CORVALLIS, Ore. – An Oregon State University Honors College course that uses Far Side comic strips to educate students about entomology has been named the nation's “Best College Course” in 2010 by Playboy magazine.
This recognition is not a footnote to a party school nomination for OSU's venerable University Honors College. Playboy Magazine joins National Public Radio and the Chronicle of Higher Education in recognizing the course, called "Far Side Entomology," as an innovative and effective way of teaching science and communication.
According to Chip Rowe, Playboy's senior editor, the "Best Course" selection was made after comparing "a number of course catalogs looking for interesting electives and, after narrowing it down, ‘Far Side Entomology’ fit the bill because it best combined humor with actual learning."
OSU emeritus professor Michael Burgett developed the course in which students research, design and present reports based on an insect-themed cartoon, most from the "Far Side" opus of cartoonist Gary Larson.
"These are the same cartoons that decorate the doors of science labs and offices throughout the country," said Burgett. "These cartoons speak to science and society, in the language of humor that everyone understands."
In the mid-1980s, Burgett designed a course based on these cartoons to engage students in the study of entomology. Since then, the course has been a regular offering in the University Honors College and perennially popular with OSU students.
But the course is not just for laughs.
"These are honors students," Burgett said. "They are going to work hard."
"The thing I enjoyed most about the class was the way Dr. Burgett encouraged us to make connections between human society and the insects we were studying," said Valerie Mullen, a microbiology student from Lake Oswego, Ore. "There's a lot of potential for humor when you're looking at humans from a bug's point of view.
"Insects make up a huge percentage of the animal kingdom, and they have behaviors that are just as fascinating as the more lovable mammals we tend to focus on," Mullen said.
The national buzz about the course began in 2005 when National Public Radio featured "Far Side Entomology" as one of four unusual courses offered by universities across the country. Since then, the Chronicle of Higher Education included the course in its "5 classes we wish we could have taken." OnlineColleges.net featured the course as one of the three strangest college courses.
"It is an innovative approach to teaching students, exemplary of the University Honors College approach," said Dan Arp, dean of the University Honors College.
Take the example of a presentation by two recent students that began with a Far Side cartoon featuring a lab scientist sorting jars of Disneyesque crickets while whistling "when you wish upon a star…"
That's Jiminy Cricket's theme song.
The presentation advanced from discussions of cricket biology to anthropomorphism in culture, religious symbolism, and finally to language derived from religious symbols, such as jeez, gee willickers, and, of course, Jiminy Cricket.
It was a 10-minute tour of science, intellectual connections, and humor.
"These students leave this class knowing a bit more about entomology and a lot more about communicating complex ideas using metaphor and humor," Arp said.
Burgett will teach the two-credit honors course this the fall quarter.