Spring GISPs explore science, art and pirates

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2012


What do amplified cactus instruments, molecular gastronomy and pirate archaeology have in common?

They are just some of the subjects being pursued this semester in Group Independent Study Projects, student-designed classes that in the past have included names like “Illegal Art: The History, Culture and Practice of Graffiti” and “South Park, Mark Twain and Finding an American Culture.” 

In GISPs, students have an increased responsibility for their own learning because they must craft their own syllabus in conjunction with advising from faculty sponsors, wrote Evan Schwartz ’13, co-coordinator of independent studies and independent concentrations at the Curricular Resource Center, in an email to The Herald. Some students may use the program to network with professors, he added.

Sixteen GISPs will be offered this semester, up from seven GISPs in the fall, according to Banner. The GISP offerings continue to demonstrate the variety of interests of the undergraduate student body.   


A better platform for knowledge

“I’ve been cactus shopping,” announced Sarah Schade ’15 at a recent class meeting for GISP0010: “Science and Art: Seeking Consilience.” Making an amplified cactus, a musical instrument constructed from the spiky plant, is just one of the ways in which the GISP addresses both theoretical and practical applications of science and art. 

Science and art are “two sides of the same coin, two languages for the same phenomenon,” said Vanessa Ryan, assistant professor of English and the faculty sponsor for the project. The GISP provides a forum for students ­— many of whom are double concentrating in vastly different subjects — to combine their disciplines and think about connections.

“Artists can help scientists frame questions in different ways,” said Ian Gonsher, adjunct lecturer in engineering and former lecturer in visual arts, who may guest lecture for the GISP. “Both the arts and sciences tell stories in some way.”

“Using science and art to build a better platform for knowledge” is the main motivation behind the GISP, according to Schade, a student in the GISP.

Schade will be leading the course’s discussion on the third culture, a culture of scientists approaching their discipline through arts and humanities in order to enhance it. A potential visual arts and physics concentrator, she said she joined the project in order to discover new links between her two academic interests. 

Greg Sewitz ’13, organizer of the GISP, said it was difficult to incorporate everything from music compositions to quantum mechanics into the syllabus. The group members worked together to decide on texts and materials. They also plan to explore food science by brewing their own beer and working with miracle berries later in the semester. 

Sewitz was studying abroad last semester, and he said working to create the GISP from overseas presented its own challenges.

“It took weeks to have one full exchange,” Sewitz said. Still, he said he was impressed by the “unpolitical” and “receptive” nature of the professors and students with whom he worked. “Students will come away feeling like they created something that allows them to pursue their own academic interests,” he said.


Excavating underwater?

“It attracts a lot of members of ARRR!!!” Nick Bartos ’13 said, referring to the GISP0001: “Underwater Archaeology” and its appeal to members of Brown’s pirate a cappella group. 

The syllabus varies in scope between broad time periods and wide swaths of ocean, dealing with topics ranging from colonialism to piracy to modern day archaeology ethics. 

Ben Jones ’13, who spearheaded the project, said he found a group of people who were interested through previous archaeology classes for his concentration and peers he knew who were scuba-certified. Christoph Bachhuber, postdoctoral fellow in archaeology and faculty sponsor to the class, became involved in the GISP because it related to his area of study.

Last semester, Bachhuber taught a class about maritime archeaology which focused specifically on the Mediterranean. The GISP will complement this course with different data sets and methodological foci, he said. In addition to the pirate singers and archaeology concentrators, many of the program’s students took Bachhuber’s class last semester.

Bachhuber said he derives a certain satisfaction from being a “less formal guide” and more of a mentor for this group of students, who will meet for the first time this week.

“It’s the conversational guidance that I will really enjoy,” he said, relating the structure of the GISP more to a forum than a formal lecture by an individual.

Jones said he has already seen the rewards of the GISP program — “seeing what students can do mostly independently when they’re really passionate.”

He said he came up with the idea and syllabus for the GISP in collaboration with professors at University of Rhode Island, Texas A&M Univers
ity and Florida State University who have taught similar classes. Bartos noted that the toughest part of organizing the GISP was striking the balance between areas of expertise and new areas of knowledge. 

“The idea is to introduce yourself to new things,” he said, and so it was necessary to search for new interests.

There is also an interdisciplinary aspect to the GISPBartos said the group hopes to collaborate with the history department and bring in guest lecturers.

This GISP is just one aspect of a broader curricular interest in underwater archaeology for Bartos and Jones. Both took Bachhuber’s class, and both will participate in an excavation this summer in Turkey. Jones said the GISP’s syllabus aims to cover the variety of time periods and regions a professional archaeologist may encounter.

The skills they develop in the GISP are not just theoretical, but are in preparation for application to the real world.

The GISP program has the potential to “teach students how to teach themselves,” become an expert in a topic and work in groups — essential skills in all walks of life, Ryan said. 

It is a “uniquely Brown institution,” Bachhuber said. 

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