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University of Illinois Channels Carl Woese for All

University of Illinois Channels Carl Woese for All

by Suzan Mazur
July 17, 2014


Author Isaac Asimov once told me he did his best thinking in his underwear. Asimov might have appreciated the convenience of MOOC-style learning, that is, the free "massive open online course" experience being offered by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with its "Emergence of Life" program, which got underway on July 14 via a network of servers. Fourteen thousand students of all ages from one-hundred-thirty countries have already signed up for the eight-week course (registration is open through end of July) highlighting "the entire history of life on Earth." UIUC's Institute for Universal Biology, Institute for Genomic Biology, and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have structured it around the teachings of the late Carl Woese with contributions from other distinguished names in science, among them, Nigel Goldenfeld, Michael Russell, Elbert Branscomb, Bruce Fouke.

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"Emergence of Life" is being touted as, "as dogma-free as possible," by geologist Bruce Fouke, the point person for outreach at UIUC's Institute for Universal Biology. Carl Woese would have insisted on that.

Nothing, apart from registration for the course, is mandatory for students not looking for a course completion certificate. Educational offerings can be enjoyed separately, as modules, in any desired order - like the video lectures (8-10 talks per week will be presented, running time 5-10 minutes each), some shot at Arctic ice sheets, Yellowstone hot springs, and coral reefs in the Caribbean.

For those who actually want a certificate, participation is required in discussion rooms and quizzes. There are also a few 500-word commentaries to be written.

Fouke says he spent an enormous amount of time with Carl Woese preparing the course and that so far the registration response is "better than my wildest hopes."

The program was largely made possible through an $8 million grant from NASA's Astrobiology Institute to UIUC.

Fouke also says he expects to learn extensively from participant feedback and that the course beginning next fall will be retooled accordingly. He added UIUC will likely offer course credit beginning with the fall session.

Excerpts of my conversation with Bruce Fouke follow.

Bruce Fouke: This is a program for students of all ages. I've structured it for a middle school, high school, college freshman window. My 13-year old daughter just registered for the course. There's no age restriction. And no cost unless participants would like a "certificate," which the university is charging $49 for. Our plan for the fall is to give continuing education credits, also at no cost, for middle school and high school teachers.

Suzan Mazur: Can a participant view individual lectures without having to fully participate in the course?

Bruce Fouke: It is definitely asynchronous. There's no live lecturing. These are prepared lectures of mine plus guest lectures. The course is eight weeks in duration with roughly an hour and a half of video lectures per week.

Also, the lectures are modularized. You can select a lecture from week two or four, or whichever week you wish. There's no need to view them in order.

Nothing is mandatory in this program unless you want to take the full course, pass it and qualify for a certificate from the university. To do that people do need to either take all weekly quiz questions, or engage in discussion forums, or complete writing assignments related to the lectures. UIUC faculty and students affiliated with our Universal Biology NAI project grant will be actively involved in those discussions. There is some recommended reading - a total of six open-access scientific papers and general articles - and participants will be asked to write a 500-word essay after reviewing the literature.

But, again, anyone can just select from what we're offering if they don't want the actual certificate of course completion.

Suzan Mazur: How many people can you bring in the way your system is wired?

Bruce Fouke: The maximum capacity is hundreds of thousands of people.

Suzan Mazur: Do you plan to keep offering the course there at UIUC?

Bruce Fouke: Yes, I'm looking forward to the feedback on this summer course to help retool the course for the fall. Also, as a part of NAI grant outreach, we've selected about 40 teachers from the south side of Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, East St. Louis and elsewhere in Illinois. We'll bring them to UIUC to use the course to develop middle school and high school classroom activities. They'll get free continuing education. . . .

We have set up the same program at Lund University in Sweden, where I did my sabbatical. We're connecting with the Swedish equivalent of middle school, high school, university students and teachers. That's very exciting. Once we get Illinois - Sweden set up, we'll link to other countries.

Suzan Mazur: Who's doing the lecturing?

Bruce Fouke: I took the initiative and responsibility to drive this thing through to making a cohesive course. Right now 80% of the lectures are mine and 20% are from other scientists here at UIUC. Over the next year or two we'll significantly increase the contribution of other lecturers from our NAI research group.

Suzan Mazur: Georgia Tech origin of life investigator Loren Williams in an interview last year with me said that Carl Woese "rewrote the book of biology for all of us."

My question is, have you sprinkled enough of a diversity of perspectives in the course, something Carl Woese would clearly have wanted?

Bruce Fouke: The target is middle school, high school, college freshman and all ages. Week two of the course is devoted to the tree of life and we give a summary of the tree of life - going from Carl Linnaeus through Ernst Haeckel through Robert Whittaker to benchmark excellent scientists who've worked on this over the last couple of centuries. We talk about the evolution of the tree of life itself.

Suzan Mazur: The tree of life is one of these questionable matters. One of the arguments, put forth by people like University of Dusseldorf origin of life investigator Bill Martin is that the tree of life is only useful "at the tips" not for "early evolution where today's tips have little direct bearing on the issues." As Martin has noted in his paper, "Early evolution without a tree of life,": "If we check our thoughts too quickly against a tree whose truth nobody can determine anyway, the tree begins to decide which thoughts we may or may not have and which words we may or may not use. Should a tree of life police our thoughts? Working without one is an option."

Would you comment?

Bruce Fouke: We are emphasizing the evolution of early life on Earth -- a pre-tree -- transitioning into a tree of life, but that's only a portion of week two of the course.

We don't show the tree of life coming down to a central point. This idea of a Last Universal Common Ancestor, really the data suggests it's not the case. We had a lineage splitting into archaea and eukarya and that simultaneously emerged with the lineage of bacteria. New genome mining shows these three domains emerging at the same time at an extremely early stage of the Earth's history over a relatively short period of time.

Suzan Mazur: Another one of Carl Woese's ideas was lateral gene transfer. There's a bit of controversy about that as well. With a shift in thinking underway away from vertical evolution via genes as central entities -- the question that's come up is, lateral measured against what? It would be good to see some of this kind of debate in the course.

Bruce Fouke: We do mention that there are two modes of transmission of information lateral and vertical, but it's just mentioned. We don't really go into it as it being established dogma. We're putting our emphasis on helping people understand the historical, chronological run.

We suggest that prior to the formation of modern-like cells, the transmission of genetic information was unconstrained - in all directions and spatial and temporal modes - and that there were no individuals. Thus evolutionary mechanisms were not limited.

Suzan Mazur: Will modern physics be presented without detailed mathematics?

Bruce Fouke: Institute for Universal Biology director Nigel Goldenfeld, who's a condensed matter physicist and one of science's superb lecturers, makes three video presentations. Nigel is known for his standing-room only audiences.

So, we're offering a framework, as dogma-free as possible, and looking forward to feedback from hopefully hundreds of thousands of participants.


Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email:

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