Past Grand Challenge Seminars
66-109: Climate Change (F17, F18, F19, F20)
Many consider climate change to be the most serious social, political, and environmental issue of the 21st century. As human activities increase the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, scientists have established the reality of climate change and have estimated its impacts on human society and the natural world. Despite the scientific consensus on its existence, causes, and consequences, a substantial number of Americans and citizens of other countries still question these conclusions and a small but vocal group of doubters continue to challenge the science and scientific consensus on climate change. In spite of some social division over these issues, governments at local, national, and international levels have made concerted efforts to craft policies to address climate change. These policies have shifted over time as the information, attitudes, and technology associated with climate change have evolved. In this course, we will explore the challenges and complexities of climate change by investigating the subject from a variety of angles: scientific, political, rhetorical, cultural, economic, technological, and ethical. Over the course of the semester, we will inquire: What is climate change? How do scientists know it is happening? Why is there public debate over it? What solutions are available? And what are the pros and cons of the different solutions?
66-110: Inequality (S18, S19, S20)
This Grand Challenge first-year seminar on inequality is inspired in part by the specter of global income inequality. Income inequality has reached such a peak that eight men own as much wealth as half the world's population, the world's poorest 3.6 billion people. Inequality may be a feature of all societies across history to some degree. But inequality strikes us an especially timely topic because of the current demands for greater political, social, and economic equality. The four of us will use the disciplines we come from - economics, anthropology, history, psychology, and literary/cultural studies - to introduce you to the concept of inequality in the age of capitalism. We will consider how inequality emerged as a social and political problem in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how it has re-emerged as a key concept for socio-political movements in our current moment. We will conclude with an inquiry into what the future of inequality might look like, especially with the coming of increased automation and the elimination of at least 50% of the jobs currently being done by human beings.
66-111: Understanding Gender Based Violence (S18)
Gender Based Violence (GBV) is a global heath & human rights crisis in which, according the World Health Organization, one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused. Discourse surrounding GBV enters into the sacred space of the home, the strategies of advertisers, the halls of the Senate, college campuses, and the galleries of the world's most well known museums. It is, literally, everywhere. Although it is everywhere, wide spread, and catastrophic, GBV is often minimized, concealed, and dismissed. This course will explore the many manifestations of GBV, from stalking to human trafficking, removing it from the shadows and bringing it into the open so that we can do something about it. Toward that end, we'll simultaneously explore the many creative ways people are combating this global epidemic. Throughout our work, we'll explore how gender based violence intersects with multiple, overlapping systems of oppression, from race to heteronormativity. Finally, you'll imaginatively develop your own resistance strategies through a culminating, group project.
66-114: Racism (S17, S18)
Racism is everywhere in the twenty-first century. In August 2009, the renowned Indian actor, Sharukh Khan, was detained at Newark International Airport. According to Khan, his Muslim surname led American immigration officials to question him about the nature of his visit for over two hours. Was his treatment racist? In 2011, Luis Suarez a Uruguayan soccer player was punished for allegedly calling French footballer Patrice Evra "negro" in England. But was the word "negro," said in Spanish, racist? Racism is a complex phenomenon that refers to historically hierarchical power differences between groups (e.g. Native populations and Europeans during the conquest), ideas about how humans can be classified into groups by "race," and also discriminatory practices against non-dominant groups. This system of social relations and ideology serves to justify social inequality and differential treatment. If we are to end racism, we must strive to understand it. What are the historical origins of racism? How is racism reproduced? How does race influence identity formation? Can racism produce positive identities? Why has the struggle against racism shifted from a demand for human rights to a search for diversity and inclusion? This course will examine racism in Pittsburgh, in the United States, and in several other countries and regions throughout the world. We will approach racism from multiple academic perspectives with a team of three faculty from the departments of History, English and Modern Languages. This team-based interdisciplinary approach to Freshman Seminars draws on several departments and guest speakers.
66-117: Political Rhetoric (F18, F19)
Without language, there would be no politics. Politics is about persuading others to adopt policies, to vote for candidates, to get out and march. Politics is about careful choices of language to frame issues, to make others see those issues in our preferred way. In this course, we will put the rhetoric of politics under the microscope, to identify its components and understand how they fit together into a powerful structure. We will use the tools of multiple disciplines in our analysis: rhetorical theory, both ancient and modern; cognitive science; contemporary discourse analysis; ethics; and philosophy of language. We will ask what it means for political rhetoric to be propaganda. We'll explore how political advertising uses marketing techniques, taking advantage of our innate biases and cognitive dispositions. We will look at how a skillful speaker can control the topic in a dialogue or a debate. And throughout, we will ask the question: is this ethical? Where does persuasion cross the boundary into manipulation, and does that matter? What type of rhetoric do we want our political process to rely on? Our goal in this course is to provide students with the skills to recognize the rhetorical tools that political agents are using, and to develop their own responses in a skillful and informed way.
66-118: Thinking with Evidence (F18, S21)
In a time of big data and widespread skepticism of science, it is crucial to understand how data and facts can be turned into conclusions, and then into public policy. Using topics from medicine, epidemiology, and public health, this course provides students an introduction into the grand challenge of understanding how evidence is used (and abused) in support of scientific conclusions. Questions of health and disease are particularly important areas for thinking about facts and figures because many life-or-death decisions have to be made on the basis of fragmentary and unreliable evidence. Every trip to the doctor, illness, and vaccination involves a complicated mix of public policy, scientific evidence, and emotional and historical factors. This course helps students understand the sciences and the humanities as united in their desire for rigorous argumentation rather than as competing or incompatible ways of thinking. Moreover, by taking a wide-angle lens to the topic, students will see how and why standards of scientific proof have changed over time, and track what these changes mean for thinking about evidence. Co-taught by a statistician and historian, this course draws on many different disciplines, providing students a broad introduction to reasoning across the humanities and social sciences. Students will be required to participate in written and oral arguments, read scientific articles as well as political, historical, and legal documents, and prepare a capstone project in which they will be asked to weigh real-life evidence and recommend a course of action to the Food and Drug Administration. Other topics may include vaccination controversies, regulation of carcinogens and toxic chemicals, mammography screening standards, and the treatment of infectious diseases in global health settings.
66-119: Feeding the World, Feeding Ourselves (S19, S20)
Food in the twenty-first century is ripe with paradox: fewer people than ever work as farmers or ranchers, but the quantity and global variety of foods available to consumers continues to expand; public health officials around the world are raising alarms about diseases linked to the over-consumption of fats and sugars, even as hundreds of millions of people do not know where their next meal is coming from; organic agriculture is booming, while agribusiness giants like Monsanto continue to expand. Producing food consumes more land and water resources than any other human activity. The individual and collective decisions people make about food shape individual and community health, social justice, and sustainability. If we are to make sound decisions about how to feed the world and feed ourselves, we need to understand the highly creative and contentious ways that people produce and consume food. In this class we will address the following central questions in order to unravel some paradoxes, and help us make informed choices, about foods we consume: (1) What are the origins of agriculture, and why does it matter for the future of food? (2) How do cultural, ecological, economic, and technological contexts shape food acquisition, preparation, and consumption? (3) What are the causes of hunger - can we feed 8 billion people healthy food and not trash the planet? And (4) what roles have science and technology played in shaping "industrial food," and in shaping the world around us?
66-122: Beyond Earth (S20, S21, S22, S23)
Space, as a television series once told us, is the final frontier. But what lies out there? It could be that the billions of rocky planets and moons in the Milky Way are just inert and ready to be terraformed and colonized...but what happens when we encounter life, intelligent or otherwise? In Beyond Earth, co-taught by an astrostatistician and a linguist, students will consider the various rationales for engaging with the rest of the galaxy...and the potential consequences of doing so. Why should one consider leaving the Earth, and where would he or she go? Just to Mars, or to other planetary systems? How long would it take to get to these other systems? The distances involved in space travel are immense, and we cannot rely on warp drives.
Inter-generational space travel is a possibility, but who is willing to leave Earth and spend the rest of his or her life on board a spaceship? When one's descendants finally arrive in a suitable planetary system, what happens if they find life? If so, what should they do - communicate with it, control it, or fly away from it? Perhaps these are the wrong questions...perhaps we need to ask if humans have the right to occupy other planets and moons in the first place. But even if we choose not to leave Earth, there will still be the issue of communication: from radio signals to satellites leaving the Solar System to proposed light sails that will be pushed to the nearest stars, we are making ourselves known. Should we do this? And if we send signals into space, how should we design them to make ourselves understood? What should we talk about? Just how should we go about engaging with the rest of our galaxy? By the end of the course, every student will be able to make an informed and dispassionate decision: stay on Earth and improve what we all have, or strike out into the great Beyond?
66-122: Beyond Earth: Reaching into the Cosmos through Science, Science Fiction, and Language (S23)
The aim in the course is to foster in students a planetary perspective, to see Earth in its context of the cosmos and to see humans in their relation to real or possible forms of life in the universe. The obsession with outer space is found among scientists, business people and politicians, in deed and story, in film and even computer games. If we are to fully appreciate the potentials of space, we must also consider the search for intelligent life in its scientific and societal aspects, and investigate how we could adapt our systems of communication to reach species across distances that may be physically insurmountable. This interdisciplinary course will be taught by scholars from distinct cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Course materials will be taken from scientific literature, the history of science, and science fiction. We will explore scientific writing and reasoning, the space race between global powers, space travel and colonization, and the promise and pitfalls of interspecies and interspace communication. A planetary perspective, once achieved, can change the way one sees other inhabitants of this planet - as partners in survival in a universe which sets enormous odds against it, or as unwelcome intruders grasping for scant resources within this thin epidermis of soil, air, and water which surrounds Earth and makes our lives possible.
66-123: Science on Stage (S20, S22)
Art and Science -- two fields of study that are most often considered diametrically opposed. Art is frivolous entertainment. Science is hard rational fact. In this Grand Challenge course, we hope to break that supposition or at least examine it in great detail. Specifically, we will use theater to argue that drama can produce challenging, demanding and intelligent work that showcases the impact of science on current discourse. We want to link the two cultures. The word "theater" has the same etymological root as "theory" - both words come from the Greek thea meaning view. This shared origin demonstrates ways we can work to analyze and interpret both fields and show the common ground between these two cultures. As we attend to plays and writing ranging from Tom Stoppards Arcadia and Michael Frayns Copenhagen to Caryl Churchills A Number and Oliver Sacks Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, our class discussions will consider questions that include: Why is science a trend in contemporary theater? Does it reflect on our dependence on technology? What kinds of questions are being asked when science or scientific theory is presented on the stage? Are people attracted to plays about science because of their difficult subject matter or does it does it lack the engagement of popular culture? In addition to integrating humanities and scientific approaches within Dietrich College, this course will utilize the expertise of both individuals in the School of Drama and the producers in the local theater community, and local science writers. Finally, in addition to weekly writing assignments, the course will ask students to produce original dramatic scenes that incorporate scientific exploration which will, ultimately, lead to staged readings of their work.
66-125: Democracy and Data (F20, F21, F22)
From gerrymandering to online political ads, data is being used in ways that raise urgent questions about the integrity of democratic elections. But the relationship between democracy and data goes far beyond elections. In a world of constant surveillance, in which vast amounts of data are gathered from our phones, our computers, and from other facets of our lives - and in which new breakthroughs in machine learning and data analytics make such data dramatically more powerful - what does it mean for average citizens to have control over their own lives? What does democracy mean?
66-126: Voting: An American Tradition (F20, F22)
This course investigates the sacred American practice of voting, the cornerstone of American democracy, using the 2020 election cycle as our laboratory. The course uses a multi-disciplinary approach, examining the topic from several different perspectives. We'll investigate social movements to expand the vote, the role of technology, game theory, polling, predictions, electoral mapping, social media, the structures of American governance, and more. Questions include: What is the electoral college? Who gets to vote and why? How well is that vote accounted for? How can voting systems be compromised? Why is it so hard to predict who will win? How do people make decisions? How useful are polling & predictions? What disrupts voting? Why is turnout so low? How does money play a role in the election cycle? Why do we vote the way we do? How is social media changing elections? What are global best practices? Did the founders even intend for a mass democracy? (The answer is no!) Many of you will be first-time, eligible voters in one of the most remarkable presidential campaigns in American history. We'll build your skills as new democratic citizens, of this nation or others, and help you make sense of the history-making U.S. news cycle.
A note on partisanship: All political viewpoints are welcome in this class. This is a course on how we navigate and account for political difference in a diverse, disparate nation. This is something we'll practice in class, while we will also study that very process across the nation.
66-127: Environmental Justice (F20, S22)
Wondering what the "Green New Deal" proposal is about? Does it seem like you have to choose between protecting people and protecting the planet? How does environmentalism connect to struggles over social justice and human rights? This first-year interdisciplinary seminar is an introduction to the Grand Challenge: Environmental Justice. In Giovanna de Chiro's words, the environmental justice movement is working "toward building diverse, dynamic, and powerful coalitions to address the world's most pressing social and environmental crises global poverty and global climate change by organizing across scales and 'seeking a global vision' for healthy, resilient, and sustainable communities." In this seminar, we'll study the history and science behind two interconnected challenges for environmental justice: global climate change and fine-particulate air pollution. Both types of pollution start with combustion of fossil fuels. Particulate air pollution kills roughly 7 million globally each year; these air pollution deaths happen close to the source, with unequal levels of exposure and risk for people according to class and race. Climate change, mostly from carbon dioxide and methane emissions, is spread globally and lasts well beyond our lifetimes, yet the effects are again disproportionately based on class and race. In this course, we'll explore the science, history, ethics, and public perception of these problems, with implications for Pittsburgh and the planet, and for the near- and long-term future.
66-128: Palestinian and Israeli Food Cultures (S21, F21, F22)
In a region beset by conflict, how do food cultures allow us to approach cultural intersections and connections? This course is designed to provide students with a historical, cultural, and linguistic understanding of the hybrid nature of Jewish and Arab cultures, and the multiple ethnic contributions to local food cultures in Israel and Palestine. The two instructors, from the fields of Jewish history and Arabic Studies, will introduce students to the history, literature, film, and languages of the region, as well as to critical scholarship on food and foodways in the Palestinian and Israeli context. Students will have the opportunity to engage in cooking either locally or in Philadelphia - subject to travel restrictions - and to learn from Michael Solomonov and Reem Kassis, two award-winning US-based celebrity chefs and authors of Israeli and Palestinian cook books respectively. Throughout the semester we will also host a range of guest speakers who will deliver lectures on our course topic in the classroom and in the community.
66-129: Unreality: Immersive and Spatial Media (S21, S22)
Virtual news stories and game worlds are accessible by putting on cardboard goggles, theme parks are engineered to provide convincing multisensory experiences, and workforces are reliant on augmented views of factory floors. Immersive and spatial media constitute a suite of emerging technologies that offer the opportunity to expand arts, entertainment, science, design, commercial enterprises and countless other domains in ways that were previously limited to science fiction. The potential for augmented reality to disrupt our current technological ecosystem is tremendous. Many of these technologies are now 50 years old and just starting to enter the commercial realm. As immersive experiences and augmented realities become more integrated into our work and leisure, do we need to worry about the ways that unreality affect our experiences of reality, or our interactions with each other? How do we know that we can trust our senses to tell us what is real? How do we begin to grapple with the ethical, cultural, social, technological, and regulatory implications of this shift?
66-131: Culture, Sports, and Conflict in/and VR (S21, F21, F22)
Sports have been celebrated for bringing people together; yet, sports have also been a locus of tensions and conflict that most of us only experience from the sidelines. We understand sports, the people, and their cultural impact through the stories that we tell about them in such places as museums, stadium tours, and Halls of Fame as well as in books, documentaries, and podcasts. Through immersive technologies, these stories are brought to life and bring fans to the heart of the action. In this course, students and faculty together will seek to achieve two main objectives: (1) examine ways in which cultural and societal values are reflected in sports and (2) how Virtual Reality (VR) technology can help design experiences that enhance the users awareness of these issues by engaging with these cultural and societal perspectives. We will first unpack sports stories that are squarely situated at the crossroads of sports and culture(s) (e.g., racism, human rights, and the role of government and/in national politics). Then we will explore the role of VR technology to help craft these narratives. Students, then, will discover what it means to write stories for VR experiences. The course will culminate in students designing an immersive experience about a sports conflict of their choice, which will be developed more fully to be displayed in the Askwith Kenner Global Languages and Cultures Room.
66-132 : Health in Unhealthy Times (F21)
We live in times when health is a major global concern, whether we worry about the increase in Covid-19 cases, await our immunization, strive to understand the disproportionate impact of the disease on BIPOC populations, or debate mitigation measures not to mention ongoing concerns with common chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disease, depression, anxiety, etc.. Health, or lack thereof, has always been a critical part of the human experience, and it is fundamentally impacted by different human experiences. This seminar will introduce students to the scientific aspects of health, its political and social determinants, ethical constraints, historical roots, as well as to the cultural and communicative skills required to dialogue about health, make decisions, and engage empathically with others in their health stories. We will read and discuss a broad variety of materials from medical science articles to social psychological experimental reports and personal or literary narratives about health. The course is divided into three components: health and preventative behaviors, managing chronic health challenges, and coping with disruptive health experiences. We believe these components can represent a broad array of interest and engage students on a personal level.
66-133: We're Not Beyond Race: Race and Identity in America (F21, F22)
Race matters. How have social institutions and historical factors led to the belief systems and stereotypes that shape how race is experienced in American society, and how do these belief systems affect the way individuals come to view and define themselves and others? This course considers how race and identity affect peoples lived experiences - how they think, feel, and act - in America. In this course, we will examine the structural and systemic origins of the racial status quo, as well as the way that individuals navigate the social and racial landscape of modern-day America. Including insights from psychology, literature, economics, sociology, and history, the course will focus on how race matters at both a societal level and an individual level. We will consider different racial situations throughout American society to understand how individuals navigate and experience race and identity. Throughout the course, we will watch films, read literature, and analyze music and art that reflect the experience of race and identity.
66-134: Native Americas: Facts and Fictions (S22, F22)
How did Indigenous people respond to the challenges of populating the American hemisphere and creating complex, diverse and dynamic cultures, languages and political entities? How did they survive, adapt to, and resist the conquest and colonization of their lands, and ensuing social and cultural dislocations? How have they resurged politically, culturally, artistically and intellectually in recent years? This course considers the history, experiences, and perspectives of native populations across the Americas. It seeks to reckon with the facts of the Native American experience, while challenging the fictions of stereotypes and narratives that have often relegated Indigenous people to the social and cultural margins of the nations in which they now live. After introducing students to a few of the myriad Indigenous groups of North, Central and South America, we will then survey the implications of the era of European conquest and colonization. Well consider the implications of the rise of new nations in the Americas, as new and intensifying campaigns of violence were unleashed against Indigenous populations. We will consider the rise of Native American civil rights and political and cultural sovereignty movements from the late 20th century forward, as they coalesced into major political challenges to native marginalization and demands for recognition and reparation of historical injustices. Finally, we will explore how contemporary Indigenous artists, authors, and political and social activists are reimagining indigeneity (the condition and experience of being Indigenous) in ways that demonstrate how indigeneity is not a fixed kind of identity, not one that is confined or defined in any way by a static conception of tradition, but rather one that challenges the present and reimagines the future in dynamic and creative ways.
66-135: Designing Better Human AI Futures (S22)
This course will explore the societal impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) based decision-making systems, especially focusing on the societal biases they may enhance or reduce. Students will gain a fundamental understanding of how these systems are designed and work, as well as the role of data in mitigating or enhancing biases. The course is multidisciplinary in nature and brings together social scientists, engineers, data scientists, and designers to tackle the grand challenge of dealing with issues of bias and fairness in Human-AI collaborative systems, ranging from the data that is used to train them, to their human creators that are responsible for deciding how they work and get used. Students will investigate policy, technology and societal elements aimed at reducing and mitigating the impact of AI biases that can negatively impact society, especially its vulnerable members.
66-161: Artificial Intelligence and Humanity (F17, F18, F19)
In 1965 British mathematician I.J. Good wrote, "An ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind." As we enter an age where companies like Uber are testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh and innovative interfaces like IBM's Watson can play Jeopardy and learn techniques for medical diagnoses, how are we to negotiate an 'intelligence explosion' that for many individuals might threaten the very notions of what it means to be human? The future of human-to-machine relationships will likely define our historical epoch and yet, many young technologists and humanists underestimate the downstream impact of technological innovations on human society. Presently, we have little choice but to attend to this rapidly anxiety-ridden question. This seminar will attend to the challenge of contemporary existential questions on what it means to be human (read not machine) in the context of a rapidly advancing technological age. We will consider human narratives throughout history that exam how governments and individual citizens defined humanity in the context of slavery and colonialism as a framework for exploring and projecting what it means to be human in the age of rapidly advancing 'intelligent' machines. We will trace the technological advancements of the recent five decades and identify historical precedents and speculative narratives that help us to consider issues like labor, economic disparity, negotiations of power, human dignity and ethical responsibility within the context of human relations with advancing technological tools that are now coined, artificial intelligence.