The independent news organization of Duke University

Unpacking 2020 and studying Mars exploration: 5 interesting house courses taught this spring

From the many disasters that happened in 2020 to the quest to land humans on Mars, house courses are tackling a wide array of topics in the spring. 

Half-credit seminars taught by Duke undergraduates, these classes enable some students to adopt the role of instructors and others to broaden their studies beyond the normal University offerings. More than 30 house courses, covering a vast breadth of topics, will commence in January. 

“Rather than a traditional course that has the pressure of grades, house courses allow students to really explore a unique topic or learn something completely new while learning from their peers,” wrote senior Lavonne Hoang, who is teaching a house course this spring, in an email.

Here are five interesting offerings. 

Unpacking 2020: Contemporary Political Trends

Mondays 7-8:30 p.m., in-person (location TBA) and online

This a unique year, marked by a pandemic, protests, wildfires and an election. What might 2020 portend for the future? Which changes were ephemeral, and which will be permanent? 

Sophomores Pranav Athimuthu, Ridge Ren and Thomas Ross are undertaking that question as the theme of their course. Faculty advisor Michael Gillespie, professor of political science and philosophy, will contribute to their discussions.

“Our primary curricular goals are to offer Duke students the time, resources, and intellectual stimulation to think critically about many of the events of 2020, and consider novel ways of looking at and evaluating said events and their sociopolitical consequences,” Athimuthu wrote in an email.

Vaccines, Explained

Tuesdays 6-7:30 p.m., online

Even as the COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out, some in the United States have expressed an unwillingness to be vaccinated. Their complaints, and a broader ignorance of the vaccination process, inspired juniors Ishaan Kumar and Anne Crabill to craft this course.

“We are living through an unprecedented moment in history,” Crabill wrote in an email. “The COVID-19 vaccine rollout will be the largest mass vaccination campaign in not only our lifetimes but in modern history. There could not be a more important time to learn about vaccines.”

Crabill and Kumar will use the latest figures and data for each week’s seminar, creating informed and up-to-date lessons. Additionally, they plan to study previous instances of mass inoculation to situate the latest vaccination project in historical context. 

Mars: The Next Frontier

Tuesdays, 7-8:30 p.m., in-person (Social Sciences 119) and online

With entrepreneur Elon Musk’s declaration that he could send humans to Mars within 48 months, interplanetary travel feels more imminent than ever before. The question of how humans should take advantage of this next step spurred seniors Adam Doll and Spencer Kaplan, who met through a Bass Connection project about Mars, to design the course Mars: The Next Frontier. 

“In this house course, we hope to explain the different dimensions of Martian settlement, from rocket science to the politics of space travel,” Kaplan wrote in an email. “Students will leave this course with an understanding of the diverse considerations that drive space exploration efforts.” 

Doll and Kaplan have invited a number of guest lecturers, ranging from pre-medical and pre-law undergraduates to several Duke professors. The two were even able to recruit a NASA scientist from the team handling the Perseverance rover to present their findings. 

“While Spencer and I both have interesting professional experiences in our respective fields to bring in, we definitely aren’t experts and we let the class know that,” Doll wrote. “This opens the class up to asking more questions since they know that we are learning alongside them.

Women in Politics

Thursdays 7-8:30 p.m., online

Senior Amelia Steinbach first considered the foundations for this course after completing an independent study with Jenny Wood Crowley, co-director of the SPIRE Fellows program and an adjunct professor in history, in spring 2019. 

Since then, Steinbach and Lauren Howell, a senior, have taught the course every semester, concentrating on the history of gender equality in the United States and current discrimination—particularly regarding access to reproductive health services. 

“Our biggest goal is to provide students with the historical context to think about the progression of women’s experiences from an intersectional lens,” Steinbach and Howell wrote in an email. “In doing so, we are able to analyze how women operate in the political sphere, exploring both how they are affected by policy change and how they change policy.” 

Steinbach and Howell have transferred the course to an online setting to accommodate for all undergraduates’ situations. Aware of the apathy and boredom that can emerge in the Zoom classroom, the two have emphasized discussion and seeing students’ faces over lecturing and screen-sharing. 

“Women in Politics is an engaging, discussion-based class that will expand your understanding of political processes and legislation, as well as prompt you to think critically about the role of women and other underrepresented communities in affecting American government,” they wrote.

‘Money Heist’: Societal Impacts of Popular TV and Film

Tuesdays 5:15-6:45 p.m., in-person (location TBA) and online

Watching Netflix is usually a way to relax, but in this seminar, seniors Lavonne Hoang and Arjun Lakhanpal have re-conceived it as a skill to be honed. The instructors plan to watch and analyze “Money Heist,” a popular 2017 Spanish crime drama.

With geopolitical, social, romantic and criminal elements, “Money Heist” caters to many demographics of television aficionados.

“I knew the show was an international hit so there would definitely be a community at Duke and plenty of students that would be willing to engage in thoughtful and meaningful discussions about the show and potentially learn more about the deeper implications and messages that it carried,” Hoang wrote in an email.

Post-viewing discussions will be the core of the course. For those who have already watched the show, the course will provide the space to dig deeper regarding the show’s symbols and themes, Lakhanpal wrote. 


Share and discuss “Unpacking 2020 and studying Mars exploration: 5 interesting house courses taught this spring” on social media.