Course of the Day: On Campus

Engineering students giving a presentation on a wind energy projectJanuary 23, 2008

Introduction to Power/Energy Systems Management - Paulo Ribeiro

Calvin prides itself on offering a face-to-face education to its more than 4000 undergraduate students. Online courses are never offered—well, almost never.

Paulo Ribeiro’s Interim course “Introduction to Power/Energy Systems Management,” while not technically an online course, did make use of innovative Internet technology to facilitate communication between several groups of engineering students and their professor. Ribeiro was originally scheduled to be on sabbatical in Florida for the entire 2007-2008 academic year, but still signed on to teach the Interim engineering course. While his plans to be in Florida all year changed, Ribeiro still needed to be at his research site for part of January. Skype, an online phone and video-conferencing program, helped him be in Florida doing research and in Michigan to teach his Interim class at the same time.

In reality, this course’s hands-on quality allowed students to escape the typical lecture format that would make daily tele-lectures cumbersome. Meetings with Ribeiro via the Internet were more like consultations—times to give brief project updates and ask practical questions.

Teams of students in Ribeiro’s course conducted feasibility projects to determine whether certain kinds of electricity-generating endeavors would be appropriate in specific places. One group worked with the city of Plainwell in Allegan County to determine whether re-establishing an old hydro-electric turbine would be feasible. Another group partnered with the Newberry Place, a new living community located on Belknap Hill in Grand Rapids, to determine the feasibility of building one or more wind turbines to provide electricity for the community.

Both teams assessed the feasibility of these energy projects from many different perspectives. In addition to analyzing cost effectiveness and return on investment for their respective projects, they also looked at state and city laws and policies about establishing new energy sources. Local power companies must also be consulted in these kinds of projects, along with the Department of Natural Resources if the project will cause any form of environmental impact.

"We’ll need to get through red tape – the city, state, the DNR, that’s the critical thing,” said one student working with the proposed hydro-electric turbine in Plainwell.

Once these assessments are complete, considerations must also be made for how these energy projects will be designed and built. The group working in Plainwell is working with an already-existing turbine, but those looking at wind energy on Belknap Hill have to consider how their turbine will connect to the power grid and what kind of turbine will be able to withstand the wind force present at one of the highest points in Grand Rapids. They’ve already begun working on these elements of the project.

Though this Interim course lasts only three weeks, some students will continue to work on their projects in their free time and (if funding comes through) during the summer as special research. Some juniors in the course are even considering turning their projects into senior design projects.

January 22, 2008

Genocide in World History - Kristin Kobes Du Mez

It’s perhaps the heaviest Interim course Calvin has to offer. It’s also the course that spurs the most action. “Genocide in World History,” a course taught by history professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez, spends three weeks visiting some of the darkest hours of human history. It begins with the current strife in Darfur, ends with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and spends the time in between examining the history of genocide through film, literature and academic texts. An entire week is spent looking at the Holocaust.

Professor Du Mez admits that it’s easy to lose sight of hope in the class. Still, students write letters to congressmen and a handful of students has formed an action group. Many of the students in the class are international relations majors, something Du Mez says gives her hope.

“These students are the ones who are actually going to be doing something about these things we’re learning, so there’s hope.”

Sometimes Du Mez thinks she sees hope more clearly than her students, some of whom are learning about this difficult subject matter in depth for the first time in their lives. Students wrestle with the subject matter by having in-class discussions and by writing journals and essays. It is evident from written reflections that after this Interim, students from this course will never be the same.

Some of these reflections and essays are available here to read:

Reflection 1 >>>
Reflection 2 >>>
Reflection 3>>>
Reflection 4 >>>

January 21, 2008

Reading Banned Books - Karen Saupe

From freshman Joel Meredith:

Is there such a thing as Christian art?

Growing up, this question would no doubt have garnered a simple “yes” from me. Up until the time that I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I listened to nearly entirely “Christian” music, read many “Christian” books, and was a regular at “Christian” bookstores. When I wanted to start listening to Enya, my mother questioned me about the music’s redemptive value (to use the proper Reformed terminology). Well that obviously turned out to be quite a slippery slope since today I listen primarily to heathen music, rarely delve into “Christian” books, and avoid “Christian” bookstores whenever possible. The question of the existence of “Christian art” seems to be, to me, no longer a simple yes or no.

On the one hand there are many people who have more faith in God than I , trying much more concertedly than I am to please their Maker, who are deeply convicted that what they do (making art intentionally for a Christian audience) is commissioned by God. This includes music like, “What Could be Better (The Days Ahead),” a song I find obnoxiously and unrealistically optimistic. On my better days I feel guilty that I am not able to “not stop celebrating in my soul” when I hear it or that I am not already dancing as though I were treading streets of gold. On the other hand there are many people who have no faith in God, with no Greater Power to please, who are deeply committed to uncovering beauty and truth in what they do, who have greater perspective and wisdom than I may ever posses. This includes books like “Four Ways to Forgiveness” by Ursula K. LeGuin which analyzes the power of forgiveness and the power of interpersonal relationships in worlds that know instability, war, and bloodshed.

The primary duty of an artist should be to take responsibility for her words or his works. You can write anything you want, but can you stand behind it? As a writer, albeit horribly amateur, the temptation to write an optimistic (or at least moralistic) conclusion is at every turn. We, human beings, instinctively want things to turn out well and, as followers of Christ, we have good reason to believe that, ultimately, they will. But can I, or anyone for that matter, write book after book with nothing but happy outcomes with a clear conscience? As followers of Christ, especially from a Reformed perspective, we must honestly engage the world and see the pessimism, the pain, and a reality that is oftentimes cruel.

I believe that it was C.S. Lewis who said that the world needs more “Christians who write” rather than “Christian writers”, a statement that I think could be well-applied to all disciplines of creative output. I think of music groups like Sixpence None the Richer who thoughtfully engage their existence rather than lamely repeating some variation of “Praise Jesus” throughout every song’s chorus. I think of J.K. Rowling and how I can relate my own doubts in Christianity to Harry’s disillusionment with his once revered headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.

I often wonder what would be most pleasing to God: adamant, though shallow, affirmation of His goodness or honest doubt and admittance that we, as humans, more often than not simply don’t have the answers we long for. In my humble estimation, it is a difficult thing to ask an artist to set out to produce a “Christian” work and anticipate quality returns. As Reed Arvin recommends in his article “Romeo Must Die,” an artist, in this case a writer, should “write your book – write it truly, word for word – and then raise your head, look around, and see where it fits. Don’t aim for a target. Aim for the truth, then tell it.” If “truth will out,” what do we have to fear from honesty in all of its grittiness and unchristian-ness? God is, after all, greater than our mortal misgivings and frightfully frail perspectives. Surely God is capable of bearing our honest grappling with the world we live in if He is indeed its Creator (which I believe He is). If some element of truth to the world around us is to be found in our creative efforts, we ought to see Him breaking through since every square inch of this creation belongs to, and is claimed by God as His own.

talking picturesJanuary 18, 2008

Talking Pictures - Chad Engbers and Jennifer Williams

What do 17th-century religious emblems, 20th-century historian and theorist Michel de Certeau and modern independent bookmaking have to do with one another?

talking picturesPerhaps nothing before English professors Chad Engbers and Jennifer Williams got together and created a “mash-up” of an Interim course called “Talking Pictures.” Students inthis class are examining the relationship between words and pictures, whether they’re 400-year-old religious emblems or modern graphic novels.

More importantly, they’re actually collaborating to create their own book that seeks to visually represent the model sometimes used in Christian circles for prayer,ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). Engbers and Williams decided to use a model like this (the class actually voted to use this specific one) to give the students some creative constraints within to work.

talking picturesOne student was particularly grateful that the professors placed limits on the project.

“If you had said, ‘Here’s a book—make it about God’—that would have been way too big,” she said.

The class is divided into groups talking picturesof four and each group is creating several pages of the book that will eventually be published online at What can be seen so far is, as Williams told the class, full of “significance, depth and originality—anything by cheesy.”  Watch for more information on how to view the book.

(Click on pictures for larger view.)

January 17, 2008

Music, Manipulation and the Mind of God - David Fuentes

"If I shift up a key in the worship song, why does the Holy Spirit suddenly show up?” visiting speaker Greg Scheer asked the students in “Music, Manipulation and the Mind of God.”

They laughed, probably thinking of the many times in chapel, church and other worship services when they’ve seen people throw their arms into the air and begin swaying when a particularly soulful worship song modulates into a higher key. Perhaps they laugh because they, themselves have done this on many occasions in worship.

The question of the hour is, of course, is it for real? Do people truly tap into a stream that’s decidedly closer to God when certain things happen in worship songs? Do people get closer to God through the lyrics or the music in a song? Do they get closer to God if it’s played in a major or a minor key? Do they get closer to God when a certain bass line is played on the guitar?

Students in music professor David Fuentes’ DCM course are learning to evaluate for themselves just what real worship is and just how music can work to play on emotions to create that “so close to God” feeling. 

"Music just takes you along with it and you may not even realize it,” said one student considering the power that music has over us.

Class discussion shies away from quick answers and rules to evaluate worship music or lyrics. In fact, the only tool they discover to use when discerning whether worship music is real or manipulative is this: does the music give glory to Jesus and the Father above all?

January 16, 2008

Reading Banned Books - Karen Saupe

Bringing snacks to English professor Karen Saupe's section of "Developing a Christian Mind" is a serious matter. If a student forgets to bring a pan of brownies or bowl of tortilla chips and salsa on his assigned day, he will likely be held in quiet contempt by his classmates—and in not-so-quiet contempt by the professor. Redemption can be had, of course, by promising to bring something the next day.

Perhaps chocolate chip cookies are so important to students in the "Reading Banned Books" DCM course simply because they need some reprieve from the heady matters on the table during each class session. A bite of chewy goodness can keep the minds pondering the threat of a totalitarian regime taking over the United States (a scenario depicted in Margaret Atwood's controversial book, A Handmaid's Tale) from becoming entirely besodden with anxiety or despair.

Or maybe the snacks help stimulate the students to discuss the matter of censorship in society, the topic for the freshman course, in an thoughtful and intelligent way. The students sit with the professor in a tight circle of desks and contemplate whether or not they would allow their 12, 14, 15 or 17-year olds to read the book they've just finished for this class session. What makes someone mature enough to handle certain themes or events depicted in the book?

"Any book, good or bad, can be harmful if you don't talk about it together," offered one student.

"If you live a sheltered life, you're more in danger of being harmed by things because you don't know how to talk about them," said another student.

The discussion circled round the topics of body image, marriage, sin, redemption and even cassette tapes—all things up for comment in a class that encourages students to question their assumptions and learn how to think about things from a reformed perspective. Once the class break came, the treats enjoyed were more than well-deserved.

An Inconvenient Truth posterJanuary 15, 2008

The Totalitarian Temptation - Randy Bytwerk

From a blog post by freshman Luke Leisman

In response to a comment by Cory claiming the non-existence of global warming, to a post on All Things Conservative to the same effect, and to the film An Inconvenient Truth, I would like to present my opinion on global warming. I hope that the reader will find my facts accurate, and my opinions justified, even if he does not necessarily agree with me.

I will acknowledge that I approach the issue with a significant bias. I like winter. I enjoy snow, and ice skating, and cool crisp weather. The thought of a warmer earth scares me. Thus, I am likely to respond to any suggestion that we might be making the world warmer. I am quickly persuaded to take a threat of warmer climates seriously. Though I also wish that it global warming is not true, I am easily convinced of its threat.

Yet I also am a scientist. I like facts. I like to question anything that is not supported by facts. Yet, I cannot ignore what the data tells me, even if I don’t like it. Global warming is happening. That is difficult to dispute. A National Geographic article from mid 2007 presents the facts: from ice melt to direct temperature measurements to coral bleaching to an upsurge in violent weather and warmer oceans, the evidence is that we are warming up. Question National Geographic as a source? How about Stanford University, the New York Times, the government (US and other nations), and a host of scientific reports?

The more important question is whether this warming trend is part of normal earth cycles and has natural causes, or if humans play a role in the warming trend. That natural causes are part of the picture is obvious. But that humans also play an impact is also evident. I spent many hours this week poring over as much actual scientific data that I could find. Several good sites include A Paleo Perspective on Global Warming, Climate Time Line, and the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The first two sites seem extraordinarily unbiased in terms of forming an opinion, and the IPCC report also seems unbiased, though it is a political commission. There is more info than you ever wanted just in those three sites. Carbon dioxide levels and global temperature do show a relationship (a good site with extensive graphs). And the scientific explanation is also logical (see this page). At this point, I don’t think it is possible to prove that humans are the main cause of the warming trend, but it is no more possible to prove that it is only natural causes. Furthermore, the evidence argues heavily that humans do play a role. (other links: AGU, Stanford) The question that we must ask is, why take the risk? The earth is as warm as it has ever been in human history. Adding more carbon dioxide certainly does not reduce greenhouse effect. Earth is our home. Just as we protect our nation and maintain our homes, we should do something to take care of our planet.

Though this conclusion is, for lack of a better word, inconvenient, I think that it is the only logical conclusion.

Now, I call this truth inconvenient, but how so? Most people like warmer weather, so what? The impacts of a warmer earth, at first seemingly trivial, are, in actuality, devastating. I think that Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth did a good job illustrating the possible impacts. From altering natural cycles like bird feeding habits to mosquito spread to bigger storms to the extinction of species to drier land, a warmer earth affects its delicate balances at all levels. And even beyond that, Gore did not even mention the possible economic impact on ski hills and ice rinks and snow blower manufactures and plow drivers and all the industries that depend on winter weather. It makes a difference that the world is heating up.

And that leads to the question, what should we do? As college students maybe not a lot. But I think that we can all reduce our own carbon output by biking or walking and turning off lights and other little things to save gas or electricity (most of which comes from coal…). Anyone can do this. We also can put pressure on our elected officials and on businesses to try to change buy purchasing smaller cars or local food or writing letters or talking to others. Education is also important both in that we need to learn more about our world to come up with ways of fixing the problems we cause, and that we need to know more about the issues that face our earth so that we can respond accordingly. The latter is what Gore chose to do. He used his power and money to try to educate people, and to try to make politicians respond to the issue.

Yet, I would like to make a couple of comments on An Inconvenient Truth. Beyond educating people, the most important step in getting anything done about global warming is to get around the politics of the issue, and to recognize that as human beings we have a responsibility to take care of the world we live in, even if only to survive. In many ways, I wish it was not Al Gore that produced An Inconvenient Truth. First of all Gore is a very wealthy man who must add a large amount of carbon to the atmosphere. This seems rather hypocritical, and that coupled with his wealth is a turn off to many people, causing them to focus on their issues with Gore than the point of the film. Furthermore, Gore is a very controversial figure. Many people approach the film with preconceptions about Gore; he is a political figure who a large amount of people dislike. They are apt to approaching his movie with the attitude that it is junk and that they won't believe a word of it. I wish that Gore had not included so much of his life story either. While it show's Gore's plea to be a human plea, it also makes people focus on how much they like or dislike, how much they believe or disbelieve Gore while missing the point of the film. Obviously Gore has a slant and a strong opinion. Yes the film has a propagandist slant. But to focus on these misses the point that there is a true threat to this world that we can do something about!

In closing, I would like to reinforce that it is possible to do something about global warming. A New York Times article comments on this. Through natural cycles the earth is at one of its warmer points in history, but over the last 1000, and especially the last 100 years temperatures have started to consistently climb in a way scarily correlated with rises in carbon levels in the atmosphere. Humans have helped contribute to this rise, and to preserve the world as we know it, it is our responsibility to do act.

St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox ChurchJanuary 14, 2008

Bringing Heaven Down to Earth - Nathan Bierma

Many denominations of Christianity have different views on how to worship God. The Orthodox church is an example of a denomination where the style of worshipping is quite different from many other churches. The members of the Eastern Orthodox church believe their worship brings a piece of Heaven to earth. While trying to explain this idea on Orthodox worship, Paul Meyendorff writes an article named “A Taste of Glory.” In this article Mayendorff explains “we are transported to where he is, so that every time the church gathers for worship, we experience a foretaste of the kingdom.”* There is a sense of mystery and greatness to the Orthodox way of worship. This aspect alone has drawn many to the Orthodox church.

Chanting is the primary way to worship God. Although this form of worship is different from many other churches, it can be revered and regarded as a sacred act. Icons are also highly respected because they help remind the Orthodox church members of Bible stories and why they are worshipping God. The icons are painted all over the sanctuary. Beautiful gold paint is used in most of the icons. Important people such as Jesus, Mary, the disciples and various saints are painted on the walls. The architecture is also meaningful. There is a dome that extends the ceiling even higher in the sanctuary. This represents their worship and how it penetrates into Heaven. Worship is able to break the barrier between Heaven and Earth. The Orthodox architecture helps to explain what occurs in their place of worship when the name of Jesus is lifted.

Read More of this Blog Post >>>

Students analyze the Grand Rapids Public MuseumJanuary 11, 2008

Museums for the 21st Century - Paul Christians

Students can sometimes be shy to speak in discussion-oriented classes. They don't want to act too sure of themselves. More than anything, they don't want to begin any sort of argument.

And yet students in the Interim course "Museums in the 21st Century" have learned quickly that if they are going to make any intellectual progress, they will have to share their opinions and ask each other questions. Sometimes they even have to muster up the audacity to challenge each others' statements.

"To what end do museums exist today?" asked the student discussion leader.

"Well, to somehow serve the public good," ventured another student.

"Yeah, but exactly what is the public good? I mean, is there really some sort of 'objective' public good out there that we're all looking for in a museum?" challenged yet another student.

"Um, I'm not sure. Maybe it has something to do with education?" the challenged student answered.

"But even with education, there are different educational values out there..."

Finally the courses' professor, Paul Christians, chimed in to moderate the discussion, pointing out the validity and importance of the issues being discussed. This is all part of the course's broad evaluation of the place museums have in society today. In the past, museums have served largely as repositories of objects that serve as evidence that certain events happened in history. People received this knowledge passively by viewing the objects. Today there is a shift in thinking about museums—they are no longer being seen as great storehouses of objects, but as interactive community centers that tell the stories of humanity. The case study that most indicates this shift is that of the National Museum of the American Indian, situated on the Mall across from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Its very architecture (showing a variety of curves and no 90 degree angles) and landscaping (displaying four different natural settings that could be found in North America prior to the arrival of European settlers) tell the story of the Native American peoples. Inside, displays are designed to tell stories that people can interact with and be affected by.

Students in this course are studying the role of museums in the 21st century by participating in class discussions, writing essays analyzing different aspects of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and by actually visiting several museums. On Monday and Tuesday, students will spend time visiting three different museums in Chicago, using the tools they've acquired through their lively class discussions to formulate new opinions about museums and their place in society.

Featured courses from Janary 3–January 10 >>>


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