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Putting heads together



   It’s a heady high-wire act in the classroom that demands the utmost coordination and acrobatic balance from agile faculty members from different disciplines.

   The yearlong freshman cluster class, introduced in fall ’97 as part of a major revision of the general-education curriculum in the College of Letters and


Professor of Physics and Astronomy Matthew Malkan watches freshmen in a cluster course on evolution work on computers. He teaches with a paleobiologist and two geochemists.

Science, is once again taking center stage at the Northwest Auditorium in Sunset Village. In addition to the first cluster course ever offered, “The Global Environment,” there are three new offerings that delve into wide-ranging issues of the evolution of the cosmos and life, the great books of the last four centuries and the dynamics of race throughout U.S. history.

   Instead of approaching such broad topics from a single perspective, the cluster concept pools the teaching talents and viewpoints of some of UCLA’s most renowned scholars and skilled teachers from different fields who guide students across traditional academic boundaries to think and write critically for themselves.

   “Some of the most important ideas of science don’t fit neatly into departments. Evolution is the most dramatic example of this,” said Matthew Malkan, professor of physics and astronomy, who teaches a cluster course with paleobiologist J. William Schopf, geochemists Mark Harrison and Jon Davidson and four graduate students.

   “You can get a piece of it from an astronomy course, and a piece from earth and space science. But if you want to see the whole picture, you can’t get it from just one field,” Malkan said.

   “Evolution is the theme, but we want students to be able to evaluate evidence in a scientific way, and to read articles critically,” Davidson said. “We want them to understand the scientific method and apply it in everyday life. We want them to not be afraid of science, as many adults are.”

   Teaching a cluster also poses tough challenges for faculty members, many of whom have taught solo for years. The courses are set up not as a series of guest lectures, but a coordinated curriculum into which everyone has input.

   “Over the last 10 years, I’ve had to basically figure out what to teach for myself,” Malkan said. “Now other people are looking over my shoulder. This is the first time I’ve really had to hash out what’s going into a course with other teachers I respect, lecture by lecture, page by page. They may have better ideas than I do on some subjects. I may know more about others. It’s pretty interesting to hear about other ways to present a topic.”

   It’s an experiment that faculty members find exhilarating. “It’s the first class I’ve ever taught in which I’m interacting with other teachers. I’m having a blast,” Malkan said.

   “Students benefit from eight brains instead of one, and are not limited to a single point of view,” said King-kok Cheung, associate professor of English and Asian-American studies, who coteaches a cluster that examines race in the U.S. through the study of history, literature and the law.

   In four years, the college plans to offer as many as 10 clusters for some 1,500 students  about half the freshman class in the College of Letters and Science, said Judith Smith, vice provost of undergraduate education.

Copyright 1998 UC Regents
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