January 14, 2011 | Phil de Haan

Students are chopping cabbage, sniffing beakers and missing the gorilla in an interim titled "Sight, Sound and Smell."

Across DeVries Hall 306, a computer lab in Calvin's chemistry department, students stared at computer screens, mesmerized by collections of online optical illusions.

Suddenly, in a far corner of the room, two students, Mark Williamson and Tim VanderZouwen, burst into laughter.

 "You didn't see the gorilla?" asked Williamson, head cocked, eyes wide open, looking at VanderZouwen in disbelief. "Dude, how could you not see the gorilla?"

"I don't know," replied VanderZouwen, shaking his head, a big smile splitting his face. "I don't know. I saw the curtain change color, but I never saw the gorilla."

Nearby Calvin chemistry professors Eric Arnoys and Kumar Sinniah exchanged a look and smiled. It was day three of their Interim class titled "Sight, Sound & Smell," and the optical illusions were intended to get students thinking about ways in which the sense of sight works -- or does not work.

What Williamson and VanderZouwen were experiencing was a now-famous psychology experiment in which participants were asked to watch a short video of people passing a basketball to-and-fro, keeping a count of the number of passes. During the video a gorilla enters the scene, even facing the camera for a time. But the researchers found that half of the people who watch the video do not see the gorilla.

Williamson and VanderZouwen laughed when they learned they fit that 50 percent model perfectly. For their part, Arnoys and Sinniah were pleased to see the response of the pair, and their classmates, to the exercise.

"The first time we taught this interim, we didn't do this lab," said Arnoys, "so we weren't exactly sure how it would go. But that's the nature of science. We try to keep things fresh as professors. Sometimes it works; sometimes it bombs. When Kumar showed me these online illusions, I was sold. It's great to see the students respond so positively."

Chopping produce

After examining a plethora of websites with various visual demonstrations, the students moved to a different lab in DeVries Hall, this time to cook cabbage and extract the chlorophyll from spinach for a couple of demonstrations on the chemistry of color. Soon the lab was filled with students working in teams, grinding fresh spinach in a mortar and pestel and chopping cabbage and boiling it in beakers atop small burners, carefully following the printed directions prepared prior by Arnoys and Sinniah. As the lab filled with conversations, and the smells of cabbage and spinach, the professors walked around from team to team, asking them what they saw and smelled.

Later, both Arnoys and Sinniah said they enjoyed interim's opportunity to teach chemistry in a different way than the regular semester.

Among the other activities scheduled for the 15 days of class were: exploring aromas at Meijer Gardens, roasting coffee beans and trying a wide range of teas, discussing beer, flavor and responsible use of alcohol with a local brewmaster, making bread, examining how chocolate is made, considering aroma marketing (how the senses are used to sell things to consumers), making chili, salsa and guacamole, and cheese-testing.

Everyday chemistry

Said Sinniah: "I think a class like this one gives students a different appreciation for their senses and to see the relevance of chemistry to their everyday life. I also hope it reminds them how God's creation is amazingly put together as they observe and pay attention to the details that surround them."

He added that an interim course can often be a way for non-science majors to get a taste for something they might not ordinarily pursue. Arnoys concurred.

"For many non-science majors," he said, "the technical details of science scare them. A course like this makes them experience the subject matter. They can take part in it. We're in science because we love it, but we recognize that not everyone has that same appreciation. The science in this course is well within the grasp of anyone who is interested in learning more."

Students in the class, science and non-science majors alike, agreed. Williamson, a junior from Akron, Ohio, was a chemistry major before recently switching to film and media studies.

"I wanted to take an Interim in my then-major," he said, "and also I find the senses very interesting, especially taste and hearing. I was hoping to learn a lot about how food and chemistry work together, and I love how hands-on the interim is. Being able to taste, touch and see the things we are talking about helps to make a better connection with the material we're covering."

Fellow classmate Andrea Lima echoed many of Williamson's reasons for taking the class. A junior nursing major from Plymouth, Minn., Lima was interested in learning more about how the senses work. And, she said: "I was also looking forward to the chance to cook some things and have a very hands-on class. It is really nice to be doing experiments during the class period instead of simply sitting in a lecture."

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