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Complex Problems Courses | Science and Health

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A Kid’s Day in Court

GNED 140
Claire Griggs
MTh 2:30 - 3:45pm

Juvenile delinquency poses difficult and interesting problems for youth policy and criminal justice policy. This course looks at the misconduct of youths that brings them within the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts, and focuses on the complex problem of whether a youth will stay in the juvenile delinquency system or be waived and transferred to the adult criminal justice system. We will look specifically at the legal, social, and policy determinations and implications of that decision. The course will explore the intersection between legal and mental culpability that is critical to understanding the issue of waiver.

Food Justice Matters

GNED 250
Stacey Snelling
MTh 9:45 - 11:00am

Should food marketing to children be restricted? Should agricultural subsidies be eliminated? How are stakeholders incorporating healthful eating practices into health policies? These are some of the questions we will explore as we critically think about food justice issues in the 21st century. Using local farms, local non-profit agencies, the department of health, and other related organizations, we will explore what DC and other states are doing to address food justice in their communities.

The Food Water Energy Nexus

GNED 250
Douglas Fox
TF 9:45 - 11:00am

Food, energy, and water resources are interconnected, so addressing one resource will cause scarcities in others. This complex problem requires innovative, cooperative, and interdisciplinary solutions utilizing the skills from multiple disciplines. Our next generation must be equipped with sustainability and resilience strategies for the Food Energy Water Nexus, requiring interdisciplinary approaches. Natural scientists, engineers, social scientists, economists, policy makers, and diplomats must work together to form an international collaboration for addressing these resource scarcities simultaneously.

Harsh Justice

GNED 140
Robert Johnson
M 5:30 – 8:00pm

America leads the western world in the use of harsh punishments: life sentences, death sentences, and extended solitary confinement. Each of these punishments is a type of death penalty: life sentence prisoners are sentenced to die in prison, death sentence prisoners are sentenced to be killed in prison, and prisoners sentenced to extended terms in solitary confinement (often in notorious “Supermax” prisons) are sentenced to what has been described as a “living death.” As a general matter, conditions in American prisons are uniquely painful and degrading, and have been described by researchers as “dehumanizing” and “hellish,” and ultimately “un-survivable” in the face of widespread violations of human dignity. We will consider harsh sanctions, and the prison experience in general, from different points of view, drawing on the arts (primarily poetry) and the social sciences (primarily criminology).

The Highs and Lows of Drugs

GNED 140
Maria Gomez
W 11:20 - 2:10pm 

Every week we hear another story about how the heroin epidemic is ravaging communities across America. Drugs remain a complex problem, despite the investment of billions of dollars and many years into potential solutions. This class critically analyzes the varying approaches (e.g., scientific, public policy, law enforcement) that have been applied to the drug problem. After over 50 years of scientific research, we have extensive knowledge of how drugs work on the brain, but little progress has been made in reducing rates of drug addiction. Why? Are the right scientific questions being asked? Are we using the best legal approach?

Homo Addictus

GNED 250
Tom Ratekin
MTh 11:20 – 12:35pm

Homo Addictus will investigate important questions that tie addiction to fundamental human experiences. For example, in what ways do addictions to such varied things as alcohol, drugs, the internet, video games, pornography, sex, and shopping address and treat a universal pain that is central to humanity? What are the pleasures of potentially addictive behaviors and how do they draw people away from ordinary life? How is addiction connected to other difficulties such as trauma, stress, mental illness, social anxiety, and sexuality? Students will read fiction, memoir, and social science texts. Addiction is an extremely common human experience--an experience that highlights the particular joys and pains of being alive.

Living and Dying in DC

GNED 250
Jessica Young
MTh 12:55- 2:10pm 

Why are some infants born in the capital of the world's wealthiest nation dying at rates higher than some developing countries? Why does the Metro stop people live near predict how long they are likely to live or if one will die from HIV/AIDS, cancer, asthma, or old age? This course will introduce students to health inequities and will use political, economic, historical, and sociological analyses of differences in power and privilege as it relates to quality of life, disease burden, and mortality in Washington, DC. Through local texts, site visits, discussions, and reflections, students will explore how DC residents, communities, health care providers, public health practitioners, and policymakers have shaped the social forces that influence health, and how they have worked together to ensure that all DC residents have the opportunity to live healthy and long lives.

The Material World

GNED 250
Nathan Harshman
TF 11:20 - 12:35pm 

This course will explore the matter that has mattered to humans, from stone and bronze through semiconductors and nanostructures. Cultures, economies, and nation‐states flourish and decline based in part on the material resources and technology which they can access and control. This course is half about material science, investigating the atom-stuff that we and our world are made of, and half a critical investigation of materialist theories of culture, history, economics, and politics. The primary student assessment is a portfolio demonstrating an integrated understanding of scientific and technical material (pun intended) into social, historical, artistic, economic, philosophical and political contexts.

Normalizing Bodies

GNED 140
Perry Zurn
MTh 2:30 - 3:45pm 

This course will examine the distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” bodies and investigate the complex ways in which abnormal bodies become “problems” for medicine. Looking at historical examples, e.g. pathologization of slaves’ desires to flee captivity, nineteenth century diagnosis and treatment of “hysteria,” medical treatment of height (tallness in girls, short stature in boys) and atypical sex anatomies (intersex bodies), we will ask what normality means, and explore the effects of meanings we may too often take for granted. We anticipate a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of American History to speak with the curator and specialist of disability, and guest lectures on normalizing surgical interventions for children.

Obesity: A Complex Crisis

GNED 250
John Bracht
MTh 8:10 - 9:25am 

Obesity is a public health emergency: a majority of Americans are currently overweight and a significant fraction are likely to suffer adverse health impacts including diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and even cancer. In this course we investigate the ways lifestyle, culture, socioeconomic factors, and the food industry all interface with biology to impact body weight. We also will discuss mounting scientific evidence that obesity is, to a significant degree, inherited from our parents, and the impact this knowledge should have on our approach to the problem. We will survey both popular and scientific works relevant to the causes of the obesity epidemic, drawing connections while promoting critical analysis and discussion. This class will emphasize the multifactorial causes of obesity, through engagement with both popular and scientific literature, reinforced through student writing and feedback. Reading materials in the course will include the book “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser and “A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic--and How We Can End It” by Deborah Cohen. Additional reading assignments will be drawn from the (nonspecialist-appropriate) scientific literature and the popular media. This course will incorporate two guest lectures: one from Dr. DeCicco-Skinner (Biology), focused on the obesity-cancer link, and one by Dr. Terry Davidson (Psychology) focused on his findings linking high-fat diets with cognitive defects. Two ‘living-learning community’ film viewings will provide supplemental engagement with the topic: “Supersize Me” and “Food, Inc.”. These films both discuss ways in which the food industry drives unhealthy eating dynamics. An overall focus of the course will be to present multiple viewpoints and levels of discourse, and to highlight the lively and engaging state of this topic in society.

Perspectives on Mental Illness

GNED 250
Laurie Stepanek
W 11:20 - 2:10pm 

This course explores not only the scientific basis for mental illness and treatment, but also how cultural, political, and economic forces impact mental health policy. Do patients have rights to refuse treatment? How do socio-cultural perspectives of mental illness influence treatment? How should mental illness affect culpability and sentencing in the courtroom? Students will read and respond to narratives by the mentally ill, clinical and legal case studies, scientific review articles and congressional testimony, as well as lectures by experts in the field. Students will also examine the portrayal of mental illness in film and literature.

Plagues, Plots, and People

GNED 250
Sarah Marsh
TF 9:45 - 11:00am

Diseases, we say, are caught, transmitted, and contracted in many different ways: miasmas, bugs, germs, and vectors--to name just a few. So what do the things we say about illness teach us about what we think makes us sick? This class will study historical, scientific, and popular accounts of illness to explore this question and others: Does disease create immunity or result from lack of it? Do class, sexuality, race, gender, or geography protect against disease, or expose people to it? How do biomedical narratives of illness inflect cultural practices and social relations? And how have the life cycles of pathogenic microorganisms shaped human history? This course's materials include science writing, theory, film, and literature--as well as images and objects from the National Library of Medicine and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institute.

Playing With Genes

GNED 250
Sarah Marvar
MTh 4:05 - 5:20pm

We will explore divisive bioethical issues surrounding our growing ability to analyze and manipulate genes in humans, animals and plants. Students will be introduced to the basics of the human genome, the technology such as CRISPR that allows for genetic manipulation and the possibilities that provides in health and understanding genetic disease. Students will discuss selected readings, films and complete creative writing assignments while exploring the bioethical side of genetic manipulation, gene therapy, cloning and reproductive technologies, such as three parent babies. With the professor, guest speakers and their peers, students will consider personalized medicine and it’s impact on healthcare, in addition to genetic engineering of animals in the fight against disease (eg. Zika) and genetically modified foods.

Preventing Pollution

GNED 250
Jesse Meiller
W 8:10 – 11:00am

Today, contaminants enter our water, air, and land through many routes. This course will be broken into these three sections (water, air, and land) as we pursue issues surrounding pollution in our environment including how and why pollution occurs. We will investigate the sources of various pollutants snd the environmental and health effects of exposure to these contaminants. We will investigate potential solutions to pollution including prevention and mitigation. Students will participate in and benefit from diverse assignments including case studies, debates/ role-playing, peer-teaching, and facilitated discussions on assigned readings from written texts, documentaries, and topic-specific exhibits.

Underrepresentation in STEM

GNED 250
Meg Bentley
W 8:10 – 11:00am

Will yours science professor be black? Many argue that underrepresentation in STEM fields is a problem that needs addressing, lest we face consequences in technological innovation. We will begin the course with an introduction to the professional STEM pipeline, and its unique characteristics. Then, students will find evidence as to whether the problem of underrepresentation truly exists and whether it has tangible consequences. We will expand our net to consider minorities, people with mental and physical disabilities, LGBTQ populations, and women. We will examine strategies to correct underrepresentation in the sciences and other fields and ask whether STEM is different from other professions. Readings will include scholarly and popular press articles from multiple disciplines including the natural sciences, social sciences, law and policy.