E-Mail Messages Of Scientific Stars Are Required Reading In Harvard U. Course

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[ Wed. Feb. 11. 1998 ]

Some undergraduates at Harvard University are reading the e-mail messages of world-renowned scientists and cultural thinkers this semester as part of an introductory science course.

The people behind the e-mail messages are contributors to Edge, a group of intellectuals who use the Internet to discuss the social implications of science and technology. The use of the e-mail in the Harvard class is an experiment to test whether their exchanges can be integrated into college courses.

Anyone on the Internet can get a taste of the Edge discussions by visiting the group's World-Wide Web site. The Harvard students, however, are subscribers to the group's e-mail newsletter, which is distributed every few weeks and contains e-mail messages, essays, and queries from Edge contributors.

"The idea is to bring students up to speed on the latest thoughts" of top scientists, says Marc D. Hauser, an anthropology professor at Harvard and an Edge contributor. He subscribed his students to the newsletter as part of " Human Behavioral Biology," a course he teaches with another anthropology professor, Irven DeVore.

Using Edge material seemed ideal, Dr. Hauser says, because of the range of topics that members of the group discuss. A few weeks ago, for example, the newsletter featured a talk with Patti Maes, an artificial-life researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. Other contributors have included Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who wrote Climbing Mount Improbable (W.W. Norton, 1996), and Steven Pinker, an M.I.T. psychologist and the author of How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997).

John Brockman, a prolific author and literary agent for scores of writers on science and technology, founded Edge after he wrote The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1995). The book argues that today's intellectual luminaries are "scientists and other thinkers" who are "rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives." He decided to open an e-mail salon for those "Third Culture" thinkers, people who, in his estimation, bridge the worlds of literary theorists and traditional scientists.

Mr. Brockman says he has wanted to expose college students to the group's e-mail messages for some time. He has dubbed the concept "Edge University," and hopes that if the Harvard experiment works, professors from around the world will come on board. "E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think."

The Harvard biology course enrolls about 500 undergraduates, who each week attend lectures as a whole and then meet in groups of 20 for discussions. When the Edge e-mail messages relate to course readings or lectures, they are integrated into those discussions. Because the course is introductory and interdisciplinary, Dr. Hauser expects Edge's exchanges to intersect often with what students are learning in class.

Already, Dr. Hauser says, after mentioning the Edge discussions in one of his lectures, "I hear students in the coffee shops yapping away. It is very exciting."

Dr. Hauser acknowledges that he could simply direct his students to the Web site each week, but he says the students respond better to the immediacy of e-mail. And, he argues, a thread of e-mail messages is more likely to be read as a discussion than is the drier, impersonal content of a book. As he puts it, "E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think." Soon, Dr. Hauser hopes, the students will be asking Edge contributors about material they have posted.

"E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think."

Creating that level of interaction with the members, however, will get tricky. Mr. Brockman, Edge's founder, keeps distractions on the newsletter to a minimum by filtering out irrelevant messages from subscribers before he distributes them. So instead of posting messages directly to subscribers of the Edge newsletter, the students will send their questions to Dr. Hauser and his research assistants, who will compile and forward them to Mr. Brockman. Mr. Brockman will then ask contributors for responses, which will be relayed back to the students through Dr. Hauser.

If Edge University catches on at other colleges, Mr. Brockman envisions operating it through a network of participating professors, who would forward the Edge newsletter to their students. He also says that a parallel e-mail discussion list could be created to allow students around the world to debate issues raised in the newsletters.

In e-mail messages that Mr. Brockman has posted on the Web site, Edge contributors have praised the idea of reaching out to students.

"The Edge material potentially plugs an important intellectual hole," wrote David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale University who is known for his critiques of technology's influence on society. Understanding the implications of science and technology "is a tremendously important topic ... universities know it, students want to study it," he continued. But, he added, "universities in general don't have a clue about how to teach it."

Also see: An excerpt from John Brockman's 1995 book, The Third Culture 6/16/95

Copyright 1998, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on EDGE. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without permission from The Chronicle.

LISA GUERNSEY writes about information technology for The Chronicle and manages its on-line information technology section.

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