Friday, June 25, 2010

‘Star Trek’ in classrooms

In the original Star Trek TV series, captain Kirk says a phrase that exemplifies the value of education: “A dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars.” Coincidently, Star Trek is travelling through space and time to make an impact on UTEP students this fall.

The University 1301: Seminar in Critical Inquiry course, under the instruction of the University Library’s assistant director Nancy Hill, will have students “Thinking Boldly With Star Trek” as that is the theme for the undergraduate class.

“I could see what great discussion points [Star Trek] brings up, like discrimination to pollution, what makes a good leader, what makes us human,” said Hill. “And just all kinds of scientific, philosophical themes, plus social, plus moral, plus ethical; it’s very versatile.”
Hill describe herself as a die-hard “Start Trek” fan. She said during her college years she would watch the TV series, but her enjoyment in the science fiction show waned until recently when her daughter expressed an interest in science. That’s when Hill suggested they watch all the seasons of “Star Trek” and decided to introduce it in her class last fall.
“In teaching, you’re always experimenting, so some material didn’t work as well and some did,” she said.

But not all of her students were receptive to this theme.
“A few students were like, ‘this is so dorky,’ and that was a problem,” she said. “They didn’t know what they were getting into. But the ones who got into it, really liked it.”

There are two major requirements for Hill’s course – to watch, as homework, assigned episodes, which can be found in UTEP’s library and to concurrently take the 1307 Astronomy class by physics lecturer Hector Noriega-Mendoza. Both classes are part of UTEP’s Learning Communities.

Hill said the class will be structured to primarily introduce the characters of the show while having the students work in teams, then talk about storytelling while bringing in other science fiction and classical mythical stories for students to compare. The last part will be about space, time, intelligent machines or technology, and monsters within and without.
“They’re a lot of episodes that deal with the duality of human nature,” Hill said. “[The characters] are split in their good and bad parts, and there are several scholarly topics that deal with that and how we look at the other people who are different from us.”

Not a material in the class will relate to the show, like skills in time management. But Hill’s idea for writing résumés will certainly have her students watching Star Trek closely.
“I’ll say identify what jobs these people are doing. You have 1,000 people on Starship and not all are the captain,” Hill said. “What are they doing and how do those jobs relate to real world jobs?”

This way, not only will students learn to identify essential criteria for different jobs, but they will have to write a résumé as if they are applying to work in the spacecraft, with the option of writing a regular résumé.

Stephanie Valls, junior theater arts major, said she took University 1301 a few summers ago and was pleased with the literature theme her professor used.

“It was good to be exposed to different ideas, and a good way to study,” she said.
Regarding Hill’s Star Trek theme, Valls said, “I think it could work, depending on how [Hill] goes about it. If you look at it as just entertaining, then it will become irrelevant, but if you see what it’s talking about, the different societies, how it works, then it could be helpful.”
Hill said she also wants to discuss virtues she extols in the characters, particularly broadmindedness.

“They’re very tolerant and that’s a very good way to demonstrate academic conversations,” Hill said. “We don’t come into an argument and say ‘you’re wrong and I’m right, you’re stupid and I’m smart.’ We come in talking in a more open way so we can listen to everybody’s opinion with respect.”

Dorothy Ward, director of Entering Student Program, said that the University 1301 course started in 1999 at UTEP. Unique themes besides Hill’s Star Trek include “Fictional Women Detectives” and “U.S.-Mexico Border.”

“We wanted to pull faculty from diverse colleges to offer a variety of themes in areas of interest to students with different majors,” Ward said.
She added that it’s up to faculty to submit a proposal for their theme and explain how it will meet the standard goals for the course.

“We looked at the percentage of students still enrolled at UTEP one year after the fall [2008] semester in which they took University 1301 and found that an average of 71 percent of students were still enrolled at UTEP,” Ward said.

According to Ward, only 31 percent of students who didn’t take University 1301 were still enrolled at UTEP, suggesting that the study and time management skills learned in the class are valuable for the rest of students’ college career.
“It’s not just fluff, there’s substance,” Hill said about her Star Trek theme, “and real meaty stuff.”