Course Syllabus

Foundations of Science

Foundations of Science (FoS) is not the last science course our students will be taking.  In fact, the complexity of life in the 21st century necessitates a consistent retooling of our basic scientific knowledge.  This 2nd year common curriculum course will give students not only the foundational tools to begin their exploration of the biogeophysical world, but instill a curiosity in them that will drive their desire to engage with it.

To achieve these goals, we have designed a course that appeals to the liberal arts student that is not planning to major in science at this point.  (Our desire is, of course, to change their minds.)  The course consists of 8 five-week long ‘Disciplinary Case Studies’ that are based around two themes - Evolution and Revolution. The case studies are developed to advance a series of learning goals (outlined below). Within the course, students will take two of these five week case studies, and then work together for the last weeks of the class to answer a question related to a "Grand Challenge."  The idea is to gain disciplinary expertise through two of the case studies, and then convene as teams of students and share that expertise toward answering an interdisciplinary problem.

The students are divided into two sections - one that meets at 2:30PM on Tuesday and Friday with the theme of "Revolutions" and one that meets at 4:30PM on Tuesday and Friday with the theme of "Evolution."  A short description of each of these two themes is below.




The intricate forms we see around us in nature - a seashell, a bird’s feather, a blossoming flower - all evolved and were the results of millions of years of natural selection. Beyond our world, the forms of planets, stars, and galaxies are likewise sculpted by the evolution of natural forces over billions of years. Envisioning and reconstructing these forces of natural selection and cosmic evolution require a form of detective work and deep grounding in the disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics. However it is important to stress that the process of evolution is not in the past - our planet, the lifeforms in it, and our universe continues to evolve, often on timescales within our lifespan. The results of human intervention on the biosphere - global warming, reductions of biodiversity, and the depletion of all manner of natural resources are also altering the course of evolution in dramatic and perhaps irreversible ways. In this course we will explore the processes of evolution in its broadest sense - both from the perspective of the past, and for the future, as we apply our knowledge to help study how humans can enable the future evolution of our planet to be more habitable and more sustainable.



Seemingly random events that displace an established community/technology/ ideology and resculpt landscapes happen all the time. An earthquake occurs, killing a quarter of a million people. A device the size of your hand, with 1,300 times the processor speed and 1.5 million times more memory than the Apollo spacecraft’s guidance computer that you use to call your mom. Technology that is on the scale of one-billionth of a meter that will revolutionize medicine and make your socks less stinky. These stochastic/chaotic disruptions are constantly changing everything in our world. How do these disruptions create opportunities for change? How have humans been involved in processes of disruption using technology and innovation? What are some of the up-coming disruptive technologies and/or natural events that will change they way humans live from here on out? How can some of those technologies help us and other organisms survive on Earth?


Each section has four instructors so students will pick two of the four case studies available to them. The case studies are listed and described below.

Evolution Disciplinary Case Studies

Foundations of Science: Evolution 4:30PM 

Antonia Monteiro -  "Novel Traits" -

Description: We share this planet with life forms that are wonderfully diverse and display a variety of novel traits. How do these traits originate at the developmental level? How does the environment control trait development? And how will environmental change impact trait development and trait evolution?

Jen Sheridan - "Biogeography" -

Description:  Introduction to patterns of species distributions & diversity, and factors influencing such patterns. Course will introduce students to the field of biogeography so that they understand why organisms exist in the places they do, and what contributes to species distribution and diversity patterns. Additionally, students should be able to apply this knowledge to predict how these will change in the face of anthropogenic factors.

Stanislav Presolski - "Chemistry of Life"-

Description: Life! From a chemist's perspective. The fundamental building blocks of everything that surrounds us will be discussed, from simple gases, liquids and solids, through man-made dyes, drugs and plastics, all the way to the chemistry of living things. We will explore the interactions between matter and energy that constitute our everyday experiences and attempt to make sense of them all through just a few general concepts. Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.

Bryan Penprase - "Finding and Maintaining a Habitable Planet" -

Description: From the billions of years of cosmic history our Earth has emerged as a lively habitat for a diverse range of creatures. We will explore some of the cosmic history that produced our Earth, and the natural forces that shape the formation of stars and solar systems. We will also explore how new solar systems are discovered, and how astronomers determine whether they are habitable. Within this exploration will be a consideration of the factors that make planets, including the earth, habitable and how changes to those parameters through distortions of the atmosphere, oceans, and reflectivity from cloud cover change the temperatures of the Earth and other planets.

The other group of students, enrolled in "Revolution" will choose between the disciplinary case studies listed below.

Revolution Disciplinary Case Studies

Foundations of Science: Revolutions 2:30PM 

Andrew Bettiol - "Modern Physics and the Silicon Revolution "

Description:  At the end of the 19th century, scientists believed that they had a good understanding of how the universe worked. The fundamental physical laws developed by Isaac Newton were able to accurately describe the motion of objects as large as planets and Maxwell’s pioneering work in unifying electricity and magnetism enabled us to a describe wave nature of light. These theories were to forever change the way in which we see and understand nature and the universe. They laid down the theoretical foundations that have led to the development of almost all of the modern technology that we use today.  In this unit, we will begin by studying quantum theory by exploring the new revolutionary ideas that were developed in the early part of the 20th century. In addition we will explore the key experiments that verified these ideas. We will then discuss how these theories have led to many of the technologies that we use today. In particular we will look at the development of semiconductors that ultimately led to the development of the computer. Finally we will see how another scientific revolution will be necessary in order for us to continue to develop our modern technology.

Simon Perrault - "Interaction with Mobile and Wearable Computers"

Description: Miniaturization has allowed computers to go from the size of a large main frame to a personal computer and then laptop. While laptops changed computer usage by allowing (limited) mobile usage of computers, the real revolution was when PDAs and smartphones hit the market, coupled with affordable wireless data transfer. The upcoming wearable computers will also propose new features and capabilities leading to seamless interaction, as these devices are embedded directly on their users and can thus access to a large quantity of private data (conversations, health information, etc...). In this unit, we will focus on mobile and wearable computers and how these devices changed the way we interact with each other and also with machines in general. Students will get a clear overview of the different sensors that are either found or can easily be added to mobile devices and how they operate. The unique new usages of wearable computers will be demonstrated as well as applications for mobile health and large scale data gathering. Students will also have an opportunity to build simple prototypes using Arduino and make them communicate together. Finally, the drawbacks of these devices particularly in terms of privacy will be discussed.

Lerwen Liu - "Nanotechnology and Sustainability"

Description: This unit will introduce the latest exciting development of nanotechnology through elaborating the making of smart phones and how nanotechnology will transform various industries including aerospace, construction, automotive, electronics, energy, medicine, environment & water and much more. The unit will explore multifunctional nanomaterials and nanomanufacturing technologies which will impact the future smartphone and wearable devices, and will address the role of nanotechnology in our efforts of building a social, environmental and economic sustainable future through the concept of use less for more. Students will also gain training in soft skills through business plan practice on holistic design of real world solutions utilizing technological innovation addressing sustainability.

Brian McAdoo - "Earthquakes" -

Description: What is an earthquake?  Where, when, and how often do they occur?  How do we know the record of past earthquakes in a given region?  How is energy transferred over vast distances efficiently enough to level a building?  And what is it about earthquakes that, despite our best efforts, still trigger such tremendous losses?  We begin with the geophysical fundamentals of plate tectonics, then explore the nature of seismic wave propagation and how it leads to buildings falling down and killing people.  To do this, we are going to use Tokyo, Los Angeles, Istanbul and Sumatra as case studies, and work to ‘predict’ when the next disaster will hit.

Grand Challenge Project

After completing two of these disciplinary case studies, students will be brought together to help address a "Grand Challenge" question in interdisciplinary teams. Each of the two sections have chosen a Grand Challenge question, which teams of students will answer with projects that synthesize their learning in the two case studies, and bring together the expertise of students in diverse teams. The two questions to address are these:

EVOLUTION: What are some likely future adaptations of organisms and communities to the anthropocene?

REVOLUTION: Design a New Disruptive Innovation that can be used to deal with one of the consequences of global climate change. 

Each of the two courses will divide into teams of four students to provide an array of answers to these urgent questions during the last three weeks of the semester. Students will conduct their own research, which may include library and database analysis, as well as field visits and interviews with leading experts in their area of choice. The instructor teams will provide a menu of possible experimental and field efforts, and also will solicit students to invent their own investigations to help answer these questions. The teams of students will present their results to their peers and their instructors in a poster fair. Copies of these posters will be placed on a web site, and used to help solve some of the most pressing environmental, technical and scientific problems of the day.

 Learning Goals

The immersion into disciplinary topics and synthesis via the Grand Challenge exercise is what makes FoS different from Scientific Inquiry (SI).  In SI, the focus was on the story of scientific discovery. Our desire to deliver deeper discipline-specific content to enable students to go beyond the methods of inquiry into some of the current topics of research within a mix of scientific fields.

The first week of FoS has three goals- 1) to introduce the course, the faculty, their specialties, and the units they will be teaching, and 2) to signpost the learning goals, and 3) to set up the driver of the course- that interface between the known and unknown which makes science exciting and drives curiosity and discovery.   The conversation about science will begin with a common reading of the book entitled, Ignorance - and How it Drives Science, by Silverstein.

The overall learning goals of the course divide into classes that are outlined below.

  • Disciplinary Knowledge: demonstrate a systematic or coherent understanding of an academic field of study
  • Critical Thinking: apply analytic thought to a body of knowledge; evaluate arguments; identify relevant assumptions or implications; formulate coherent arguments
  • Communication Skills: express ideas clearly in writing; speak articulately; communicate with others using media as appropriate; work effectively with others
  • Scientific and Quantitative Reasoning: demonstrate the ability to understand cause and effect relationships; define problems; use symbolic thought; apply scientific principles; solve problems with no single correct answer
  • Self-Directed Learning: work independently; identify appropriate resources; take initiative; manage a project through to completion
  • Information Literacy: access, evaluate, and use a variety of relevant information sources
  • Engagement in the Process of Discovery or Creation: for example, demonstrate the ability to work productively in a laboratory setting, studio, library, or field environment
  • Multicultural Competence: for example, express an understanding of the values and beliefs of multiple cultures; effectively engage in a multicultural society; interact respectfully with diverse others; develop a global perspective
  • Moral and Ethical Awareness: embrace moral/ethical values in conducting one’s life; formulate a position/argument about an ethical issue from multiple perspectives; use ethical practices in all work
  • Self-Management: care for oneself responsibly, demonstrate awareness of oneself in relation to others
  • Community Engagement: demonstrate responsible behavior; engage in the intellectual life of the university outside the classroom; participate in community and civic affairs

In addition to these overall goals, each of the five-week case studies will present a series of assessable learning outcomes - which will guide the course content. This method of "backward course design" will enable students to gain authentic knowledge through their own discovery as they work in active learning settings in the classroom, and conduct their own research in the course.


Within Foundations of Science, students will receive grades on each of their two 5-week disciplinary case studies, as well as a grade for their performance in the "Grand Challenge" exercise. The weighting of these grades are below:

  • Disciplinary Case Study I - 40% - based on common grading framework (described below)
  • Disciplinary Case Study II - 40% - based on common grading framework (described below)
  • Grand Challenge - 20% - based on a rubric and multiple evaluations of the final poster.

Each of the Case studies will also share a common grading framework in which a final project, homeworks and quizzes, and an intermediate project all share equal weights from one section to another. The weighting of each component will be fixed from one section to another, giving more of a common experience and workload within the course. However the exact form of the weekly assignments, and intermediate assignments will vary from one instructor to the next.  These weightings that will be used within each of the FoS sections are as follows:

  • Class participation - 10%
  • Weekly assignments (can take many forms; worksheets, questions, quizzes in class) - 20%
  • Final project (also can take many forms; a written paper of 5+ pages with references is most common) - 50%
  • Intermediate assignment (can also take many forms - a short talk, computer simulation exercises, lab experiments)- 20%


Foundations of Science begins in the second week of the Yale-NUS semester, to enable our second year students to attend the short courses offered by Yale University faculty. The schedule includes the two five-week disciplinary case studies, followed by the three weeks of the grand challenge. An outline of the schedule is shown below, in block format.

The exact schedule for First semester of 2015 is below. The class begins with a "common" meeting on August 18, in which the four sections will be introduced and the instructor team will lead a discussion about the book Ignorance. Each of the weeks in the five week units is designated with the Roman Numerals. Each instructor will provide a detailed breakdown of their 5-week section at the beginning of the class.

Week Date Comment
1 11-Aug no class
14-Aug no class
2 18-Aug common class - all sections meet together
21-Aug Ia - Begin units
3 25-Aug Ib
28-Aug Iia
4 1-Sep Iib
4-Sep IIIa
5 8-Sep IIIb
11-Sep Iva
6 15-Sep Ivb
18-Sep Va
22-Sep Recess week
25-Sep Recess week
7 29-Sep Vb (week7)
2-Oct Ia - Begin Second Unit
8 6-Oct Ib
9-Oct Iia
9 13-Oct Iib
16-Oct IIIa
10 20-Oct IIIb
23-Oct Iva
11 27-Oct Ivb
30-Oct Va
12 3-Nov Vb
6-Nov Grand Challenge
13 10-Nov Deepavali
13-Nov Grand Challenge
14 17-Nov Grand Challenge
20-Nov Grand Challenge
15 24-Nov Reading Week
27-Nov Reading Week
16 1-Dec Exams
4-Dec Exams

The overall flow during the semester can also be diagramed in a block diagram. A typical student would start at the top of the diagram, and move down through the two 5-week disciplinary case studies, into the Grand Challenge in the final weeks.