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Fall 2018 Spark Seminars

Should I Donate a Kidney?

Taught by: Kurt Schnier

The available supply of organs for transplantation is far outpaced by the demand for these organs. In this course, you will discuss the current psychological, ethical and political barriers that exist to reduce this rift and develop research questions regarding the efficacy of future solutions. The course will cover the history of organ transplantation, the biological factors influencing organ donation and transplantation, the ethics surrounding potential solutions, the prior efforts made to address these growing needs, the current policies in place to promote organ donation across the globe and the potential future needs for organ donation in the context of global change and demographic transition. You will be challenged to answer a number of key questions including: What changes to our current system will increase donation? What solutions are ethical and which ones are not? Why do some cultures differ in their views regarding transplantation? You will be required to conduct independent research through the collection of data and subsequent analysis, write short papers on key questions in organ donation from multiple perspectives, communicate their findings in both written and oral form, participate in group projects and summarize their work in a final paper. The course will encourage students to critically evaluate the current organ donation system and encourage them to creatively develop solutions that will help us meet society’s future health care needs. At the end of the course everyone should be able to answer the question, should I donate a kidney?

Crochet & Hyperbolic Geometry

Taught by: Yue Lei

Do you know that you can learn higher mathematics through crocheting? In this course, you will explore different representations of mathematical concepts and theory, and how those representations may aid the study of mathematics. Among other activities and topics, you will crochet several hyperbolic planes and pseudo-spheres, and use these crocheted models to study hyperbolic geometry in contrast to Euclidean and spherical geometries. You will also research connections between mathematics and other areas of human endeavor, such as arts and crafts, architecture, navigation, etc., and write an expository paper on a topic of their choice. No prior crochet skills or knowledge of hyperbolic geometry is necessary.

Theater and Community

Taught by: Katherine Brokaw

In this seminar, you will consider the ways in which theatrical performance can make a difference to various communities, and you will generate research questions related to this topic. These research questions might lead you to study performances across the world, or right here in Merced. You will read, view, and interpret various literary dramatic texts (plays), and will also read and discuss accounts of various ways in which performance has been applied around the world to address issues of inequality, power, and social justice. You will use writing as a tool for learning, expand your abilities to write research and write successful academic papers, and improve your oral delivery skills.

Cybersecurity & Data Privacy

Taught by: Lisa Yeo

This seminar will introduce you to the issues of cybersecurity and data privacy as the relate to individuals, organizations, and society. We will begin with a survey of relevant literature, identify new areas for examining cybersecurity and data privacy, develop individual research projects, and share our findings with each other. You should develop not only an awareness of the role technology plays in our lives, but also develop strategies to make informed decisions about the use of data in organizations.

Measuring our Physical World

Taught by: Dustin Kleckner

This seminar will explore the methods by which early scientists were able to measure the basic parameters of our physical world, such as the speed of light, the mass and radius of the earth, the charge of an electron, or other physical constants. There will be a particular emphasis on the mechanics of doing scientific experiments: how do you design an experiment, build it, and interpret your results? Working in groups, we will create plans for measuring these fundamental quantities using simple apparatus and then attempt to execute one or more of them as a class. Time allowing, we will also discuss the modern descendants of these early experiments, and how we continue to refine our detailed understanding of the physical world.

Renewable Energy Facts & Applications

Taught by: Abbas Ghassemi

This course introduces the key concepts of renewable energy technologies focusing on wind, solar, bio-based fuels and geothermal resources. The focus will be on technology, the system and its design, as well as conversion and storage devices for renewable energy sources. This course will assess both current and potential future energy systems. It will cover the quality, availability, use, innovation, extraction and conversion of resources, emphasizing meeting regional and global energy needs for the 21st century in a sustainable manner. The overall educational objective is to demonstrate multi-disciplinary, strategic thinking in a sustainable developmental context considering diverse constraints. You will learn how to conduct research, interact with one another as a team, ask questions, and identify/communicate strategies. Additionally, you will develop a team based quantitative framework to aid in the evaluation and analysis of energy technology systems in the contexts of engineering, political, social, economic, and environmental goals.

Engineering and Society

Taught by: Alejandro Gutierrez


How were the pyramids of Egypt built? What do tea kettles have to do with modern civilization? Will we ever take holidays to the moon? These and many other questions can be answered by studying engineering. In this course, you will learn what the discipline of engineering encompasses and the roles engineers play in the functioning of society. By researching and analyzing significant works of engineering from different historical, geographical, and cultural contexts, you will gain understanding about the diversity of problems engineers encounter in real life. We will discuss the various impacts engineering has in society and the techniques used to manage these impacts. Additionally, you will critically think about the role of ethics in engineering today and how that role might evolve in the future.

Global Grand Challenges

Taught by: Valerie Leppert

Humanity faces a myriad of critical challenges to tackle in order to improve and even sustain life globally. In this course, we will examine the central issues and solutions for 14 Grand Challenges - grouped into the thematic areas of sustainability, health, security and the joy of living - that have been identified by the National Academy of Engineering as some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century. Although the NAE Grand Challenges are taken as a starting point for discussion of viable approaches to global problems, this is not an engineering course. We will examine challenges using the knowledge, research methods, and perspectives of the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts, in addition to engineering. We will develop an appreciation for the important role that the basic sciences, economics, policy, culture, communication and technology all play in understanding and tackling global challenges. Course activities will include reading academic sources and the popular press, viewing video presentations, participating in classroom discussions and debates, writing exercises, and a final research paper and oral presentation related to a specific Grand Challenge.

Archaeology in Popular Culture

Taught by: Holley Moyes

This course in the field of archaeology interfaces with science, history, and popular culture. The goal is to encourage critical thinking and teach you the social context of the discipline of archaeology. It incorporates components of reading, writing, and basic research and library skills. It will examine how archaeology is presented to the general public, explore the myths about archaeology and archaeologists, and contrast these popular constructs with archaeological realities. It provides an overview of archaeological epistemologies including basic archaeological history, theories, methods, and practices including the ways in which data are recognized, recovered, analyzed, interpreted, and presented. By taking this approach, the course seeks to encourage better consumers of not just archaeological media but of all media by teaching critical thinking skills. You analyze public representations by evaluating the sender, the media, and the message. The course also encourages an appreciation of historic preservation efforts and hopes to instill in you a proprietary sense so that you will take a proactive stance in the stewardship of the faint, fragile and irreplaceable archaeological record.

Economics of Innovation

Taught by: Justin Hicks

You will be introduced to fundamental ideas of economic tradeoffs, costs and benefits, and value creation. We will then journey into how entrepreneurs convert ideas into salable actions or products, and how capitalism puts into place real incentives to innovate to try to produce profits. We'll talk about economic measures and the goals that policy makers put into place, and the intended versus unintended consequences. We'll talk about economic growth and how natural resources are viewed and used as a result of prior schools of thought and resulting policies. Finally, we'll delve into why new ideas come into being, and how those new ideas flow around the globe, much like a neural network. This will set the stage to talk about how innovation can be classified, and whether innovation is a fluid phenomenon or rather, a step-wise phenomenon.

Trauma & Resilience Narratives

Taught by: Elizabeth Cunningham


This course will trace the evolution of trauma theory through literary representations of individual and collective trauma. In this course, you will learn how to identify and complicate historical models of trauma theory, apply these models in response to literary texts, and strengthen collaborative learning and presentation skills. To those ends, you will read and analyze fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and theory, draft and revise original essays, and collect and reflect on evidence relating to contemporary sociocultural issues. We will examine a multiplicity of contexts, likely involving World Wars I and II (including Holocaust literature), Caribbean literature, African-American history, 9/11, and others. Rather than focusing singularly on trauma, we will also discuss conceptions of resilience as they relate to literary production and coping.

Disease, Medicine, and Stories 

Taught by: John Hundley

From a variety of perspectives, narrative is the means by which both physicians and patients understand disease. In this course, you will research, read, and compose narratives concerning illness from both clinical and personal standpoints. In doing so, you will consider historical views, such as John Snow’s discoveries in London’s 1854 cholera outbreak, contemporary social perspectives, such as the current opioid crisis, as well as non-western understandings of illness and curing from Hmong, Miwok, and Mayan cultures. Additionally, you will conduct research using library database resources as well as websites such as the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Class work also includes in-class assignments, quizzes, and two oral presentations. By examining the topic of disease through a narrative lens, you will come to a broader and more carefully considered understanding of the role of disease in life and society.

The Border and Chicana/o Texts 

Taught by: Alicia Contreras

This course explores the "border" as both a concept and physical space in Mexican America. In order to examine the border's complexity, you will learn to produce and grapple with relevant research questions; write creatively and critically on the subject; and discuss and deliberate the subject's ambiguous meaning. Such acquired skills will improve your ability to think, write, and communicate clearly and effectively, especially as you deal with a common yet contested term like the "border." This course will give you the opportunity to read and view an array of Chicana/o novels, stories, and films that contemplate the border in various ways. These texts range in setting and topic, beginning with the borderland U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-1848 and ending with the contemporary city life of a Mexican daughter trapped within her family's borders. To enhance your analytical skills, you will also read critical essays on how the border functions interculturally and intraculturally, as both a physical space of conflict and potentially ideological place of healing. Finally, this class will equip you the intellectual tools needed to investigate and understand how the border or the "wall" exists, changes, and persists in American politics and society today.

Defining a Generation

Taught by: Angela Winek

Promoting cross-generational awareness, you will learn how to generate research questions related to generational studies, examine the history of American generations from a diversity of disciplinary perspectives, analyze data pertaining to different American generations, and evaluate the benefits and nuances of the classification and stereotyping of generations, in order to generate academic arguments pertaining to generational studies. To meet these goals, you will read and analyze articles, from a variety of disciplines, related to the six American generations (starting at the onset of the 20th Century), conduct formal interviews and surveys (resulting in brief reports) of community members from a diversity of generations, develop research questions culminating in a final presentation. The course will be organized around the six American generations: GI Generation, Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. In addition to examining statistical data, historical significance, noteworthy contributions, and stereotypes of the seven generations, you will identify research questions and research a specific topic related to generational studies, based upon your own interests.

Film and American Culture 

Taught by: Justin Gautreau

This course explores the phenomenon of popular film in the United States. Rather than viewing movies as mindless entertainment, the course approaches cinema as one of the most powerful arbiters of mass culture in U.S. history, shaping perceptions of gender, race, class, and sexuality for nearly a century. By learning to identify the "invisible" elements of the classical Hollywood style, you will study American film's historical tendency to naturalize structures of power within its narratives. At the same time, however, the course will encourage you to recognize the way Hollywood films can sometimes challenge dominant ideology. To this end, you will practice reading and writing about popular film (and thus popular culture more broadly) against the grain while also examining the significance of its historical context. You will leave the course with a more sophisticated awareness of not only your own media-saturated landscape but also its role in shaping your identity.

Food Deserts in Merced 

Taught by: De Ette Silbaugh

In this course, you will explore the impact of food deserts in the City of Merced. You will engage in your own narrative in relation to food, will learn how to negotiate demographics and statistics, will understand and participate in research, and will be able to determine reliable sources and utilize information within the context of your communication, while improving your ability to read, write and think critically in an academic environment. To accomplish these goals, in small groups you will consider food deserts from a myriad of disciplines by reading about different causes and solutions, analyzing and synthesizing written material and drawing questions and connections from a variety of sources. By the end of the semester, you will have considered multiple directions to view a single [yet diverse] issue impacting the world today. You will have also learned and appreciated different points of view by sharing research, synthesizing information and researching potential answers to questions they develop from your findings and ultimately sharing this information in collaborative presentations. In addition, you will not only become familiar with looking at issues from different presentations, but individual and group responsibilities, time management, respect for others and voicing their opinions and listening well to others. And perhaps the most important is realizing your ndividual stake in being good guardians of our earth.

Intersections of Art & Science 

Taught by: Susan Varnot

In this seminar, students will examine the cross-pollinations that occur between disciplines, in particular the marriage of science and the arts as a means of representing and communicating ideas to wider audiences and to use metaphor and analogy -- visual, linguistic, and cross- disciplinary -- to create a reflexive dialogue between disciplines to see what each has to offer the creative, thinking, and presentational processes of the other. You will explore their personal academic interests and work with others whose interests diverge from their own to develop talks and materials to connect with wider audiences in an effort to get them to care about topics they might otherwise dismiss.

Legendary California 

Taught by: David Samper

In this section, you will explore the politics of ethnicity, class, and gender in their social and cultural contexts through the stories we tell about ourselves and others. We will study many different folklore genres—tall tales, rumors, ethnic humor, personal experience narratives, family folklore, and urban legends—as articulations of current and historical social, cultural, and political conflict. In short, our stories provide a lens through which we can understand our society since they often emerge from social stress, anxiety, and concern. They tell us that there is something awry in our community. You will be encouraged to collect and analyze oral narratives from their own families, friends, and communities. Analysis will consist of understanding the context, text, and texture of the item they collect.


Taught by: Iris Ruiz

This course will explore how particular social concern in the Central Valley can be better understood through an intersectional analysis. Intersectionality is one of the most useful contributions of third wave feminist theory; however, in the University, its potential application is still limited. Furthermore, intersectionality is a complex tool that requires skill and training to use. While intersectionality wields the power to help make feminism the inclusive framework it purports to be, and is a powerful paradigm that can be leveraged in multiple fields studying and seeking to change cultures and societies, it is still not widely used beyond feminist circles. This course will further develop an intersectional approach to knowledge and research and promote your ability to apply an intersectional praxis toward research that will address the limitations of singular foci research studies. Furthermore, this course will prompt you to learn to apply a multidisciplinary, multidimensional, and multifaceted intersectional approach to local social problems in the Central Valley as intersectional theory is recognized as a viable theory for understanding multiple sources of social influence, oppression, and experience.

Immigrant Lives in the US 

Taught by: Anna Moncovich

Using art as a vehicle to explore the debate on US immigration, this course will examine the crucial role this issue has played in American politics. You will read short selections of immigrant memoirs, look at relevant art pieces, and view select films. The course will examine how personal life stories--as captured in art--can be the vehicle for larger social debate and change. In reading and watching texts from different time periods, you will gain an understanding of the history of American immigration, which can better inform our understanding of the current debate. In the course, we will debate issues of citizenship and the American identity, cultural conflicts and stereotyping, and discuss how race, ethnicity, and gender have factored into this debate.

Computers and Education

Taught by: Angelo Kyrilov

This seminar will explore different issues related to the use of computational technology in the instructional process. We will survey existing literature to learn how instructors from different disciplines use computers in their classrooms to improve their teaching, and explore the effects this technology has on things like student performance and motivation. Each student will identify a research question from their own field and develop the proper research methods to answer it. This will involve writing a research proposal in the early stages of the seminar, and producing a research report by the end.

The Power of Teams and Groups

Taught by: Emily Langdon

Leadership trainers and management textbooks often quote Margaret Mead when promoting group work and collaboration: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. However, anyone who has tried to get something done in a group knows there are plenty of doubts about the efficiency and effectiveness of teamwork and groups projects. The ability to work effectively in groups is a critical skill in the 21st century workforce. “At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces” (Goleman, 1995, p.34). These other forces are sometimes referred to as “soft skills” and include ways to manage people, relationships, teams and groups to positively impact the organization.

This seminar will take a multidisciplinary look at teams and group work, including scholarship from psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and management to better understand how tasks can be accomplished and change can be created by people working together. Students will learn basic tenets of qualitative research (participant observation) to ask and answer a research question about the nature of groups. In addition to studying other groups, students will self-assess their teamwork skills and strive to increase their own capacity for teamwork, a highly regarded skill in the world of work.


Exploring Leadership: Expanding Your Capacity to Make a Difference

Taught by: Charles Nies


This seminar will introduce students to theories and models of leadership. Through a review of leadership literature, an interview with a community leader, and reflection on how theory and lessons learned frame the students' understanding of their personal capacity for leadership. Additionally, the link between community engagement and leadership will be explored as students volunteer in the community and develop a proposal for a community-based project. Finally, students will use various disciplinary lenses to look at contemporary issues that shape and impact the ability to effectively lead and to create positive social change.

Writing the History of Readings

Taught by: Manuel Martin-Rodriguez


In this course, you will learn how to generate research questions related to the topic of reading, practice with different methods of scholarly research, and master presentation delivery strategies (both verbal and written). You will also be exposed to collaborative research practices by working with other classmates on some assignments. To accomplish these goals, you will read and critique published scholarly sources, you will be exposed to several research projects directed by the professor, and you will conduct original research. You will then choose proper written and oral formats to present your results (spreadsheet, essays, powerpoint, roundtable).

Why People Believe Weird Stuff

Taught by: Jennifer Howell


This course is organized around the idea that the beliefs we hold -- about ourselves, about others, and about the world -- are often closer to quickly constructed and poorly tested hypotheses than to established fact. This is particularly true for a category of beliefs that we will call "weird." We will cover beliefs in things most people might call "weird" like extrasensory perception, UFOs, ghosts, magic, as well as beliefs that may feel a bit close to home: in fad diets, homeopathic medicine, religious cults, superstitions, and even extreme political views. Because our beliefs shape everything from the life decisions we make, to the way we interact with others, to the governmental policies that are implemented, we have an obligation to critically evaluate our own beliefs whenever possible. This can only be accomplished with the use of critical thinking skills. One goal of the course is therefore to learn critical thinking skills and apply these to our own and others' weird beliefs. A second goal is to use standard psychological science and its methodological tools to examine paranormal beliefs and thus to gain an understanding of the origins, functions, and survivability of such beliefs. Thus, in this course we will explore psychological processes that contribute to irrational beliefs, superstitions, and erroneous beliefs and behavior.