Corina Tarnita

On April 2, 2018, Corina Tarnita, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, described the intellectual pleasures of teaching an inquiry-based freshman seminar. Her seminar, The Equations of Life, was organized around the question of how mathematical modeling can illuminate biological processes. As she noted, first year students are “uninhibited” in the questions they ask, and they bring their own curiosities to the classroom. Tarnita described how she kept a good portion of her syllabus flexible, turning those curiosities into examples her students would use to learn how to build and analyze models. She explained how her class “invented” the calculus they needed to solve the questions they posed: starting with a discrete problem they would represent using simple algebra, she and her students would slowly explore what happens to populations of individuals as time became more continuous, thus slowly developing more complex mathematical concepts and approaches. “This is calculus, by the way,” she recalled telling her students. The seminar introduced students to scientific practice: they read (mostly non-technical) papers; generated questions and learned to collaborate with others; proposed conceptual models; worked to write the corresponding equations and find solutions; and received feedback from their peers. To that end, Tarnita did not grade her students’ first assignment, preferring to give them feedback without the easy distraction of a grade. She also warned students that they would experience frustration, take detours, and make mistakes. As she noted about herself, “I’ve learned most from being wrong.”