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The Scarlet & Black

Fall Bucket Course returns at Drake Library

This fall, members of the Grinnell community will be exploring their preconceptions of time and its intricacies and the mathematical arguments that disprove those preconceptions. A course entitled “Time—Its Many Facets” taught by Professor Emeritus Beryl Clotfelter, Ph.D., began last Wednesday as part of a Bucket Course program that began last year.

Bucket Courses are not only taught on scientific subjects. Music, theater, history and sociology have been addressed in just the past year. A graduate of Grinnell, Joanne Bunge, chair of the Community Education Council (CEC), is familiar with the idea that there is simply not enough time to learn everything you want to learn in college. In September 2009, Bunge worked in tandem with CEC to create a series of classes designed to teach people the kinds of things they have always wanted to know.

The program seeks to introduce students of all ages to the subjects that they want to learn before they “kick the bucket.” These Bucket Courses are offered to community members and students at the Drake Community Library. The unconventional group of students actually love to learn, and, as a result, create a very interesting atmosphere.

Taught by a number of Grinnell College professors, these 4-8 week classes cost just $15 a person and are offered on a number of interesting subjects. The fee pays for the coffee and cookies, catered by Mayflower Retirement Community, that are available for every class. The classes are from 10:00-11:30 a.m. every Wednesday, which usually means that many retirees attend.

The Bucket Courses provide a new form of learning and this fall’s class is no exception. With course material based in college-level theoretical physics, Dr. Clotfelter’s lecture will provide insight into a world in which time is relative. As one community member said, “This is about a mile over my head.”

Even as students struggle to understand the concept of the “Twin Paradox”—a physics thought experiment in special relativity—there is no pressure to comprehend every bit of information. There are no quizzes or exams, no homework or papers. It is just an hour and a half once a week of experiencing community education at its best.

Clotfelter will pose several questions about time over the next three Wednesdays including ones such as, “Is time the same for everyone?” and “Why does time go in one direction?” This week’s class began with a discussion of the first question. “The time interval between two events is different as measured by observers in relative motion,” Clotfelter said.

As one of the favorite lecturers, Clotfelter draws quite a crowd. He taught his first course last September and roughly 40 people enrolled. Although both of his courses have involved highly complex theories, he successfully maintained that enrollment throughout the eight-week course.

“[The class] was highly involved,” Bunge said. It’s the kind of stuff that most people don’t even stop to think about.” Clotfelter does, however, take time to answer questions for the last half hour of every class. Wednesday’s questions and comments ranged from “Did muons [unstable elementary particles] exist before 1976?” to “I think I read about a lot of this in science fiction novels when I was a teenager, I never thought it was real!” For those interested in taking a course, there are registration forms available at the Drake Community Library. Due to space constraints, the organizers request that students indicate that they attend Grinnell College so that in the event of overwhelming enrollment, they can limit the number of student attendees. Describing themselves as “victim[s] of our own success” the organizers struggle to fit everyone into the community room at the library.

“In terms of community it is unique in that regard,” Bunge said. “There are a lot of communities where there wouldn’t be that much interest. … There are a lot of people who are lifelong learners.”

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