June 6, 2011

Superheroes, tsunamis, bugs and brains top ISU's summer blockbuster classes

by Teddi Barron, News Service

Summer school used to be the time to take dreaded classes or play catch up. But these days, it comes in all shapes, sizes, locations, subjects and modes.

At Iowa State, the summer course offerings cover the gamut. From the impact of geologic disasters to the invention of the superhero ... from the why of motion sickness to the how of celestial navigation ... from the history of the kimono to the future of downtown Des Moines.

More than 6,300 undergraduates enrolled in Iowa State's 2010 summer classes, according to the Office of the Registrar (the 2011 enrollment isn't available until late June). And, while there is no typical summer school student, they tend to be juniors or seniors. More are male, although a slightly higher proportion of females are enrolled in summer than during the rest of the year. Nearly a third take classes on the Web.

And they're taking summer courses for a month, three months, online, on campus and in 46 countries. Some classes meet every day. Some are three hours per day; some three hours a week. Many started May 16, but others begin June 13 or as late as July 11.

Here's a sampling of what students are learning this summer at Iowa State.

Bugs and geologic disasters

What better time to study bugs than in the summer? Entomology professor Donald Lewis teaches a five-week online course, "Introduction to Insects." And it doesn't require that you touch a creepy crawly, just learn about their differences, relatives and development.

Another summer hit, "Geologic Disasters," features Earth's most catastrophic and disruptive events -- earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis -- and their impact on human history. Barbara Hill, lecturer in geological and atmospheric sciences, takes students from the eruption of Mt. Toba 74,000 years ago to the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 and the recent devastating earthquake in Japan. Students need only look at the Japanese disaster in March to understand geology's impact on human activity, Hill said.

"We will discuss how it affected the automobile industry in the U.S., the flash drive industry, the manufacturing of flat screen TVs, tourism in Hawaii and even the taping of NBA championship games," she said.

Celestial studies

"North Star Astronomy" and "Evening Star" journey beyond the Earth to the sky. In the first course, students learn about the sky from the perspective of being on the earth -- where things are, how they move or appear to move and why. It's the sort of practical astronomical knowledge used for millennia to set up a calendar and navigate the globe. The companion course contemplates the solar system and what it takes to explore it. Lee Anne Willson, University Professor of physics and astronomy, teaches both.

The art and history of the comics

In the world of art history, comics are known as "sequential art." About 40 students are enrolled in the upper-level course, "Sequential Art: Comic Strips, Comic Books and Graphic Novels," taught by John Cunnally, associate professor of art history. When he was in school 30 years ago, Cunnally says, comics were not part of academic scholarship and critical analysis.

"Since then, more attention has been paid to this branch of popular art, often from a sociological and political perspective -- for example, is there a connection between the invention of the superhero and the rise of Fascism in the 1930s?"

Cunnally's students will learn to recognize the relationship between comics and the avant-garde, including high art movements such as cubism, surrealism and abstract expression. Cunnally points to the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, considered "a wonderful example of surrealistic art 15 years before the word surrealism was invented."

New sensations

The psychology class, "Sensation and Perception" tackles the biology of the sensory system, the gateway to all other psychological phenomena. Students learn phenomena associated with each sense and the underlying physiological causes. For example, the experience of motion or seasickness has an interesting evolution, says associate professor Eric Cooper.

"Motion sickness occurs when there's a dissociation between what your eyes are telling you about the world and what the vestibular organs -- the organs of balance located in your inner ear -- are telling. On a boat, your visual system tells your brain that the visual world is stable, but your vestibular organs says that you are moving," Cooper explained.

"The human body has evolved to vomit whenever such a dissociation occurs because a side effect of food poisoning is the dissociation between visual and vestibular systems. In other words, you actually get sea sickness because your brain thinks you have food poisoning," Cooper said.

Envisioning downtown Des Moines

Eight architecture students are looking at urban design in general, and downtown Des Moines in particular in "The Next Big Thing: Re-inhabiting Des Moines at the Intersection of Culture and History." Taught by assistant professor Charles MacBride, the class is re-examining the city's 2008 downtown plan, considering its relevance and feasibility following the recession. They'll also come up with their own proposals with an eye toward what might be the "next big thing" to make downtown Des Moines a destination. Should there be an iconic building or buildings (like the Bilbao Guggenheim), an enhanced cultural/entertainment district, radically different transportation or landscaping, or a major push to add housing? Each student will propose and design an idea.

Civil rights and cultural perspectives

While this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides by activists for black civil rights, the struggle for rights has not been limited to African-Americans. In "Civil Rights and Ethnic Power," 45 Iowa State students are learning about the civil rights movements of the Mexican American, Puerto Rican and Native American communities, as well. The first-time course taught by Brian Behnken, assistant professor of history, examines each movement independently, and then compares their similarities, differences, leadership styles and organizations.

"Students are often surprised to learn that these groups borrow ideas, tactics and inspiration from one another, but that they don't always work together all that well," Behnken said.

The popular online course, "Cultural Perspectives of Dress and Textiles," considers clothing as it reflects and contributes to the culture of a society, including technology, aesthetics, identity and ritual. About 45 students learn about the Japanese kimono, the Islamic veil or Hijab, the Indian sari and Guatemalan Mayan hand-woven apparel, considering design, production and marketing. The class is taught by Janet Fitzpatrick, a lecturer in apparel, educational studies and hospitality management.