What is a VAST Course?

A Values and Science/Technology course should meet four basic criteria:

1) It should engage students in a problem or issue sufficiently large that it cannot be addressed by any single disciplinary perspective.

2) It must present some aspect of science and/or technology, in interaction with a variety of other disciplines in a larger context. In particular, there should be strong evidence of both humanistic and scientific approaches to the chosen problem or issue. The balance between these approaches may vary from course to course; moreover, the course should address ethical or values-oriented concerns.

3) It should engage students in "interactive" or "student-centered" modes of learning, presenting a balance of approaches to the use of class time. Examples of approaches that have been regularly employed by successful VAST courses include: teacher-led discussions, student-led discussions, group work, in-class writing, internet research, collaborative research, oral presentations, mock debates, lectures, laboratory and field work, readings in primary and secondary literature, and so on. New and experimental pedagogies are encouraged.

4) It must be affiliated with the College Writing Program and make full use of the resources of process writing: multiple drafts, peer review, conferences with W.A.s, etc. Writing should be taught as a means as well as a manifestation of critical thinking. Courses affiliated with the CWP should assign at least 20 typed pages of work completed outside of class time.


Lafayette College, thanks to its strong programs in engineering, natural and social sciences, and the humanities, offers an unusually diverse environment for interdisciplinary teaching and learning. The VAST program takes advantage of this environment by offering courses that are less about teaching a certain content than about teaching a process, or way of thinking, about content. The opening premise of the VAST program is that science in our normal experience interacts constantly with other "disciplines": economics, social policy, applied ethics, politics, philosophy, history, language, culture, the arts, and so on, all within a larger context. In James Trefil's words, "science presents itself to the average person in the context of a problem or issue, and without the kind of academic boundaries that come as second nature to people in universities." As a result of taking this VAST course, students should be better able to see and understand science as a functioning part of their daily social world.

A VAST course is therefore, first of all, fundamentally "cross-" or "inter-disciplinary." This does not mean that all disciplines are taught, but that the course should incorporate approaches from the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and/or the arts in a fundamental way. Each course should examine a topic, problem, or issue sufficiently large and complex that there is more than one way needed to look at it.

The interdisciplinary nature of the VAST course encourages interactive kinds of teaching. Sophomores will bring to each VAST course a range of disciplinary abilities and perspectives, and will do so just as they are in the process of declaring a major or disciplinary "home." The VAST course should provide a space for each student to reflect on their chosen discipline as a distinct mode of insight into a shared social issue. Students should be encouraged to think of themselves as offering a perspective specific to, say, history or biology or English or economics, even as they work with other students with quite different perspectives. Ideally, the convergence of many different disciplinary perspectives creates a whole understanding that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Both students and faculty may find that incorporating unfamiliar ways of thinking into a single course is unusually challenging. Students are accustomed to seeing themselves as consumers in an intellectual shopping mall, travelling from course to course without trying to integrate what they are learning from each one. VAST should help each student begin to see connections between courses, to help them build "knowledge" rather than "knowledges."

At this stage, many students are preoccupied with mastering the tools and rules of their chosen discipline, and are uncomfortable with any process that asks them to reflect on the ways each discipline limits as well as enables knowledge. For instance, a course that studies the use of metaphor in scientific language asks students of the sciences to see their textbooks and laboratory reports in a fundamentally different way; similarly, students accustomed to avoiding science learn that important social issues like AIDS or reproductive technologies cannot be understood without it. Faculty members, too, will find themselves in the unusual position of teaching material in which they are not professional specialists or experts. An advantage of this is that students see faculty members in the role of "learner" and witness the process of acquiring and applying new knowledge, including knowledge provided by the students themselves.

(September 1998)