A rapid PBL that probes the Protestant reformation, pellagra studies of the 1910s, and promises of the internet

At short notice I designed the following session for a faculty seminar on “Science in Context” using a rapid Project-Based Learning format.  After 50 minutes, the five participants reported back on their very different paths of inquiry.  I hope to add a comment on this post when I have digested the experience.


I want to:

  • provide participants with an experience of project-based learning (PBL) of the kind I use in my teaching about science in context. Students often learn a lot in a short time — usually 3 weeks, but sometimes 50 minutes — by addressing a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry, and reporting back.
  • gain stimulation from your reporting back about whether the seemingly liberating possibilities of PBL research using the internet are producing biases analogous to those from pellagra studies of the 1910s (see #1 below) or even a fundamentalist resurgence (see #2 & #3).

Process: During the first hour, read the three exhibits below, use the internet to follow any leads or angles that emerge for you, and prepare to give a spoken report (5-minutes incl. discussion) to the group at the end of an hour. Grab my attention if you want more coaching.

#1. Sydenstricker and Goldberger established the cause and cure of pellagra in the 1910s, but the very methods they were able to use created biases and, in Goldberger’s case, precedents that had costs. Here is an annotation of an article about research that Sydenstricker conducted.

  • Marks, H. M. (2003). “Epidemiologists Explain Pellagra: Gender, Race, and Political Economy in the Work of Edgar Sydenstricker.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58(1): 34-55.
  • Goldberger, a US Public Health Service doctor who showed the connection between diet and pellagra through observation and experiments with a prison population, also worked with Sydenstricker in the mid-1910s to show the association in data derived from 7 mill towns in S. Carolina. The association was clear against income per adult male equivalent (with nutritional needs of wives and children set lower). They did not go beyond this statistic to examine distribution within households and shed no light the higher incidence of pellagra among women. In subsequent work on sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Mississippi, Sydenstricker examined the annual and debt-related restriction on food supply but made no distinction between whites and blacks and shed no light on the disproportionate incidence of pellagra among blacks. Marks concludes that, by distracting attention from gender and racial inequalities, “research methods and traditions, no less than overt ideologies, played a role in maintaining the subordinate social position of women and African-Americans in the southern United States” (p.34). There is more to Marks’ account, including the more pluralistic idea of race in the areas of high immigration in the industrial Northern USA.

#2. In a recent blog post I “invite digging deeper into analysis of the social currents that produce at the same time the evolving internet, the promotion of the internet in terms of a Big Transition in Society, and fundamentalist denunciation of all readings of the text except that of one’s church.”

#3. The blog post was informed by my having read Burning to Read, which presents the Protestant reformation and access to printed text in the vernacular as the origins of fundamentalism, as described in the second paragraph of this review.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

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