NS 158 -- Learning Science as Inquiry: The Biology and Chemistry of Fat

Merle Bruno
Nancy Lowry
Hampshire College

The Hampshire program, Learning Science as Inquiry, is a collection of courses intended to attract students to science through concrete experiences on topics of interest to them and to develop their skills in analysis and quantitative reasoning. A further purpose of these courses is to introduce students to how scientists ask questions and view the nature of evidence. The courses are designed to do this around important themes and current knowledge in natural science. A student preparing to teach, for instance, would take one or two of these courses in her first three semesters and pursue a project in depth that she began in one of them.

All students at Hampshire are required to carry out an inquiry project in some depth, and most of these projects begin as work in one of the introductory courses. Rather than have one core, survey course for all entering students, we have a core philosophy that guides the design of a variety of small inquiry seminars for first year students. Although students may lose the breadth and coverage of survey courses, they gain depth in a focused area, confidence, and "habits of mind" that serve them in all subsequent work. It is these seminars that are referred to in the title Learning Science as Inquiry.

Hampshire is not yet a college that draws a large proportion of students who want to major in science. Because of this, its introductory courses are designed to attract and retain students of all backgrounds, and it succeeds in that it graduates more students in the sciences than originally expressed interest in science. Many of Hampshire's graduates who are science educators or who pursued research careers in science did not enter the college with any thought that their careers would center on their abilities as scientists.

Although Hampshire does not have a school of education, it has always drawn students interested in education, and many of its alumni are K-12 teachers, college teachers, or curriculum developers. Most of these students concentrate in something other than education, but woven through their studies are work with children in schools or other settings, examination of current learning theories, and reflection on their own and others' approaches to teaching. Many students interested in education who arrive at the college with a fear of science, leave as science educators who have carried out their own research studies in natural science. Their enthusiasm for nurturing curiosity in children and helping them develop the tools they need to satisfy it, grows from their own recent experience as learners in classes where they are active investigators. They are also informed by having examined their own educational histories to find which classroom experiences made them believe science was dull, unimaginative, and too hard for a normal person and which gave them confidence, skills, and enthusiasm for learning.

All students at Hampshire are required to carry out a significant, year-long senior thesis project. The kinds of projects students studying science education work on range from intensive experimental projects in science to curriculum development projects in which they involve K-12 students in active investigations. The quality of these capstone projects and papers (which go through many drafts) is high, and they reflect the kinds of analytical skills students started to build through course work during their first semester in college.

The Biology and Chemistry of Fat

As an example of a syllabus for Hampshire's Inquiry courses, a syllabus from an introductory course, The Biology and Chemistry of Fat, is included. The title and course description (see below) are intended to attract first-year students interested in diet and fitness who might not ordinarily choose a college level course in biology or chemistry.


Athletes, dancers, nutritionists, middle-aged parents, roommates, fitness freaks, dieters, vegetarians, carnivores, cooks--everyone talks about fat. What is my percent body fat? Should I buy partially hydrogenated polyunsaturated margarine or would I stick to butter? Are there any good fats? What's the difference between peanut oil and olive oil? Why are some fats hard and some runny? Where are the fats in my body--how can I get rid of some of them? How much fat is in my favorite foods? Does cooking change fats?

In this class we see what biologists and chemists have to say about fat in and out of the body and will study some fats (including our own) in the lab. The class reads and discusses primary and secondary literature from a booklet prepared for the course. Students choose their favorite fat questions to work on and present their findings to the class and in papers. The class also collects data for a long-term study of percent body fat of people at Hampshire. The class meets twice a week for one-and-one-half hours. Enrollment limit 35, first come.


NS 158 The Biology and Chemistry of Fat

  Tuesday Thursday
Week1    Class: Introduction to fatty foods and myths 

Ass'n: Read Articles #1&2. Write 1 page summary and list of words you don't know. 

Read Articles #3&4. 

Keep 3 day food record for Thurs. 

Week Class: Discussion of Articles 1 and 2 
Class: Introduction of FoodPro 
  Ass'n: Weekly Article Summary  Ass'n: Read Articles 5-7; write summaries; word list 

Complete analysis of one day with graphs 

  Due: Word list  Due: Summaries 
Week 3  Class: Chocolate and the Heart (Trans fatty acids; atherosclerosis--two topics) 
Class: Library meeting with Helaine Selin 
  Ass'n: Reserve reading on fat 

Weekly Article Summary 

Ass'n: Make a list of 5 references that interest you. Find one of those and write a summary. 
  Due: Word list  Due: FoodPro analysis and graphs 

Chocolate summaries 


Week Class: Biology of fat: digestion 

Introduction to body composition 

Class: Body Fat Lab #1 

Introduction to data analysis 

  Ass'n: Read lab handout 

Weekly article summary 

Ass'n: Basic statistics exercise 

Find and summarize another primary article 

    Due: List of 5 articles (complete references) 
Summary of one of those articles 
Week Class: Body Fat Lab #2; Data analysis; graphing with Kate Dorfman  Class: Biology of fat: from gut to blood to thighs 

Project topics discussion 

  Ass'n: Weekly Article Summary 

Read Article # 6 

Ass'n: Make of list of possible questions for projects 
  Due: Statistics exercise  Due: Lab report 
Summary of another article you found 
Week Class: Chemistry of fats and lipids 

Build a fat (molecular models) 

Class: More biology of fats 

How to write a research paper 

  Ass'n: Weekly Article Summary 

Reserve reading 

Ass'n: Find 5 references on a possible project topic 

Write preliminary project proposal (one page) 

Plan low fat menu or recipe and analysis 

  Due: List of possible questions for projects  Due: Summary 

Lab report 


Week 7 Class: Chemistry and biology of taste  Class: "Menu/Recipe-Off" (bring recipes + FoodPro analyses) 
  Ass'n: Reserve reading 

Weekly Article Summary (you may use articles you are finding for your paper) 

Ass'n: Find more articles for your project 

Summarize one 

Prepare outline of your paper/project

  Due: Preliminary project proposal and 5 references  Due: Summaries 


Menu/recipe analysis 

Week 8 Class: Label claims and analysis 
Class Project progress reports 
  Ass'n: Be prepared to give a progress report on project 
Ass'n: Continue work on projects 
  Due: Preliminary outline and bibliography of project 
Due: Summaries and revisions 
Week 9  Class: Individual meetings with instructors and student TA 
  Ass'n: Draft a section of your paper  Class: No class meeting. Work on projects. Instructors and student TA available for consultation. Meet with at least one of us once this week. 
    Ass'n: Draft a section of your paper 

Give verbal progress report in Tues class. 

Week 10  Class: Progress reports on projects 

"How to Give a Truly Terrible Talk" 

Class: Lipid metabolism 
  Ass'n: Continue working on project/paper  Ass'n: Continue working on project/paper 
  Due: Draft or part of draft if you're ready  Due: Draft of part of paper 
Week 11  Class: Question box class (all you wanted to know about...) Class: Prepare FoodPro activity for Girls' Day in the Lab 
  Ass'n: Continue working on project/paper 

Write an abstract (one paragraph) of your paper 

Send it by e-mail to one of the instructors 

Ass'n: Work on presentations for next week 
  Due: Draft or revision if you're ready  Due: Additional drafts or revisions of paper 
Week 12 Class: More chemistry of fats  Class: Final symposium Part I 
  Ass'n: Prepare and practice presentations 
  Due: Semifinal draft of paper (if you want feedback now) 

Abstracts (must be in today!) 

Week 13 Class: Final symposium Part II  Class: Final symposium Part III 

Course evaluation discussion and forms 

Course appropriate food fest (with analysis of course) 

  Ass'n: Final paper 

Portfolio of work 

Self evaluation

Due: Final paper 

Portfolio of work 

Reflective self evaluation



Students are required to complete the readings referred to in the syllabus for a list of the readings. (See the "Resource Materials" section.) In addition, every week students are required to identify, summarize, and critique an appropriate article. Articles may initially be drawn from the popular press; after a meeting with Hampshire's reference librarian, they must come from primary literature. Towards the end of the term, they may be articles students are using for their final paper.

Student evaluations are based on class attendance and participation, on-time completion of assigned work, a class presentation, and completion of a self-evaluation. A self-evaluation typically involves students in preparing a portfolio of work they have completed in the course and in writing a reflective evaluation of what they feel accomplished in the course: what skills they improved, what topics they learned more about, comments on parts of the course that were particularly important to them (e.g., science workshops, classroom teaching, readings, discussions).

Further Courses in the Hampshire Program

Further courses from the Hampshire program, most of them introductory, are described below. Additional information about these courses may be obtained from Dr. Merle Bruno, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA 01002..

Healthy Cities
Michelle Murrain, Myrna Breitbart

What are the determinants of a "healthy city"? How is urban health to be measured, assessed and improved? What collaborative forms of organization best sustain an integrated approach to urban health and community empowerment? How can a political agenda be built to support these efforts?

In 1986, the World Health Organization launched its Healthy Cities Project marking a major shift in the conceptualization of public health to include broader social issues and to seek to reduce inequalities. Health is now defined broadly to include such factors as reduced levels of violence and stress, equitable distribution of jobs and human service, and sustainabilitity along with infant mortality, nutrition, etc.

This course will consider the relationship between social inequities and a range of problems that currently underlie the deteriorating conditions of urban life. To examine such topics as environmental racism, urban violence and maternal and child health we will utilize both scientific and social, quantitative and qualitative perspectives. We will survey the work of cities that currently subscribe to a healthy cities model and design research projects to examine the effectiveness of the approach. Class will meet twice a week.

Education Of The Immune System And Cell Suicide
Christopher Jarvis

Why don't we die when we get an infection or a cold? Our body has a remarkable defense mechanism which defends us from various assaults. How does this system "learn" to tell the difference between a friend (our own cells) and an enemy (virus infected cell, tumor, etc.)? We will examine in detail this complex selection process whereby cells which fail to become "educated" appear to kill themselves. When this system breaks down, the body attacks itself.

We will focus on a few crucial experiments and their interpretations, emphasizing use of the primary literature. Class for one-and-one-half hours twice a week.

The Structure Of Randomness
David Kelly

Many events, like developing cancer or winning the lottery, are apparently random when considered individually, but often possess a great deal of predictability when studied collectively. The elaboration of this insight is one of the most far-reaching developments of this century, an understanding of which is arguably essential for anyone trying to make sense of the data and choices thrown at us daily. In this course we will develop the idea of stochastic, i.e., random, models for thinking about a wide range of phenomena. We will then use this idea to look at questions of risk assessment and decision making with incomplete information. What does it mean to probably know something? How can we assess the relative risk of being in a traffic accident vs. developing cancer from pesticide-tainted food? While a sophisticated understanding of the concepts of this course is essential to the statistical view of the world, this is not primarily a statistics course. It is designed for all students, regardless of field of interest.

Computers will be used throughout the course, but no prior experience is assumed. The course meets for three one-and-one-half hour sessions a week.

Nutritional Anthropology
Alan Goodman

Food is the "Stuff" of life. We eat for sociocultural reasons, and we eat because foods contain nutrients. In this course biological and cultural aspects of food and nutrition are integrated in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of the anthropology of eating. Topics covered will include the evolution of the human diet and its significance for contemporary humans, the origins of food taboos, factors determining food selection and avoidance and the epidemiology of overnutrition and obesity. Special attention will be given to the biological and social consequences of starvation and persistent undernutrition in the U.S. and abroad, along with a critical analysis of the political and economic determinants of these problems.

The course is recommended to all interested Division I students and Division II students working in nutrition, anthropology or related fields. Class will meet twice a week for one and one-half hours.

Ever Since Darwin
Lynn Miller

"Getting tired of being human is a very human habit," wrote R. Dubois. In the last few years a number of authors have attempted to reduce human history to genetic principle or biologically fixed sexual differences in human behavior which keep men and women in separate groups. These simplistic arguments were invented over one hundred years ago by those who misread or misinterpreted Darwin's ideas. To think about these arguments, we will read and discuss a small sample of the literature of the past 130 years on the explanations of the behavior of Homo sapiens. We will read essays by Stephen J. Gould and papers about our close relatives, the primates. Students are expected to write three short essays and to give an oral presentation to the class during the term for an evaluation. Class will meet twice a week for one and one-half hours.

Biology Of Poverty
Alan Goodman, Michelle Murrain

Unequal access to power and resources in the U.S. has fostered poverty amidst plenty, with profound affects on the human condition. While 11% of the considerable GNP of the U.S. is spent on health care, many groups such as Native Americans and inner city Blacks and Hispanics are denied access to medical care and an adequate diet. Just one of the many effects of this process is an infant mortality rate which exceeds many Third World nations. In this course we critically evaluate a variety of affects of poverty on human development, nutrition, and health. How does poverty perpetuate cycles of undernutrition, problem pregnancies, and low birth weight infants? Students will learn how to critique research in this field and will complete a major project. While the main focus of this course is on U.S. poverty, comparative studies are welcome. No prior science background is required. Class will meet twice a week for one and one-half hours.

Optics And Holography
Frederick Wirth

An introduction to fundamental principles in optics as applied to image formation and holography. Each student will have a chance to produce two white-light visible holograms in our lab as well as to begin an individual project. Topics will include geometric and physical optics, the nature and propagation of light, vision, photography and holography. Aesthetic considerations will be part of the course as well.

Class will meet one and one-half hours twice a week plus a lab for hands-on demonstrations and holographic imaging. Advanced students wishing to help in the labs and pursue independent work should see the instructor. Enrollment limit 24.

Evolution Of The Earth
John Reid

The central goal in this course is to develop confidence in a student's ability to look at a landscape and "see" the processes that have produced it. Using the Connecticut Valley and Cape Cod coast as field areas, we will investigate the effects of rivers, of glacial ice and its melt waters, of wave action, and of volcanic activity in creating the present shape of the land. In addition, we will consider the larger scale processes by which the earth's crust has formed and continues to evolve by plate tectonic motion and the drifting of continents. Readings will be taken from a text (Earth, Press & Seiver) and from primary literature. Evaluation will be based on class/field participation, and on three research papers based on investigations we carry out as a class in the field.

Class will meet one and one-half hours twice a week plus a four hour field/lab session.

Quantum Mechanics For The Myriad
Herbert Bernstein

This course will investigate the structure of a powerful intellectual influence of our times, theoretical physics. Using two-state systems including electron spin and photon polarization, we develop the actual quantum theory in its matrix mechanics form. This theory underlies our current understanding of atoms, particles, and virtually all physical processes; it has important philosophical consequences as well.

The course has three themes: quantitative approximations to interesting phenomena; formal use of mathematics to describe observations; the philosophical and cultural significance of interpretations of physical theory. Students contact course material in ways parallel to physicists approaching nature. How to formulate questions, including how to make them into solvable puzzles, how to work cooperatively-utilizing both learned and created concepts, and how to master formal reasoning are all learned by experience. Class will meet for one and one-half hours three times a week.

Women's Bodies/Women's Lives
Ann McNeal, Lynne Hanley, Margaret Cerullo

An introduction to feminist studies, this course will explore the representation of the female body from the perspectives of three schools. Beginning with literary representations of the female body, the course will go on to look at scientific views of female biology, the social history of the female body and struggles around its control, and differences in cultural attitudes towards the bodies of white and Third World women. Readings to be considered in the course will include Beloved; selections from The Alchemy of Race and Rights, "Ethnicity, Survival and Delay in Seeking Treatment for Symptoms of Breast Cancer"; A Restricted Country; selections from The Women of Brewster Place, The Pure and the Impure, Zami and Later the Same Day; "Plasma Testosterone in Monosexual and Heterosexual Women"; Sex Hormones in Lesbian and Heterosexual Women"; selections from The Mismeasurement of Man; selections from The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction; The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, Meridian; "Advancing Luna and Ida B. Wells"; New York: Sentimental Journeys"; "A Rape Case Gone Awry"; Crime and Punishment"; and "Protection Racket".

The course will be team taught by faculty members in each of the three schools. Class will meet twice a week, one as a group for one and one-half hours and a second time for one and one-half hours in smaller sections. To receive a written evaluation, students are required to come to class, complete the assigned reading, and submit a portfolio at the end of the semester containing all the assigned writing (four short papers and a ten page final essay) and a self-evaluation.

How People Move
Ann McNeal

This course is for dancers, athletes, and others who want to know how their bodies move. We will not attempt to survey all of human anatomy and physiology. Rather, by reading scientific papers we will look closely at how scientists reading scientific papers try to obtain information on muscle use and fitness. In the lab we will do our own experiments to study muscle activity and energy use.

The course work will culminate in individual and group projects on topics such as measuring muscle use in certain movements, measuring changes due to fatigue, and so forth. Class will meet twice a week-once for one-and-one-half hours and once for three hours.

Human Biological Variation
Alan Goodman

This course focuses on the science of human variation. We typically address questions about the degree of biological variability in humans, how it is apportioned, and what significance it has. This semester we will focus on the "idea" of race. How did this idea arise, and how, despite widespread evidence of its fundamental flaws, does it persist as the most widespread means of thinking about human biological difference? Students will be engaged in small class-based research projects and will also work on independent projects on the scientific validity of models and theories of human variation, and how theories and questions asked relate to wider social and political currents. Class will meet for one-and one-half hours twice a week. Enrollment limit 20.

New Guinea Tapeworms & Jewish Grandmothers: Natural History Of Infectious Disease
Lynn Miller

Did you ever wonder why Jewish grandmothers who make gefilte fish from Norwegian sturgeon so frequently are parasitized by tapeworms? Maybe not, but who gets parasitized, when and by what is highly significant to understanding the history of human kind. In this seminar we will read and think about the failure of modern (Western) medicine to eliminate most of the tropical diseases of Homo sapiens. Each student must prepare one seminar and write three essays on the social and medical aspects of these diseases (malaria, schistosomiasis, giardiasis, trypanosomiasis, kala-azar, etc.) focusing on the disease in one particular tropical or subtropical country. We will read Desowitz's book (given as course title) and articles from the primary medical literature. Class will meet for one and one-half hours twice a week.

Adaptation, Biology And Culture: A Film Course
Debra Martin

This course explores the biocultural processes by which humans adapt to diverse and challenging environments. Through readings and film, the evolution of humans during the Plio-Pleistocene epochs will first be examined. Then, the course will track human variation globally with an emphasis on the interaction of environmental constraints, cultural buffers, and human morphology. We will survey a broad range of human groups from the Yanomamo of Amazonia to the Inuit of the arctic. Class will meet for one and one-half hours twice a week.

Aquatic Ecology
Charlene D'Avanzo

This three-part course is an introduction to marine, fresh water, and aquaculture systems. Coastal ecology will be emphasized in the marine section, and we will study a saltmarsh and a polluted bay on Cape Cod. Fall turnover in local lakes will be the focus of section two. To study aquaculture, we will use the solar aquaculture ponds in the Hampshire Bioshelter; students will address a focused research question concerning water quality of fish ponds.

Class will meet for one and one-half hours twice a week plus one afternoon lab. There will be a small travel fee. Enrollment is limited to 15.

Health In America Before Columbus
Debra Martin

This course explores patterns of health and disease of American Indians prior to European contact. Information on ancient human biology and health comes from an analysis of archaeological remains - artifacts, settlement patterns, demography and skeletal/dental remains. Anthropologists who reconstruct the health of people living long ago use techniques from archaeology, medicine, nutrition, epidemiology, forensics, skeletal biology, histology, and microscopy. This course emphasizes laboratory skills for the analysis of bones and teeth, with a focus on understanding the effects of aging, disease, and nutrition on growth and health. Class will meet for one-and-one-half hours twice a week. Enrollment limit is 20.

Drugs In The Nervous System
Ann McNeal/Michelle Murrain

For many years scientists have used drugs to explore the functions of the nervous system. Others have tried to understand what makes addictive drugs addictive and recreational drugs attractive. We will explore both of these perspectives on the interaction of drugs and the nervous system.

In order to understand drug actions we need to explore how nerve cells work. It is especially useful to know how nerves communicate with one another through synapses since many mood-altering drugs act as synapses.

No scientific background is required. Readings will consist both of introductory materials and scientific papers. Each student will complete a research paper on a topic of her/his choice, and this paper can be the draft for a Natural Science Division I exam. Class will meet for one-and-one-half hours twice a week. Enrollment limit is 35.

Pesticide Alternatives
Brian Schultz

The use of synthetic chemical pesticides has created environmental and health problems throughout the world, from the contamination of water supplies in Western Massachusetts to the poisoning of farm workers in Southeast Asia. This course will examine how problems associated with pesticides arise. We will then review in detail various methods for the "biological control" of pests, such as the use of predatory insects to control insect pests or the use of their own sex attractants to confuse them. The politics of pesticide use will also be an important component, such as who really benefits from the overuse of pesticides and how they are often "dumped" in the Third World.

The course will consist of lectures, films, and field trips. Class will meet for one and one-half hours twice a week.

Food, Nutrition, and Health
Benjamin Oke

In this course we will take a multidisciplinary approach to demonstrate the important role of nutrition in such fields as biochemistry, physiology, epidemiology, food science, and agriculture. Basic information will be provided about nutrients and details of their metabolic functions, and at the same time link this crucial information to the role of nutrition in long-term health and in the prevention and treatment of disease. Topics to be covered include the sources of nutrition, their consumption, digestion, absorption, distribution, metabolism, function, and excretions. Discussions will also include considerations of food processing and agriculture and how the quality of our food supply is affected. Class will meet twice each week for one-and-one-half hours. Enrollment is open.

Space Physiology and Education
Merle Bruno

Even on fairly short orbital trips, astronauts lose bone mass, their muscles shrink, and many get "space sick"--plants don't all behave "normally" in space either. Physiological research on space flights has provided some surprises and great challenges for those contemplating a future in which humans will undertake long-term space travel. The adaptations made by plants and animals to the environment of space are of great interest to physiologists because they give us clues about how those biological systems are designed to work on earth.

Pollution and Our Environment
Dula Amarasiriwardena

This course will explore environmental pollution problems covering four major areas: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the biosphere, and energy issues. Several controversial topics, including acid rain, automobile emissions, ozone layer depletion, mercury, lead and cadmium poisoning, pesticides, solid waste disposal, problems of noise and thermal pollution will be addressed. We will put emphasis on some of the environmental issues affecting our immediate community as well as those in the Third World nations.

Class participation and satisfactory work on the required problem sets, literature critiques, and class projects are required for evaluation. Class will meet one and one-half hours twice a week and one afternoon for a lab or field trip.

Bugs and Drugs: Naturally Occurring Medicines and Pesticides
Brian Schultz
Nancy Lowry

The widespread use of synthetic chemicals in medicine and agriculture has created many health and environmental problems. Therefore, the search for naturally occurring medicines and agricultural chemicals is a very active field of investigation. This, in turn affects debates about the value of environmental preservation, from deserts to rainforests. This course will evaluate the balance between the effectiveness and toxicity of a variety of those compounds. Do these sources really offer better alternatives? Why or why not? Do yew trees fight cancer? Can the environment sustain taxol harvesting? Do butterfly extracts help fight AIDS? Does turmeric kill insects or reduce tumors? Are spice plants trying to kill you (in self defense)? This course will enable students to explore questions like those through readings, discussion, and independent projects. Class will meet twice a week for one and one-half hours, with occasional field trips and labs.

Environmental Concerns and the Third World Nations
Dula Amasasiriwardena

External and internal pressures on the economic, social and environmental systems of many Third World countries have led to enormous environmental problems. This course will address a number of issues of current environmental concerns in the Third World Nations: water resources and safe drinking water for the people of the developing nations, toxic wastes, deforestation, use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture, effects of technology transfer, and energy issues. We will also discuss some global environmental issues including ozone layer depletion, green house effect, and acid rain.

Class will meet two times a week for one and one-half hours. Class participation and satisfactory work on papers, literature critiques and class projects are required for evaluation.