Bridging arts and science to explore nuclear arms control
The shift: Connected “different faculties and ways of thinking”
To foster a more comprehensive understanding of nuclear weapons and arms control, Dr. Allen Sens and Dr. Matt Yedlin combined two distinct but complementary disciplines: the physical/life sciences and the social sciences/humanities. Using flipped and blended classroom approaches, Sens and Yedlin co-teach POLI 369T. The interdisciplinary course brings together students from the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Applied Science to explore both the scientific principles and the global politics behind nuclear weapons, arms control and verification technologies.
Sens and Yedlin share a common philosophy. “We’re trying to contribute to a broader global movement with respect to nuclear weapons education,” Sens says. “The [perceived] threat of nuclear war and nuclear explosions has been diminished lately, and this is very dangerous. It creates a sense of out of sight, out of mind complacency.”
The idea for the course emerged after Yedlin attended a conference organized by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in June 2012.
The conference gathered academics and international organizations across the globe to discuss education related to the treaty. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions for military or peaceful purposes. The focus of the conference was to educate the next generation.
When Yedlin’s proposal for a course focusing on nuclear weapons education reached Sens, he jumped at the opportunity. “I’ve always believed that nuclear weapons, like many other things, are inherently interdisciplinary,” says Sens.
Yedlin agrees. “Interdisciplinarity is what we need more of in the university…more connection between different faculties and different ways of thinking,” he adds.
With a vision in place, the two aimed to build a course based on their shared philosophy. They wanted to explore the science and politics of nuclear weapons and arms control, with an emphasis on the CTBT. They also wanted to position their course in the real world and discuss real world politics and institutions related to nuclear arms control.
The course moved rapidly from idea to inception. After Sens and Yedlin started talking about the course, they applied for Flexible Learning funding to pilot POLI 369T: Living with Nuclear Weapons? Arms Control and Verification Technologies in January 2014. The course was open to students in the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Applied Science. A total of 66 students enrolled: 22 from Engineering and 44 from Arts.
It was an entirely new experience for Sens and Yedlin, and the course itself was an unexplored area: a team-taught, interdisciplinary, flipped classroom, focusing on engagement with international organizations.
The teaching strategies
Sens and Yedlin turned to a variety of teaching strategies to create a dynamic course.
Students were asked to review materials before class. During class, they had the opportunity to meaningfully engage with and discuss the materials with their classmates. “We don’t want to cover material,” says Yedlin. “We want to uncover.” The discussions allowed students to debate and learn from classmates from a variety of backgrounds.
To supplement their work, Sens and Yedlin also created YouTube videos on the various topics explored in the course. Students were asked to come to class prepared to discuss the videos.
The course emphasized teamwork—between the professors and between the students. Students often worked in small groups, with mixed teams of Arts and Engineering students. The groups collaborated and discussed topics, allowing students to learn from one another.
The instructors filmed all their classes in order to improve future offerings of their course. Looking through the videos of their classes, they were able to see what worked and what they could do differently.
“We would recommend anybody who’s doing this kind of thing in their classroom—flexible learning, blended learning—to actually set up a video camera and just shoot the whole thing,” Sens says. “The feedback is invaluable.”
The pilot of POLI 369T was not without challenges. The benefit of interdisciplinarity—being able to bring together people from different backgrounds—is also a key hurdle.
The Arts and Science students had varying levels of knowledge on certain topics and Yedlin found it difficult teaching the math elements of the course to the Arts students in particular.
Having two instructors from different disciplines proved beneficial; they could bounce ideas and lessons off one another. When Yedlin attempted to explain the math to Sens, Sens would stop him whenever he didn’t understand something. Yedlin would then go back to the beginning and refine his explanation.
Similarly, Sens knew his strengths. “I didn’t have the technical capacity to teach [the mathematic] aspect of the course, but I could do the politics.”
Together the two were able to provide students with a more holistic view of the topic and gain better insight into their own teaching practices.
Sens and Yedlin agree it is important to have a vision of what is important. “We have essentially two shared visions, one philosophical and one pedagogical,” Yedlin says.
“When you have that shared understanding, then suddenly it’s much easier to agree on what the ‘need to have’ pieces are, and what the ‘nice to have’ pieces are,” adds Sens. “That reduces the amount of time you have to spend on coordinating what you’re going to do throughout the rest of the course.”
Despite their clear and mutual vision, the course still offered a fair share of surprises.
Sens and Yedlin admit neither knew what was going to happen in class on any given day, largely because they turned the course over to their students and gave up a degree of control.
Sens explains teachers generally have a lesson plan and an idea of how things will work out. But in POLI 369T, he learned to step back and give students the opportunity to learn through discussion and group work, rather than lectures.
Though it took time for him to adjust to this new classroom experience, he eventually came to understand learning through a different lens. “I could see the benefit for the students, for their learning, and for the classroom environment.”
Adds Yedlin: “For me, the greatest impact was the sense of community in the classroom.” The classroom fostered a vibrant exchange of ideas. Not only were students learning from their instructors and each other, Sens and Yedlin were learning from each other and their students.
“In my academic career, since I started here in the early 80s, this has been the most exciting and significant pedagogical experience that I’ve had,” Yedlin says.
“People kept telling us you can’t do this, it’s not going to work,” says Sens. “There was a lot on our plate, but I think we succeeded for the most part in achieving a very ambitious objective.”
The second pilot of the course launched in September 2014. Sens and Yedlin are looking to the future with new ideas for improvements such as publishing student work online, and expanding the reach by developing a massive open online course (MOOC).
For future offerings, the instructors hope to work more closely with the CTBTO. They also aim to eventually share their course with other universities, particularly in the United States, which has yet to ratify the treaty.
“We’re in a worrying and dangerous time,” says Sens. “It can only be beneficial if young people—future leaders, future active, engaged citizens—know about these issues from a holistic perspective.”
Dr. Allen Sens is a Professor of Teaching in Political Science at UBC. He specializes in international relations, with a research focus on international peacekeeping operations. His teaching interests include international security, armed conflict, Canadian foreign and defence policy, and nuclear weapons and arms control.
Dr. Matthew Yedlin is an associate professor in Electrical Engineering and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC. His research focuses on the applications of techniques in electrical engineering to geophysical research problems and the application of multiple scattering to practical electromagnetic wave propagation problems.