A taste of Rice’s unique student-taught courses

A klatch of newly minted coffee connoisseurs sits at a long row of tables in a Montrose café, heads down, noses on the lips of demitasses filled with creamy shots of espresso, murmuring tasting notes to each other. “Grapefruit,” said one. “Cherry,” said another.

Rice students explore chemistry, history and, of course, tasting during Philosophy of Coffee. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

Rice students explore chemistry, history and, of course, tasting during Philosophy of Coffee. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

“Tea,” said Sid Richardson College senior Casey Fitzgerald. “It tastes like tea.”

These Rice students are learning the subtle art of identifying scents and flavors in a course titled Philosophy of Coffee, led this semester by McMurtry College senior Eric Pan. And while some have come to the class with an appreciation for espresso honed over years of Rice Coffeehouse cortados, others — like Fitzgerald — have come in hopes of broadening their palates.

“I don’t really like coffee,” Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “I’m hoping this course will help me learn to like it.”

Now in its fifth semester, Philosophy of Coffee is one of the longest-running student- taught courses at Rice. These courses allow undergraduates to learn from their peers through the exploration of topics not otherwise taught at Rice. A handful of other universities across the U.S. offer such courses, but Rice belongs to an elite cohort of schools — including Caltech and the University of California, Berkeley — that offer credit for them.

The first student-taught courses at Rice came out of Wiess College in 2006, where a newly installed magister, Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology Michael Gustin, helped to create a framework for future courses along with former Brown College magister Steve Cox. “They had this idea that Rice students know a lot of really cool things and it’d be really fun if they had a forum to teach each other about those things,” said Robin Paige, adjunct associate professor of sociology and assistant director of the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE).

Today, the CTE oversees the creation and teaching of the courses, which have grown to an average of 30 different offerings each semester. “It ranges from the very scholarly to more skill-based,” Paige said. Titles range from The Memes of Production and The History of Hip Hop to Understanding the Federalist Papers and Human-Centered Design for Social Impact.

Regardless of topic, all student-taught courses share a few important fundamentals: Courses are offered through individual colleges at the discretion of their magisters; student teachers must successfully complete a pedagogy course, COLL 300, with Paige and Duncan College magister Brandy McDaniel before leading a class; and all courses must be approved by the dean of undergraduates prior to being included in the next semester’s catalog.

“We help them put together a syllabus and a course proposal, and we mentor them through the whole process,” Paige said, noting that many of the students are interested in becoming educators in the future. “A lot of the students have said that just going through COLL 300 has really helped them think about how much work it is to put together a course and, therefore, if they want to become professors they understand a little bit better.”

Other students, Paige said, simply have a deep and abiding interest in, say, visual novels or South Indian performing arts that they want to share with others. And in the 12 years since student-taught courses began, they’ve only grown more popular with each passing semester.

“Now we’re starting to see more students who teach it repeatedly, so they’ll teach it two or three semesters,” Paige said. “There are more courses now in their second or third semester than new courses.”

‘People take it seriously’

It’s a busy week for Sid Richardson sophomore Candice Liu, who is sporting a smart black suit for the rounds of investment banking seminars she has been attending. An economics major, Liu is already in pursuit of a career in the demanding field. But tonight, standing in front of a Rayzor Hall classroom packed with anxious fellow students, investment banking has taken a back seat to her other passion: reality TV show “Survivor.”

Students in the Survivor: Strategies and Social Implications course eye each other nervously before voting in the week's tribal council session. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

Students in the Survivor: Strategies and Social Implications course eye each other nervously before voting in the week’s tribal council session. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

In 2013, “Survivor” became the longest-running reality competition series. It continues to attract new audiences every year — and not just in America. Back home in Shanghai, Liu became a fan of the show as a middle schooler, enjoying episodes in the evenings with her family. By the time she was in high school, she had taken an active role in promoting it across her own nation.

“I was very into American reality shows, so I was doing subtitles for the shows so that more Chinese viewers could watch them,” Liu said. “Before I came to college I told my mom I wanted to find a bunch of friends who watch ‘Survivor’ together, but I didn’t know there would be a class for it.” Liu chuckled before adding: “That was a new concept to me.”

Liu is a two-time student instructor of Survivor: Strategies and Social Implications, a course originally developed and taught by Franklin Shen ’17. Each week, 19 students meet to discuss the previous week’s homework — typically watching a couple of episodes from a previous season along with related readings of articles written by psychologists and sociologists who study the show — and address larger cultural questions: When does assertiveness stop being an asset in communal settings and become a social hindrance? How are strong bonds built within the confines of a mentor-mentee relationship versus a romantic one? Is the show sexist?

But the real reason this long-running course is so popular with students? The chance to participate in their very own version of “Survivor” every Tuesday night. Once all of her students arrive, Liu cues up the dramatic music that scores the end of each episode, while members of Tribe Starbuck convene for a tribal council vote. (A recent challenge victory went to Tribe Jerks.) After one senior is voted off, sent to join her fellow castaways on the jury, there is a break to discuss homework. “The part everyone mostly enjoys is playing the game,” Liu said. “It’s only a one-credit-hour class but they end up putting in so much time after class strategizing and making alliances.”

Sure enough, once the lecture portion of the course concludes, antsy bands of students begin gearing up for this week’s physical challenge, a version of tag in the corridors of Rayzor Hall. Liu warns that things get a little intense. “People take it seriously,” she said with a laugh. “On the show, people get $1 million if they win; here people get nothing — they’re just self-motivated.”

Jones junior Natalie Dickman was voted off recently. The self-described “hardcore fan” of “Survivor” was sanguine about this turn of events, however, confessing that the class had become “actively stressful” as the semester went on. Alliances were formed and broken, and tribes were tested. “You find yourself making the same mistakes that you watch people on TV make without even meaning to,” Dickman said. “It’s completely human nature. I’m sure if someone was watching us they’d be like, ‘Why did you do that?’”

Now, as she watches her fellow classmates race down the halls in hot pursuit of one another, she is utterly relaxed. “This is really fun,” Dickman said. “I’ve been watching the new season and there’s an understanding now. I don’t judge as harshly as I used to.”

‘It’s not like playing Candy Land’

A recycling bin props open the door to a white-walled classroom on the ground floor of Duncan College. Wisps of cool evening air sneak into what would normally be a heated night of gameplay — Settlers of Catan, to be specific — but this week’s Board Game Theory class offers challenges of another kind, courtesy of guest lecturer Wiess College magister Andrew Schaefer, who’s also the faculty sponsor for the course.

Students explore game theory and statistics by playing Settlers of Catan in the Board Game Theory course. (Photo by ginnerobot via Flickr)

Students explore game theory and statistics by playing Settlers of Catan in the Board Game Theory course. (Photo by ginnerobot via Flickr)

“Does anyone know how many games have been solved?” asked Schaefer, the Noah Harding Chair and Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics. A student answers immediately. “I know Connect Four has been solved,” Baker College senior Hayley Clark said.

Checkers has been solved mathematically, too; it belongs to a small number of such games whose outcome — win, lose or tie — can be predicted accurately from the very first move, assuming that both players play rationally. How is this possible? The answer lies in complex data sets, applied mathematics and, of course, game theory itself.

At first glance, Board Game Theory could seem like an excuse for college students to play Settlers of Catan for course credit. But watching Schaefer break down game theory (and its counterpart, mechanism design) and listening to the students’ discussions of probability analysis and constraint satisfaction problems, it is clear they are learning a lot more than strategies for monopolizing the wheat trade on the fictional board game island of Catan.

Duncan senior Nicholas Leisle has taught the student-led course for two semesters. This time around, he’s joined by co-instructor and fellow Duncan senior Kenneth Li, a computer science and statistics major. In his first semester leading Board Game Theory, Leisle, a mechanical engineering major, found himself constrained by a lack experience with statistics.

“The very first portion of the course was basic probability and I felt like it was definitely a weak point in the class,” Leisle said. “Kenneth was able to bolster that significantly this semester.”

In addition to weekly Catan tournaments, each Monday night’s Board Game Theory class features PowerPoint presentations that illustrate concepts such as scaffolding and game trees. As an example, Leisle pulls up a demonstration he put together of the law of large numbers using roll distributions in Catan, which uses dice as well as a deck of development cards to introduce elements of randomization into the game.

“There’s a very wide variety of people with Catan experience in the class,” Leisle said. That includes Clark, who is taking the course with her roommate, fellow Baker College senior Julian Wilson.

“I’m a biochemistry major, so I just take science classes,” Clark said. “For me, this was a more relaxed environment to get a credit in and learn something interesting too. And this is the same day I have Biochem,” she said with a laugh, “so it’s a nice balance.”

“I’d taken a few residential college courses before and really enjoyed them,” said Wilson, an ecology and evolutionary biology major who was a Catan novice prior to this semester. “It’s so strategic; it’s not like playing Candy Land. You have to think.”

And while Leisle has long been a fan of Catan, he admitted the inspiration for Board Game Theory didn’t come from the game itself. “Actually the whole concept for the class was based off a pun,” he said with a wide grin. “I was walking through a clothing store and I just thought, ‘Board game theory. Huh, that’s a funny pun; that could be a college class.’ You’d think it was like, ‘Oh, I want to teach a class about something I’m passionate about.’ No, a pun.”

‘I guess it’s changing me’

Back home outside San Francisco, Eric Pan was an active participant in his high school’s tutoring and mentorship programs, but he wasn’t yet a coffee enthusiast. That all changed his freshman year at Rice, when Pan had his first cup of espresso, brewed for him by fellow McMurtry College resident Matthew Adrianowycz ’17.

Eric Pan has taught Philosophy of Coffee for five semesters.

McMurtry College senior Eric Pan has taught Philosophy of Coffee for five semesters. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

“When I tried it, it was very complex, it was fruity and I was really surprised,” Pan said. “That was quite a lightbulb moment for me.” Another such moment came a few weeks later, when Pan and Adrianowycz started talking about the student-taught courses they heard about during orientation. Soon, a shared appreciation for both coffee and teaching led the two to develop Philosophy of Coffee, which they co-taught until Adrianowycz’s graduation.

The course is broken into four modules, explored through weekly lectures and field trips to area cafés and roasting facilities. “It’s a good excuse to explore beyond the hedges, sipping espressos all the while,” Pan said. Students cover everything from the history of the coffee trade to the physiological effects of consuming caffeine and the chemistry of roasting beans.

“The syllabus has been continually revised, bit by bit, every year,” said Pan, who is now in his final semester of teaching the course before he graduates and moves into management consulting.

Although he hasn’t yet found a student to take Philosophy of Coffee into a sixth semester, Pan is leaving a legacy in the form of their finely honed syllabus, placing it in the public domain in hopes that a future coffee fan will pick up where he’s left off. “The course has proven to be very rewarding for both of us,” Pan said.

At the March 7 field trip to the Montrose café where Pan has arranged a tasting session for a dozen students, the class is learning how to identify flavors and aromas in drip coffee versus shots of espresso, and how the roasting process enhances or eliminates certain notes. Once all the students have had a chance to write down their observations, Pan holds the bag of beans aloft and reads off the roaster’s own tasting notes: strawberry hard candy and rooibos, the astringent leaves of a South African bush that is commonly brewed into an herbal tea.

Fitzgerald — the noncoffee lover, the one whose tasting notes simply read “tea” — smiles, vindicated, his entire cup of coffee drained. “I didn’t like it but I drank it, which was something I haven’t done before,” he said. “I guess it’s changing me.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.