Student-Run Course to Examine Biology From A Mathematical Perspective

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Next semester, Benjamin Blonder ‘08 will run a class looking at biology from a different perspective than is normal for Swarthmore. Instead of “describing properties of the natural world,” this course “seeks…to understand its basic principles.” Taking a mathematically rigorous approach to these topics, Blonder says, allows a deeper understanding of the natural world.

Although the class will change according to its participants’ interests, its main focus will be on various theoretical models, ranging over such topics as biological thermodynamics, plant structure, and coevolution, among others. The class, which will follow the seminar format, will be taught “at a high level,” said Blonder; it won’t delve into “very many details with actual biological systems, but instead will look at their underlying principles.”

Blonder, a physics major with a biology minor, has been doing research in these areas for the last three semesters. He said that his friends wanted to know what he had been working on for so long, but when he said he was doing biology research they replied, “Oh, that’s not quantitative.” In an effort to let people know that in fact, biology can be quantitative and rigorous, he decided he wanted to teach this course.

So far, Blonder has heard interest from “about fifteen to twenty people” whose interests range throughout the natural sciences, “from freshmen to seniors.” Ideally, he said, the class will end up with ten to twelve members, though he doesn’t “plan on cutting anyone from the team.”

The class will be taught under the Physics department; the faculty advisor is John Boccio, a physics instructor. His role is “not quite precise yet”; he is likely to help coordinate the class and give a “lecture every once in a while,” said Blonder. Furthermore, he is in charge of deciding students’ grades, though the course will be on a credit-no credit basis — the course is worth one credit.

Blonder said, however, that the class “has no real involvement with any department.” He expects to invite professors from a variety of departments to give occasional guest lectures.

In general, student-taught classes are rare, although there are rules set out for them in the course catalog. Registrar Martin Warner said via email that “we used to have 1 or 2 a year during the nineties, but since 2000 we have had only two I can verify.” He added that he was unable to find any in the physics department “in the last couple decades.”

There have, however, been many more student run courses which do not receive academic credit, “perhaps more than those that earned credit,” though Warner did not have a list of those. One example of such a “class” is the web design clinic to be run next semester.

Although pre-registration closed yesterday, don’t despair if you’re interested in Physics 120: the course was not available for pre-registration anyway. It can be added during the add/drop period to begin shortly. If interested, you should contact Blonder.

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