Origami Meets Math, Physics for Presidents, and Kitchen Chemistry

Interdisciplinary Courses Showcasing Liberal Arts Education

By Sama Imran Ilyas

In the spring of 2013, I took an origami course offered by the University of Florida Honors Program. I expected to construct paper cranes to hang around my dorm room. Instead, I ended up learning an invaluable lesson about education, which paved the path for my eclectic college career. The lesson was that, although we are conditioned to treat our classes as separate and distinct entities, they are actually interrelated. In order to maximize the value of our education, we should use our knowledge from one discipline to enhance our understanding in another, making connections and integrations to broaden our views. 

Honors Origami encapsulated mathematical principles into art. The course was taught by Kevin Knudson, who is currently President of the Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at the University of Florida. “My origami course was motivated by a desire to get students to do something with their hands,” Knudson explains. “I think we all spend too much time staring at screens and we’ve lost the physical connection with work. Aside from being beautiful, origami provides a mechanism to talk about some interesting mathematics. I hope my students walk away with an enhanced sense for the beauty of mathematics.” 

The class used origami and folding methods to showcase mathematical principles, such as angle trisection, platonic solids, and the hyperbolic paraboloid. As a visual learner, watching the principles literally unfold on a piece of paper solidified the concepts for me. Thus, the course serves as an example of using one discipline to further understanding in another. Knudson is gearing up to teach another honors class, surrounding the connections between literature and math, in the spring. The main objective of the course will be to discover how artists have used mathematical concepts in their work. 

At UC Berkeley, a series of lectures entitled “Physics for Future Presidents” is a popular course. Voted the best class at Berkeley, the class teaches all the physics necessary to be a successful president—or other leader. Topics include energy conservation, nuclear weapons, and global positioning systems, among other related concepts. Richard Muller designed the course and wrote the textbook for it. Muller was awarded the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa Excellence in Teaching Award for Northern California.

In his introduction to the textbook, Muller wrote “physics is the liberal arts of high technology. This course is based on several decades of experience I’ve had presenting tough scientific issues to top leaders in government and business. Students recognize the value of what they are learning, and are naturally motivated to do well. I teach them things that ordinary physics students don’t learn until after they earn their Ph.D.” Enrollment in the course grew virally by word, jumping from 34 students to over 500 in a few semesters.

A class offered at MIT titled “Kitchen Chemistry” explores the chemistry behind cooking techniques. The lab seems to be analogous to organic chemistry lab, with the added benefit of producing edible products. 

Numerous other interdisciplinary courses have popped up in different colleges across the nation, truly exemplifying the ideals of liberal arts education. Many of these classes involve discussion of public figures, such as Miley Cyrus and Beyonce Knowles, in the context of sociological theories. The idea is that having these common and relevant examples will help support textbook theories and stimulate enthusiasm for the subject matter. Interdisciplinary courses, such as these, are expected to become a rapid trend in upcoming years.

Sama Imran Ilyas is a senior at the University of Florida. She was elected into Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. The University of Florida is home to the Beta of Florida Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.