Exeter Innovates: new courses challenge old constructs

Our interdisciplinary classes engage students in hands-on learning and creative problem-solving.

Nicole Pellaton and Genny Beckman Moriarty
February 5, 2018
Students in a new Bioethics course get hands-on experience with gene editing in the CRISPR lab.

Seniors Sloane Valen and Alan Xie try their hand at gene editing in the CRISPR Lab.

Phelps Science Center 204 takes skeletons seriously. 

Shark jaws yawn open at the center of the Harkness table, surrounded by a jumble of coral, sea urchins and sea stars. Over by the large wall of windows, a pacing black jaguar, stopped in taxidermied repose, gazes upon lab tables. And up near the ceiling, a once-active muskrat hangs permanently suspended from the beak of a stuffed hawk frozen in flight.

It’s totally apt in this classroom, where reminders of life abound, that 14 students meet three times a week to discuss thorny ethical questions about life-altering science. These seniors and uppers are the first to take Bioethics, one of the new Exeter Innovates courses debuting this year.

Conceived and taught by Science Instructor Michele Chapman and Religion Instructor Nuri Friedlander, Bioethics follows the human life cycle. Focusing first on fertilization and birth — including reproductive technologies to support conception, cloning and abortion — the course then moves on to genetics with labs exploring genetic testing and CRISPR gene editing. It concludes with discussions about stem cell research, organ harvesting and transplantation, and human experimentation and euthanasia.

Throughout, students frame their discussions around ethical theories, such as utilitarianism and Kant’s imperative, and major questions relating to the human capacity to alter our world at the biological level:

• What is the right thing to do?

• What are our obligations to one another and to organisms on which we depend?

• Who is responsible for the outcomes of the science?

Thinking beyond the 'norm'

In late 2016, with the generous commitment of a five-year grant from an anonymous alumnus and his wife, Exeter announced an initiative to create an “experimental space” for transdisciplinary courses that would embrace the confluence of learning at the table and the meaningful experiences that students find in cocurricular and extracurricular activities. The call for course ideas sent to faculty cited these criteria: advanced topics with a creative rethinking of the experience of uppers and seniors; interdisciplinary and/or problem-based focus; opportunities that blend curricular and applied or service learning; expansion of relationships with universities, alumni and organizations; innovative use of technology; and cross-department teaching with faculty teams.

Accompanying the call was a set of proposals from seniors in Religion Instructor Peter Vorkink’s class Imagining Your Future. As a starting point, the students’ 33 concepts confirmed a hunger for courses that cross subject borders, and gave insight into students’ interests, which spanned everything from deep dives (Culinary Chemistry) to broad inquiries (Exploring Foundations of Identity and Nationhood), and from quirky (Super Villain Ethics) to socially engaged (Activism in Small Communities).

After receiving a host of proposals from faculty, many building upon themes highlighted by the seniors, the Exeter Innovates review committee selected five to launch this year: Green Umbrella Learning Lab (sustainability); Identity, Empathy and Cross-Cultural Understanding; A People’s War: Digital Humanities in the Study of America’s Civil War; Advanced Ceramics + Chemistry; and Bioethics.

“We’re just embarking on the Exeter Innovates program,” says Brooks Moriarty, dean of studies and academic affairs, who has overseen the rollout of the new courses, “and it’s already clear that there’s intense interest.” All Exeter Innovates courses are co-taught, have a hands-on component, and target uppers and seniors. “Faculty want to collaborate and experiment within the ongoing curriculum,” Moriarty adds. “Students love the broadening of focus that courses like Bioethics afford, and the ability to learn experientially as well as at the table.”

This initiative follows upon years of interdisciplinary exploration that started in 1991 with Literature and the Land, a course that is still taught today. Recent highlights include popular new courses, such as Epistemology; a burgeoning number of custom-designed senior projects; and cocurricular ventures using leading-edge methodologies, like Exeter’s design thinking-based Maker Fest.

“Each step along the way has allowed us to assess student interest and need; create innovative learning opportunities that have a positive impact on curriculum across the board; and integrate tools and skills needed in the 21st century,” Moriarty says.

During the CRISPR lab, students carefully add bacteria (which they have edited to allow them to resist a particular antibiotic) to a tube. Their experiment was successful. After gene editing, the bacteria grew successfully on an antibiotic solution.

Hands-on CRISPR lab

The excitement of working with cutting-edge technology shows in the students’ faces on a mid-October morning as Chapman invites them to pair up for the Bioethics CRISPR Cas9 lab.

Chapman briefly summarizes the main points at the beginning of class: They will replace a gene in bacteria that normally responds to an antibiotic with a gene that is resistant, and then place the bacteria into a growth medium mixed with that antibiotic. “If we come back and find little colonies of bacteria growing, we’ll know that our experiment worked,” Chapman says.

Students look wide-eyed as they move to well-equipped lab tables. Each station is outfitted with special micropipettes and tips of varying size; nonpathogenic bacteria (no potential for disease transmission); Cas9 (a protein that will be used to “cut” DNA like a pair of molecular scissors); tracrRNA and crRNA (which together tell Cas9 where to “cut”); a variety of solutions (transformation for the “cutting,” agar for growth); and collection tubes.

As the students work, Chapman and Friedlander move among the stations, answering questions. One lab group struggles with the micropipette, which does not want to take up liquid. Easily fixed by swapping out for the pipette from another team. Students work with audible excitement punctuated by occasional requests for clarification. At the last minute, there’s a scramble for a bit more Cas9 — one pair has not yet finished the lab, and the protein has been used up. The biology lab technician, Cheryl Rotondo, quickly locates more.

The Bioethics labs provide a grounding in biological science and a framework for understanding broader issues, both ethical and scientific. To supplement the CRISPR lab (which was entirely successful — all seven lab pairs observed bacterial growth in their specimens), students discussed the implications for human embryos of CRISPR technology.

“Coming into this class, most of the kids had heard of CRISPR, but they didn’t understand the biology involved or the ethical ramifications of the technology,” explains Chapman. “They learned that you don’t need to be in a research lab to do CRISPR — you can do it in high school. Bioethics helped them get a sense that there’s a spectrum of uses for these types of technologies. Some uses seem ethical, as in treating disease, but in the case of CRISPR, the possibility of gene-editing in human embryos is much more controversial.”

Students love the broadening of focus that courses like Bioethics afford, and the ability to learn experientially as well as at the table."
Brooks Moriarty, dean of studies and academic affairs

Sustainably minded problem-solving

Housing close to 60 boys, Wentworth Hall sees a lot of takeout pizza boxes pass through its heavy green doors every week. Its residents order an average of three large pizzas a night, for a total of 630 gooey pies per academic year. All those pizza boxes add up to a whole lot of waste — to say nothing of the pollution generated by the production of the boxes. Scale those numbers out to the rest of the country, which consumes 3 billion pizzas a year, and you’ve got a great big greasy cardboard mess on your hands.

A small group of Exonians may have found a solution to help manage that mess. Four students in Exeter Innovate’s Green Umbrella Learning Lab (GULL) have designed a working model of a reusable metal pizza container. Partnering with local favorite Front Row Pizza, they instituted a successful pilot program to use (and reuse) the containers for deliveries to Wentworth Hall. The group has plans to pursue a patent on the box once they’ve perfected the design.

Pedro Haegler '18, Grace Gray '19, Olivia Peterson '18 and Jane Li '18 with a cut-out of the material they used to construct a reusable pizza box. 

Community classroom

GULL was born out of conversations between Jason BreMiller, English instructor and sustainability education coordinator, and Jill Robinson, senior manager of sustainability and natural resources. “There [is] a lot of work on campus that could provide positive learning opportunities for students,” BreMiller says. “And yet, it was challenging for students to find time in their schedules to do the work. They had a lot of ideas and interest, but they didn’t have the bandwidth to be involved.”

He and Robinson decided to design a course that would allow interested students to carry out a campuswide sustainability project of their own design. “The project-based, design-thinking model had been on my radar for a long time,” BreMiller says. “To me, it seemed like the logical extension of Harkness. These kids have been developing their collaborative skills in the classroom. Why not give them the opportunity to employ those skills to do good work for the PEA community and beyond?”

Background in design thinking

Robinson and BreMiller divided the term into several phases. Building in time for leadership training and teamwork during the first phase, the teachers drew on curriculum from the National Outdoor Leadership School and supplemented that with a visit to a nearby ropes course. They also arranged a visit from Eugene Korsunskiy, who teaches at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. During his crash course in design-thinking theory, Korsunskiy pushed students to rethink old ideas about success and failure. “He told them to keep working through the failure, because you’re going to eliminate what doesn’t work and come up with a better design,” Robinson recalls.

Students in Exeter Innovate's Green Umbrella Learning Lab learned to reimagine old notions about success and failure. Pictured here with Senior Manager of Sustainability and Natural Resources Jill Robinson (far left) and Sustainability Education Coordinator and English Instructor Jason BreMiller (right), who designed and taught the course together.


As they began to brainstorm, students were encouraged to think about an existing issue or problem in the community, and work backward toward designing and implementing an effective solution. The class proposed 70 possibilities, which were vetted by the teachers. “One of the things we thought about was, ‘What scale projects make the most sense?’ ” BreMiller explains. “We selected those that had a reasonable chance of completion in a single term.” (Their guideline squared nicely with another Korsunskiy principle: “Do a small thing and do it well.”)

Four core projects emerged through a series of class votes: the “Thinking Outside the Pizza Box” project was one. Another, “Exeter Exchange: Combating our Community’s Consumerism,” worked with the Facilities Management team on relocating the student-run thrift store, the Exchange, to expand its space and provide better access to gently used, affordable clothing and goods for the community. Students in the “PO Box Buildup” group set up cardboard box break-down stations near the post office and in Peabody Hall to raise awareness about the environmental and social impact caused by the surge in online shopping. A fourth group investigated ways of integrating more sustainability initiatives within the Athletics Department.

Project work 

During the project phase, ideas became actions. Students learned how to draft professional emails, conduct business phone calls, assert their needs in a respectful way, look for ways to get the rest of the community invested in their concepts, and troubleshoot as problems arose.

When the pizza box designers discovered that the seemingly durable plastic they used in their original prototype could not withstand the heat of commercial dishwashers, “It was quite a step back,” says Pedro Haegler ’18. “We had done a lot of planning, and we were really inclined to use it,” he adds. “It even had our logo.” Fortunately, Haegler says, he had a proactive team. Jane Li ’18 suggested they go with the first thing they could find and complete at least one trial run before the term ended, so they purchased metal pans, and with the help of Gerry Hill and Marshall Miller from Facilities Management, they designed a reusable lid that would fit on top. “That [decision] was pivotal for us in our project,” Haegler says.

When senior Olivia Peterson’s initial calls to Front Row went unanswered, the team strove to find key players in person to get the job done, keeping in mind another Korsunskiy nugget: “You can’t design without concern for the stakeholders.” They interviewed Wentworth Hall dorm faculty to learn more about their pizza buyers’ needs, invited feedback on their prototype from the staff at Front Row and presented a persuasive economic model, demonstrating how the restaurant could recoup the cost of reusable pans after just one year. To seal the deal, they offered to take on the task of dishwashing, but the Front Row staff was willing to own that chore and enthusiastic about doing a trial run.

Why not give them the opportunity to ... do good work for the PEA community and beyond?"
Sustainability Education Coordinator Jason BreMiller

Looking ahead

Speaking in the Academy Center amid the clangor of his fellow Exonians on a midmorning break, Haegler reflects on the experience and outlines next steps for his group, including the expansion outward of their service dorm by dorm before making the reusable pans available to the wider public. “We know there’s a consistent desire for pizza. It’s ordered every day,” he says. “And we know we have a concept that’s environmentally and economically sustainable. That’s why we’re happy to work beyond the fall term GULL class.”

To fulfill their plans, Haegler and his teammates will need to depend on Grace Gray ’19, the only group member who won’t be graduating this year. As BreMiller and Robinson craft their vision for the future of GULL, they are pursuing the possibility of offering the class each term, which would allow for greater participation and enable students to scale up to larger projects that could be passed down from year to year.

Ceramics and chemistry, a dazzling duo

At first glance, the colorful art studio in the Mayer Center seems an incongruous place for a chemistry lesson: Stacks of easels lean against a large Plexiglas window on the far left side of the room, and the model of a human skeleton dangles nearby, keeping watch over the paint-splattered drawing horses in the center of the room. The light wanes on a raw afternoon in winter term but Science Instructor Fran Johnson’s chipper voice warms this corner of the studio as she explains the intricacies of molar ratios, the importance of material safety data sheets and the dangers of cobalt salts to the students in Exeter Innovates 409: Advanced Ceramics + Chemistry, otherwise known as C-Squared.

Art Instructor Carla Collins (center, standing) and Science Instructor Fran Johnson (far right) teach their students to look at the creative process with the eyes of an artist and an artist.

The brainchild of Johnson and Art Instructor Carla Collins, C-Squared is an interdisciplinary course designed to give ceramic artists a deeper understanding of their materials and imbue a problem-solving approach to their artmaking. The class requires a degree of comfort in both the lab and studio settings, so students need to have taken Art 202 and at least one year of introductory chemistry before they enroll. With the flexibility afforded by Exeter Innovates, the course can be taken for either Studio Art or Physical Sciences credit; that choice determines the nature of the final project. But whether potter or chemist at heart, each student is encouraged to look at the creative process through the eyes of a scientist and an artist.

Their mini-lesson in chemistry over, the students take out their calculators. They begin looking for the mass of each component in three different ceramics glazes. “For our first recipe, a single ingredient, that will be easy,” Johnson says. “What percentage am I using in my recipe? Once you get the mass, you figure out the moles.” Sodium feldspar. Gerstley borate. Whiting. Every component in a clay or glaze has its own mass, and knowing the moles helps the artists figure out how many grams of each is needed to achieve the desired effect.

Johnson doles out humorous bits of wisdom as the students work, prepping them for the weeks ahead: “The most important thing is not your artistic vision but your safety.” ... “Standardization is your friend.” ... “No one is allowed to poison themselves in this class.” She cheerfully corrects a student who mentions the “art” of working in spreadsheets. (“It’s more of a science, really.”) Observing quietly from her perch at the well-worn oval table, artist Collins can’t suppress a laugh.

Creative exploration and investigation are closely related to scientific research."
Art Instructor Carla Collins

Later that week, everyone gathers in the spacious ceramics studio one floor below. On this sunny morning, students will be decorating premade mugs for Grill using a commercial glaze. It’s a chance to get some hands-on practice in glazing technique before taking the plunge and mixing their own recipes later in the term. Clearly in her element, Collins touches base with the artists about their designs while her partner assists in prepping the materials.

The two teachers are excited to see how the course unfolds. “We’re pushing them to be experimental with their art,” Johnson says. “We want them to go further, to figure out, ‘Here’s my idea but here’s the calculation. How do I get a matte finish? How do I get red?’ ... The work may seem tedious at times, but it’s important to do.”

Matthew Bates practices glazing techniques in Advanced Ceramics + Chemistry.

Collins, who took her first official chemistry class as a fine arts major at Alfred University and later spent four months at the International Ceramic Research Center in Denmark, agrees: “For any artist serious about making their own glazes, the chemistry knowledge is important and helpful to have. ... [Learning] glaze chemistry felt so empowering and motivating; I could relate my creative passion, pottery, to the world of chemistry, math and engineering. In many countries, creative exploration and investigation are closely related to scientific research. They’re really alike in process, technique and thinking.”

Johnson, who first tried her hand at the pottery wheel at her friend’s urging several years ago, is thrilled to be collaborating with Collins: “There are so many moments I’ve fallen in love with this class. One reason we’re enjoying it so much is that we have different areas of expertise. It’s not just her or me, it’s both of us together. This collaboration just feels right.”

Collins credits her friend’s ease with calculations for helping her troubleshoot when projects take an unexpected turn. And she appreciates the chance to see her students in a different light: “In a typical art class, they can be serious about their work, but you hear about their social lives; they talk about their day while they’re working. It’s fun to see them in a different light, to watch them calculating and researching before they start creating. I love seeing their capability and their excitement to combine the two fields.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.