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Creating a Link Between You and the Universe

For the most part, scientists have reached a point of consensus about climate change, so planetary scientist Regupathi Angappan wondered why we still struggle to rally people around the issue. 

“I just think that people aren’t able to directly relate to it,” Angappan concluded. “And there is a way in which any aspect can be directly related to someone, if only that view was presented. If only people were taught to take the time to reflect and include that empathetic vision, both for themselves and the people around them, then we would be able to address a lot of this more readily.” 

So Angappan, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, applied for a Dean’s Teaching Fellowship to design and teach a course on introductory concepts in Earth, planetary, and space sciences, with the concept of empathy woven into the curriculum to unite the topics with his students’ daily lives and identities. 

It’s fundamentally a class that is supposed to make people curious and want to learn and understand that empathy is important, and science can be empathetic.”

—Regupathi Angappan, doctoral student, Earth and Planetary Sciences

‘You from the stars’

The course, The Grandeur of You and the Universe, includes modules with titles like: You From the Stars, You Through the Layers of the Earth, and You and the Anthropocene. In class, Angappan teaches the fundamental science principles, then draws connections between those and daily life and encourages the students to find more of their own. If the Earth’s inner core were not iron, for example, gravity would work very differently, which would change the moon’s orbit, which would alter the historically 28-day lunar calendar that today’s months are based on. 

In You, Geology, and Geography, Angappan revealed a link between 70-million-year-old plate tectonics and today’s election map, as described in Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: How the Earth Made Us. When the ocean receded from the Appalachian mountain range all those millennia ago, it left behind a crescent-shaped swath of fertile mud. In the 17th century, that soil was planted with cotton tended by people who were enslaved. Today, that same land stands out in election maps as a blue crescent against a sea of red, reflecting the political leanings of the descendants of the enslaved. 

Angappan hopes that showing students such linkages will help them learn that science is not just disembodied facts, but has tangible relevance to their everyday lives. He believes they will then become better communicators of science because they can make those connections for others.  

“I always think that my biggest contribution in being in the sciences is to try to find a way to communicate it much more broadly. And this is a direct experiment in doing that,” Angappan says. 

Understanding the connection

Junior Lucy Nielsen had always been fascinated by meteorology but until now, she had thought herself out of her depth with hard sciences. But Nielsen frequently notices connections between the class and her public health studies major, centered on the idea of taking care of one another.  

“In the grand scheme of things, we can start to feel insignificant,” she explains. “But I feel empowered because it’s all relative: To human beings, human life is everything, and we have a responsibility to make this a better experience for everybody.  

“What we’re talking about is how miraculous it is that everything had to be just right for us to end up here. That creates a sense of connection with the people around us, but also a responsibility for the world and environment around us.”