Museum of California.

During the year, the students read Euclid, Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.

They also read Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by American historians Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Erik M. Conway of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The SIMILE community included three professors of the history of science; a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric; a lecturer whose research focuses on the history of science and technology; and a lecturer whose research explores the intersections between science, politics and religion in the Spanish Empire.

In the fall, Paula Findlen, a professor of Italian history and director of SIMILE, and Reviel Netz, a professor of classics, team-taught Inventing Science, Technology and Medicine. The class explored how those scientific fields emerged from the human desire to understand nature – empirically, mathematically and philosophically – and to control the environment.

Findlen said the program offered a "big picture view" of how human interactions have changed over the centuries, using history as the lens to understand the invention of science, technology and medicine.

"Fundamentally, SIMILE is a program about the history of knowledge," she said.

In winter quarter, Jessica Riskin, an associate professor of the history of science, taught Scientific Revolutions, which focused on the 16th and 17th centuries, when the modern sciences – with their standards of experimentation and explanation, their primary practices and institutions, and many of their core theories – originated.

Riskin said teaching in Burbank created regular opportunities for the faculty to engage in informal and ongoing conversations with students over lunch, while working on projects and while taking field trips.

"The wonderful thing about SIMILE is that it offered the opportunity to create a really, good, rich, intense intellectual community," she said.

In the spring, Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science, taught Science in the Making: Worlds of Power, Promise and Denial, which explored the more recent politics of science and how science – for all the good it can do – is also implicated in the spread of disinformation and destruction.

Proctor said he had a slogan for the course: "Science has a face, a house and a price."

"Science has a face, meaning it matters who does science," he said. "It has a house, meaning there are scientific institutions involved; you can't just do science in your garage. It has a price, meaning whatever you do, you're not doing something else. All of these things are highly political. What we want to get students to realize is that everything they do has a deep ethical, political and social component."

Hands-on history projects

Under SIMILE, students made astrolabes – cardboard versions of ancient astrological instruments that were used to observe and calculate the position of celestial bodies – and took them to a field outside the dorm to search the sky.

At The Crucible, a nonprofit industrial arts center in Oakland, the students took workshops in the medieval crafts of sand-casting and blacksmithing. They launched soccer balls into the air using a modern version of a trebuchet – a catapult used in the Middle Ages.

They also created a "cabinet of curiosities," a tall glass cabinet they filled with natural and man-made artifacts. They published a catalog with individual essays describing each object – its provenance and its personal or cultural significance.

The lighted cabinet, which stood in a dorm hallway just outside the dining room, drew attention with the dozens of colorful and unusual objects arrayed on the shelves.

Nelson contributed a 1907 "Junior Writing Machine," a vintage typewriter designed to fit in the trench coat pocket of a traveling salesman. It was part of the "once practical, now obsolete" theme she and two fellow students chose for their shelves. Behind the typewriter stood a slate chalkboard with an outdated diagram of the solar system – with Pluto still designated as a planet. On a shelf above was an electric eraser from Japan.

SIMILE student Charles Mulemi contributed traditional Maasai beadwork. Maria Victoria Diaz-Gonzalez contributed the extended wing of a green winged teal.

SIMILE student Ye Wang and other students created "little world," a plastic bottle with leaves and tree fruit inside, and Japanese food wrappers, blue paint, a tarantula and a beetle on the outside. In the catalog, fellow student Dennis Chang wrote about the sculpture: "This curious object is thought to be Nature's reaction to the nuclear reactor explosions triggered by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami."

Riskin said creating the cabinet gave students the chance to "try on the early modern collecting mentality" of people who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"Our understanding of the world today works through web searches and word searches, and technologically produced charts and images," she said. "By creating a cabinet of curiosities, the students had to think their way back to a completely different way of understanding the world. That's an important part of what we learn in a history class."

Opening eyes and minds

SIMILE student Angela Li said the course opened her eyes to a new way of seeing science.

She said one of the recurring themes during spring quarter was that social priorities and social policies determine what research gets funded.

"I never thought about that before," Li said. "I have worked in a research lab, but without this class I wouldn't have seen the bigger picture."

At the end of the academic year, students conducted original research on the history of science, medicine and technology at Stanford, participating in the "Stanford Science Swarm," a detailed investigation of some particular aspect of the university's history.

Proctor said their papers and presentations covered a wide range of topics, including artificial intelligence, the campus eugenics movement of the 1920s, the Stanford Arboretum, the flu pandemic of 1918, and how the university's partnership with Yamaha led to the world's first fully digital music synthesizer.

"One student wrote movingly about student life in the 1950s – the regimentation, the dress codes and the curfew – and how student dissatisfaction with daily life helped fuel the protest movements of the 1960s," Proctor said.

"Hearing all these stories about Stanford – the good, the bad and the ugly, all based on original research – gives us a better sense of how the university has changed over time and how different life has been in the past. And no doubt will be in the future."