News releases

September 12, 2007

TO: Editors, news directors
FROM: University Communications, (608) 262-0930

MADISON - While many University of Wisconsin-Madison students started a new schedule of old classes last week, some students ventured into new academic territory never offered before in a formal course.

From physics to communication arts, faculty across UW-Madison have created new and innovative courses to keep up with today's hot topics and teach subjects in unique ways.

Here are a few new courses this fall that have piqued the interest of undergraduates, covering topics such as: challenging the science vs. religion debate; exploring artistic expression during war time; promoting sustainable business strategies; and analyzing the history of Hollywood film scores.


Physics professor Marshall Onellion has a new job title this semester: official tackling dummy for his freshmen students. It's part of his scheme to provoke controversial discussion and to get his students really thinking. Oddly enough, he's instigating this debate in a physics class.

Not your typical physics course, "Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt," is a new freshman seminar that combines science, the arts and religion in the search for truth and understanding of the world. And Onellion welcomes this challenging debate of science vs. religion.

"I fully expect to step on toes," Onellion says confidently. "I don't care about that; I care about the students thinking for themselves."

Onellion breaks down this quest for truth into chapters like altruism and ethics in science, providing scientific information and religious theories on each subject. Abandoning the idea of absolute right or wrong, Onellion believes that science and religion complement each other, and that they're both valid in the search for truth.

Onellion says that his first inspiration for designing such a course was the commentary after Sept. 11. "I spent a lot of time listening to people arguing 'science is right, religion is wrong' or vice versa. Most of it was rubbish. You're suppose to pick sides, but I've never thought like that."

In three years of preparation for the course, Onellion studied the Qu'ran and wrote the course's textbook with colleague Steve Fortney. In class, Onellion requires his students to argue against him as practice for real-world situations with both religious zealots and people who reject religious ethics in scientific reason.

"How do you deal with 'true believers' and not let them run all over you?" he asks. "Practice helps - practicing adult argumentation and critical thinking to have the courage to stand up when you're faced with ideologues."

But how does Onellion force a timid freshman to argue against him? By creating a weekly, social discussion group at a rotating coffeehouse location for his students to talk about the subject outside of a strict classroom environment. This class is one of many First-Year Interest Groups, or "FIGs," being offered this fall, where such outside-of-class interaction is promoted.

"Students come into class as complete strangers, and the sooner they become more comfortable with each other, the better the discussion will be," he says. "I want them to have fun, really enjoy themselves, and hit me�intellectually speaking."

CONTACT: Marshall Onellion, (608) 263-6829,


In search of course materials for this fall, Professor Kristin Hunt rummaged through her brother's old stack of comic books, watched reruns of M*A*S*H and listened to Green Day albums. She wasn't studying the pastimes of teenagers; rather, she was researching pop culture art forms for a new integrated liberal studies course offered this semester.

The new course, "ILS 275: The Art of War," reviews four major world conflicts through the eyes of the artist. Combining a history lesson with the fine art, literature and the popular culture of each era, Hunt presents the wars in a social and artistic context.

"When we talk about war, we generally don't talk about it from an artistic perspective, rather a political or historical perspective," Hunt says. She notes that artists and writers played an important role in shaping peoples' attitudes of war. "Captain America, who fought the Nazis, is a shining example of patriotic, American masculinity."

Beginning with World War II and the Cold War, Hunt takes her students through short stories, poetry, and visual art, analyzes the protest music of the Vietnam War and arrives at the modern-day art and social commentary of the Iraq War. She includes performance art and political cartoons as well, and encourages her students to respond by producing their own art forms.

"The class is designed to help students interpret the world around them," Hunt says. Through this course, Hunt wants her students to critically judge of value of the material they're exposed to without letting their core values wane. She also notes the historical aspect of the curriculum. "I want the students to understand the big questions of each conflict."

The class convenes weekly in the living room of the Meiklejohn house, with its social, comfy-couch atmosphere - an environment that gives the students a sense of ownership of the class and inspires a collegial atmosphere, Hunt says.

As the class is sure to capture the interest of a broad range of students, Hunt hopes to make the class a regular offering through the ILS department.

CONTACT: Kristin Hunt, (608) 262-9067


As the demand for greener companies and communities continues to rise nationwide, UW-Madison is responding by offering new courses on the environment and sustainability. Part of this green education is a new environmental studies forum titled Working Toward Regional Sustainable Development.

Led by Tom Eggert, senior lecturer in the School of Business, the course meets as a bi-weekly, community forum that mixes graduate students and community leaders in a discussion on the practices and real-world examples of sustainable communities.

Commonly examined in the business arena, sustainability is a growing trend for communities as a way to more efficiently use energy, space and resources, as well as social and local business activities. Eggert says that, today, local governments are generating innovative and creative ideas on sustainability.

"[Local governments] are thinking much more holistically than in the past," he says, adding that creating sustainable communities reaches beyond environmental practices to include financial and social successes.

The forum convenes every Friday, attracting roughly 30 local community leaders and 20 graduate students. Guest speakers such as Irene Blakely, mayor of Washburn, Wis., and Ann Beier, Director of Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability, will offer their own experiences and lessons learned working with eco-municipalities. The semester will conclude with a guest lecture by Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz on Madison's response to the sustainability challenge.

The real-world setting of the forum creates a new learning environment for the students in class. Eggert says that this course "blurs the line between academia and the real world." He adds that his students get to see through the eyes of community members, something they often don't have much experience with. Eggert hopes that the students, as well as the community leaders, will feel empower to take action in creating viable, sustainable communities. "I expect them to go out and change the world."

CONTACT: Tom Eggert, (608) 267-2761,


Behind every great film lies a great soundtrack. Sometimes, it goes unnoticed. It just floats along in the background, adding emotion or suspense. Others are memorable and deserve as much merit as the film itself, such as the deep, precautionary bah-dum's accelerating as the shark nears in the movie "Jaws."

Communication Arts Professor Jeff Smith will take a bite out of film scores in a new course offered this semester, "The History of the Hollywood Film Score." The music-minded communications art course will cover the evolution of film scores, major composers and the use of new technology in the field. Unique to the communication arts curriculum, this course, according to Smith, requires his students to think counter-intuitively.

"We don't really go to the movies to listen to music," he says. "But without it, the film experience wouldn't be complete."

Combining technical music knowledge with a history of pop culture classics, the course begins with old Hollywood composers like Max Steiner ("Casablanca," "Gone with the Wind") and arrives at modern-day legends like John Williams ("Star Wars," "Jurassic Park.") The course meets on Monday evenings and includes a weekly lab, during which the students watch selected films.

Like a pop culture PB&J, Smith created the class by sandwiching his love for film and ridiculously large music library between the pages of a course syllabus. Smith says that his colleagues suggested that he use his musical background in his teaching. He says that music can help shape and guide a film beyond the script.

"Film stories tend to be so common as a visual medium to convey an emotional message, but music can tell us what the character is feeling or thinking without having to say a word," he says.

Through this course, Smith wants his students to take with them a new perspective on the film experience. With a tinge of a personal understanding, Smith says that after taking this course, "the students won't ever watch films in the same way again."

CONTACT: Jeff Smith, (608) 263-3132,

- Danielle Russell,