Oats, Kings, Proofs, and Climate Change: How Do You Know?

Seminar Leader:
Paul A. Heiney


This seminar examined the ways in which scholars acquire knowledge in various disciplines. The focus in the course was on the nature of evidence, and how a case is made for a particular claim. Penn faculty members from multiple disciplines presented “modules” on topics relevant to their fields, using primarily original source materials to illustrate the process of discovery, confirmation, and change. The underlying question in each case was “How do you know? (HDYK)” For example, how do you know whether a mathematical statement is true or just plausible? How do you know whether a popular dietary recommendation is a good idea?

The first module was led by Dennis DeTurck (Mathematics and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences), and examined the nature of mathematical knowledge. Participants worked through a collection of puzzles in mathematical arenas as diverse as probability and graph theory to gain an appreciation of the ways in which mathematicians decide what is “true” and “not true”, and the surprising ways in which apparently unrelated questions can be connected to each other. The second module was led by Robert Giegengack (Geology), and examined the now commonly accepted assertion that human activity has been responsible for the warming trend now underway. We gained a critical understanding of the scientific and political basis of the current climate-change debate, an appreciation of the probability that widely publicized projections of future climate will be realized, and some insights into actions that society should or should not be taking to mitigate these changes. The third model was led by Paul Rozin (Psychology), and examined the medical studies that led to the rise and fall of oat bran as an effective way to lower blood cholesterol. The focus was on medical science and its interaction with the media and the public, and on how the same results can be described (framed) in different ways in terms of the motivation of the individuals presenting the results. Finally, Phyllis Rackin (English) led a module examining the historical basis of Shakespeare’s Henry V. What would Shakespeare have known about Henry V from the historical sources available to him, how does that information compare to what he put in the play, and more generally how do we know the past? We found that the play could actually be read in very different ways, leading to apparently equal valid interpretations of the king as a noble hero or a dishonorable villain.

Collectively, these units will provide a valuable resource for teachers wishing to present these topics in their own schools. In addition to detailed lesson plans, the Fellows were also in many cases able to identify valuable teacher and student resources, both in printed form and on the web, which could be used both in development of new curricular units or in enhancing existing units.

Unit TitleAuthor


Know Your Position – How?

Ann Cherian
Keywords: binomial probability, binomial theory, decision making, measures, normal distribution, Pascal's Triangle, Probability and Statistics, statistical distributions, Statistics, tools

What Goes in the Middle? A Curriculum Unit on Axioms, Conjectures and Logical Thinking

Cara Crosby
Keywords: 8th grade, algebra, axioms, conjectures, logical thinking, Math, proofs, theorems

Propaganda and “Truth”: How Do You Know?

Elisabeth Raab
Keywords: English, High School, persuasion, Propaganda, rhetoric

Why Do You Ask? An Introduction to Interview & Survey Methodology

Kate Reber
Keywords: 12th grade, Bradley Effect, election polls, Ex-Slaves, exploring bias in research, Graduation Project, interview, research based, research methodologies, research strategies, research topics, School of the Future, service-learning project, skill building, survey, West Philadelphia

The Universal Law of Gravity: How Do You Know

Alex Leed
Keywords: collaborative learning, formulas, high school curriculum, How do you know?, laws of physics, literacy based, mathematical computations, thematic unit, universal law of gravity

Is Seeing Believing?

Rita Sorrentino
Keywords: camera, digital age, photography

How Do You Know Anything About the Civil War?

Meagan C. McGowan
Keywords: Civil War, History, How do you know?