'The Science of Mythbusters': A freshman seminar

Jan. 23, 2017 noon
Sylvie Thode launching rocket while professor Joshua Shaevitz watches
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In the freshman seminar "The Science of Mythbusters," Professor Joshua Shaevitz and 15 students are examining how scientific research is done, from identifying real-world problems and getting funding to creating experiments and analyzing evidence.

As Professor Joshua Shaevitz piped a few drops of methanol into a 35 mm film canister, students plugged their ears with their fingers in anticipation of the imminent bang. Shaevitz counted down — "three, two, one!" — before the film canister shot off with a flash toward the ceiling.

The "Piezo Popper," a small bottle rocket ignited by a piezoelectric spark, is one of the hands-on projects in Shaevitz's freshman seminar, "The Science of Mythbusters." Influenced by the popular cable TV show, this freshman seminar focuses on the ways in which scientists approach real-world problems using the scientific method. Working within the framework of skeptical inquiry, the 15 students in the class engage in discussion and analysis on the practices of science, including how experiments are designed, the continuous cycle of hypothesis and testing, and the imaginative solutions that are developed for practical situations.

The seminar environment affords Shaevitz, an associate professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, the ability to try new approaches to his instruction and create a lasting course experience.

"I really enjoy having such a small number of students," he said. "You get to know the students and have a much more personal interaction with them. It's a different way of teaching and exchanging information with them."

He lauded the idea that during their first semester at Princeton, first-year students are able to interact on an intimate level with a professor and a small group of their peers.

To emphasize the science that students encounter on a daily basis, Shaevitz developed a few interesting hands-on projects. One involved studying physics and statistics by using data collected with smartphone sensors. The rocket project, mentioned earlier and which involved using household items as fuel, focused on the chemistry of combustion and the physics of projectile motion. That project culminated in an end-of-semester competition in which students modified their rockets to see who could fire theirs the farthest.

The main project that students focused on throughout the semester was an assignment to write a scientific proposal for research that would bust a myth. Shaevitz's hope is that students walk away from this course with a broader perspective of how scientists approach real-world situations, how scientific projects receive funding, and how that funding gets used to perform meaningful research for humanity.


Academic journeys begin with freshman seminars

Princeton's newest undergraduates set out on a path of inquiry and discovery this fall through the University's freshman seminar program. 

Freshman seminars enable students to build strong relationships with faculty members and classmates in a close-knit intellectual setting. Many students cite the freshman seminar as one of the highlights of their time at Princeton.

A total of 514 first-year students are enrolled this semester in 42 seminars, each of which is held in one of the six residential colleges. Class discussions often continue in informal settings on and off campus, through meals, guest lectures, field trips and other activities.

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