Emory Report

April 3, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 27

Marsteller: teaching way outside of the box

By Cathy Byrd

Students anticipating a standard classroom experience in the course titled "Mismeasure of Woman, Mismeasure of Man" were mistaken.

Picture a professor whose master's degree work focused on "celestial compass orientation in juvenile American alligators." Add to that Patricia Marsteller's unique approach to instruction: in her evolving evolution course, for example, students might be asked to be a Victorian for a day or think about evolution in reverse. She spreads the fame of Planet X, "where nothing works like it does on Earth," in her physiology course. This is one professor who definitely thinks outside the box.

Although Marsteller remains interested in her early research passions--the evolution of behavior, physiology and gene-environment interactions in organisms' life history patterns--her career has evolved. "Now my primary study is the history and philosophy of science and the evolution of ethics," she said. "I'm also interested in transforming undergraduate science education."

As director of the Hughes Undergraduate Science Initiative, Marsteller's goal is to enhance the field by helping develop courses that involve active learning and, by making the curriculum more research oriented, preparing more students for science careers. She also co-directs a program for integrating research and education for the new Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a consortium of eight Atlanta-area schools.

In "Mismeasure" students ponder the differences between men and women by examining variations in disease incidence, behavior and physiology between different sexes in human populations. They're asked to consider whether the differences are strictly biological or if certain discrepancies between sexes are better explained by culture, economics or other factors.

Regarding aggression, for example, many studies implicate testosterone and other androgens in aggressive behavior and come up with evolutionary studies to explain it. Yet elements of socialization, observer bias and cultural influences, as well as hormonal influences, may also play a part.

"At first I did not realize how subjective science is," said student Dayal Reddy. After analyzing experiments, Reddy discovered that "even in faulty scientific studies, there is always some information worth salvaging."

Anne Fausto-Sterling's Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men and The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Gould are the principal texts used in the course. The books introduce multiple perspectives on the issue via references to hundreds of researchers, including some at Emory.

Student Katherine Davis particularly appreciated Fausto-Sterling's work. "Part of this course that will [keep] me forever thinking is the idea of nature vs. nurture," Davis said. "I cannot help but wonder what parts of a person's 'intelligence' and personality traits are governed by the environment they grow up in. And what parts are innate, hereditary and/or unchangeable? Myths of Gender presents many sides of the differences between men and women."

During the semester, students will prepare and deliver presentations that answer questions like: Who's smarter? Do women require more anesthesia than men? What do IQ (or SAT or GRE or MCAT) tests measure? What is the meaning of racial or sex differences on these tests? What is the evidence for multiple intelligences?

Best of all, Marsteller said, the class has decided to create a web project from their work. "They want to take an active role in assessing ideas on IQ tests and other tests, on singular intelligence versus multiple intelligences, and on sex differences in behavior and physiology," she said. "Basically, students will create a digital legacy for future versions of the class."

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