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Arts and Sciences in Action

Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

It's not easy driving a rover on the red planet

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It was an unusual sight to see in the Wright Reiman Laboratories building.

Small groups of blindfolded students were in a hallway lining up, locking arms, and attempting to move—forward, backward, and sideways—without crossing boundary lines taped to the floor.  

“Because if you step outside the lines it means you fell down a crater or jumped onto a giant rock,” said Juliane Gross, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Gross, the teacher of a popular elective course, “Planet Mars,” was having her students simulate the way NASA guides the six-wheeled Mars Exploration Rover vehicle across the treacherous terrain of the red planet.

“It’s not easy to drive a Rover,” she told students. “And you’re about to find out why.”

Indeed, NASA engineers navigate the rovers from 150 million miles away on Earth, reviewing images sent by the rover’s camera and then transmitting follow-up directions back to Mars.  

Gross recreates that sequence for her class, with students and cellphones standing in for aerospace technology. Each group of three blindfolded students is a Rover. And a student who takes cellphone pictures of their position on the floor acts as the communications system. Another set of students sitting in the classroom act as navigators, reviewing the cellphone images and sending out directions.

The intricate, painstaking exercise hit home for students, particularly after the blindfolded teams made their way fitfully around the halls, with at least one of them bumping into a water fountain.

“We take it for granted that these machines know exactly what to do and where to go,” says student Chandni Khawaja. “But in fact there’s a lot that goes into getting it right, and things can go wrong very easily.”

Her teammate agreed.

“It’s pretty tricky staying in those lines,” said journalism major Jacqueline Suazo. “But it’s also really fun. I feel like we don’t know enough of what’s going on at NASA so it’s helpful to get this kind of detailed explanation.”

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The course, which Gross revived and enhanced after joining Rutgers in 2015, draws dozens of students, most of whom are non-science majors. The students explore the formation and evolution of Mars, and study its climate. They also learn about NASA’s exploration program, studying the mission of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

Gross said her underlying goal is for students to leave the course with a greater openness toward science.

“Students come up and tell me: ‘I have always been interested in space exploration, but I am not smart enough to be a scientist,’’’ she says. “And that just breaks my heart, because they certainly are smart enough to be a scientist.

“So I want them to discover that science is fun, and not too hard if you’re inspired and willing to invest a bit of energy.”

She has designed the course to be both rigorous and fun. During one class, the students toss rocks onto a mixture of flour and cocoa powder to observe how craters form, which is the principal process that shapes planetary surfaces.

“It’s pretty messy,” she says.

Students also get a thorough grounding in planetary science, discovering the central role geology plays in Mars exploration. Students learn, for example, how the Rovers are equipped with spectrometers that scan for minerals, such as iron oxides called hematite.

 “If you find iron oxides, you know there was water,” Gross tells students during a recent lecture. “And the mission is to follow the water, explore the geology, and explore the climate and how it changes. We need to know all of this, if one day we want to go and colonize Mars.”

Alex Mocanu, a public relations major, said he feels as if the course has made him a better citizen, one who knows the facts about Mars, is conversant with NASA’s missions, and can critique representations of space exploration that appear in movies or the news media.    

“This course is engrossing,” he said. “I understand what people in NASA go through to have these Rovers do all these things, and how stressful it can be when things don’t go according to plan.”

Gross, a native of Germany who studied minerology and petrology at Ruhr-University Bochum, says she became “totally hooked” on Mars after doing a post-doc at the Lunary Planetary Institute/NASA.

“That is when I fell in love with planetary sciences,” she says. “Working on rocks from different planets that are billions of years old feels very humbling, and puts everything else into perspective.”

A science fiction fan, she always wanted to be an astronaut, but is prone to motion sickness.  

“It’s like I'm able to visit these places through the rocks,” she said. “I enjoy it so much and now I'm trying to share my enthusiasm and love for planetary science with my students.”

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Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

Mural tour takes students off campus and into New BrunswickDSC07125

Professor Marcy Schwartz was determined to create a course in which students could learn about social justice and get involved with the Spanish-speaking communities that neighbor Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

So in “Spanish for Community Engagement,” offered for the first time this semester, students explore issues such as housing, health, and education while volunteering in organizations such as the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance, the Eric B. Chandler Health Center, and a mentoring program at Middlesex County College. 

“I see so much interest from this generation of students in wanting to do something good,” says Schwartz, chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in the School of Arts and Sciences. “They want to contribute something positive and lasting and make a significant change in the community.”

Cesar Esteban, a first-year student who is still mulling a major, felt compelled to sign up for the course.

“Community service was very important at my high school,” said Esteban, who graduated from the Jesuit-run St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City. “I saw this course as a great way of continuing that tradition and enhancing it.”

Last week, the class boarded a bus to examine the murals of New Brunswick—a deep lesson in community aesthetics, and a journey that took them out of the familiar setting of College Avenue and George Street and into neighborhoods such as Unity Square and Jersey Avenue, and beneath the Route 18 corridor along the Raritan River.

“I thought I was a New Brunswick expert, but I have been to a lot of places today that I’ve never seen,” said Sarah Schrading, a senior majoring in linguistics and Spanish, with a minor in political science.

DSC07116Leading the tour and providing the background on the murals was Claudio Mir, a senior program coordinator for the university’s Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service.

“Murals represent something as old as the presence of humans on this planet,” said Mir, who studied experimental video and filmmaking as a Rutgers student in the 1990s. “It’s that desire to be noticed. It’s the same impulse that makes us take selfies.”

In New Brunswick, Mir said, murals sometimes serve pragmatic purposes, such as covering up and discouraging graffiti. But these murals also tell a larger story about immigrant communities, some of which have been displaced through cycles of real estate development and gentrification.

“It’s that older idea of ‘here we are, this is our story,’” he said.

Mir showed students the full range of mural art in New Brunswick, from the wildly imaginative paintings along Route 18, to the communal meal lovingly rendered on the side of a restaurant near downtown, to the restored mural of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King on Sanford Street.

Each one subtly reflects social, communal, and political ideas, he said.

The focal point of the mural along the Route 18 river walk, for example, is a masked woman with her lower body starting to come apart. The mural is the work of Albus Cavus, a collective of artists dedicated to transforming public spaces.

“She seems like an alien kind of figure, losing her personhood,” Mir said. “Perhaps it’s a statement on the way our society treats undocumented immigrants.”

The mural depicting people gathering around a table for a meal adds a joyful welcoming spirit, he said. The mural was painted by a Rutgers alumna Ingrid Morales.  

“It’s like an open window and anybody could be sitting at the table,” Mir said. “It creates such a beautiful space.”

Students were impressed by the murals and said the course was helping them move beyond their Rutgers-centric routines and develop a wider lens with which to see the world. Schwartz has students reading research reports and studying the work of NGOs, immigrant rights groups, and the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, each student has to volunteer in a community organization.

The Collaborative Center, where Mir serves as a program coordinator, worked with the Spanish and Portuguese department  to place students in community organizations and provide orientation and guidance throughout the semester.

Senior Rachel Johnson volunteers at the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance to meet the course requirements. She staffs a table at the farmer’s market where she speaks in Spanish with residents, informing them about the alliance’s programs.

“We learn in a very practical manner in this course,” Johnson says. “I like going into the different parts of the city and participating in this communities while continuing to get the academic and intellectual background.”

The tour ended fittingly at Gaby’s, a Mexican bakery and restaurant, where students ate sweet rolls and coffee and reflected on the art they had seen and its connection to the larger community.

 “This reinforces the fact that New Brunswick is bigger than Rutgers,” Schrading said. “And it is important that we remember that.”


 Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

Digital classroom reaches students in Nebraska, Michigan, and Maryland

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Students in Sylvia Chan-Malik’s “Islam in/and America” course are often surprised to learn that some of the earliest Muslim communities in the United States were African American.   

“They have to rethink the whole notion of Islam as a foreign religion from the East,” says Chan-Malik, a professor in the American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies departments in the School of Arts and Sciences.  “If you met a Muslim in the United States prior to the 1960s, they were probably African American.”

Chan-Malik is bringing those insights to three other major research universities this semester as part of an Islamic studies initiative that aims to reach schools across the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

Her class at Rutgers is being shown live through a sophisticated videoconferencing system to students at the University of Maryland, University of Michigan, and University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

“It’s a pretty revolutionary experience to have this kind of discourse with people from around the country,” says Sukhvir Singh, a Rutgers sophomore. “It’s powerful.”

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During one session Chan-Malik had students list all the stereotypes they have heard about Muslims. She switched the sound off so that the groups from each school could work independently, and then compared what turned out to be very similar lists that included terrorism, oppressing women, and opposing democracy.  

“Muslims in the United States have had to contend with the fact that their religion and their way of life are seen through certain representations and stereotypes,” Chan-Malik said. “And these do not account for the complexity and diversity and multiplicity of their actual lives.”

The course was made available to the other schools through the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum (DISC), an initiative by the University of Michigan to build a community of scholars across the Big Ten while providing students with access to a broad array of courses on Islamic cultures, ideologies, and historic traditions. The initiative has received support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Chan-Malik is not the only Rutgers professor to participate. Ousseina D. Alidou, a professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures, is teaching her "Islam in African Literature" course to her students at Rutgers and at the University of Michigan.

Both Rutgers courses provide students with a focus that they might not encounter in a typical history or religion elective on Islam.

Alidou, for example, explores literature that shows how Islam varies from region to region, reflecting the diversities of African culture.

Chan-Malik’s course, meanwhile, shines a light on Islam’s presence in America, going back to the Africans who were forcibly transported to the United States during the slave trade. She also examines how Islam took root among African Americans in northern cities during the early 20th century. A key text for the class is The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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“I come at this topic differently,” says Chan-Malik, whose forthcoming book is titled: Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam. “As a scholar of race and ethnicity, my interest is in how Muslims were constructing their identities as Muslims in a very race-conscious society.”

Chan-Malik had some initial qualms about teaching through video-conferencing. But she said the available technology and the students’ enthusiasm for the topic have made it an engaging experience.  

Her classroom in the Rutgers Academic Building is equipped by the SAS Office of Information Technology with sound-seeking cameras that automatically zoom in on the person speaking rather than just providing a static picture. There are microphones installed in the ceiling to better capture the sound as well as a camera at the back to provide a view of the entire room

And as part of the DISC initiative, Malik-Chan travels to the other universities where she meets the students and holds class from those locations. Students at the schools in Nebraska and Michigan were thrilled to discover the local connection to Malcolm X, who was born in Omaha and grew up in Lansing.  

Meanwhile, students at Rutgers—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—say the course has been compelling and is helping them negotiate a globalized world with sophistication and sensitivity.

Diyaa Capil, a sophomore who grew up Muslim in New Jersey as the daughter of Indian immigrants, said she has long felt confused about her identity.

“Especially after 9/11, there are people who automatically assume that Muslims are foreign or exotic and hate America,” she said. “But for my family, the idea of the American Dream has been core.”

Capil, who is double majoring in business analytics and political science, with a minor in American studies, says she has taken several courses with Chan-Malik, citing her ability to unpack delicate issues of race and religion.

“I think this class has really given me context to work through a very long and complicated history,” she said. “It gets right down to the roots of how these sentiments have built up over time.”

Singh, meanwhile, is double majoring in cultural anthropology and American studies with the goal of going to law school.

“A lot of my friends are Muslim and I just want to be able to have a discussion with them as an informed individual and as a friend,” he said. “The content in this course, and the opportunity to hear from people from different regions help me forge my own thoughts about what’s going on in the geopolitical sphere.”

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