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Disciplinary Case Studies and Grand Challenges

During the semester, students will each take two of our 5-week disciplinary case studies. These case studies are grouped into two groups of four. One group of students, enrolled in "Evolution" will choose between the disciplinary case studies listed below.


Evolution Disciplinary Case Studies

Foundations of Science: Evolution 4:30PM 

 Antonia Monteiro -  "Novel Traits" - antonia.monteiro@nus.edu.sg

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" - jasheridan@gmail.com

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" - stanislav.presolski@gmail.com

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" - bryan.penprase@yale-nus.edu.sg

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 " a.bettiol@nus.edu.sg

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"perrault.simon@gmail.com

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" lerwen@nano-globe.biz

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" -  brian.mcadoo@yale-nus.edu.sg

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: How can new technologies help reduce the impacts and help people survive disasters?

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.




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?




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.