Graphic illustration with the Massachusetts Statehouse, in gray, in the foreground, and phrases from various legislation in blue text, some highlighted in yellow, criss-crossing in the background.

Advocacy for Policy Change

The class is all about hands-on, get-it-done political advocacy.

At the start of the semester, the class breaks up into small groups of students that select a bill before the Massachusetts state legislature and then devise a plan to either support or oppose it.

Each group interviews people impacted by the proposed law, meets with relevant community organizations, writes Op-Eds, develops a 30-second elevator pitch for government officials and then meets face-to-face with legislators and legislative aides. They also keep a journal of all their activities and conversations.

In previous years, students have pushed for bills granting undocumented students greater access to higher education, creating a homeless bill of rights and improving sex ed in schools.

"It takes a number of organizations to pass a bill but students definitely play a role," says legal studies professor Melissa Stimell.

The course ends with a public forum in which students discuss and debate the issues they’ve worked on throughout the semester.

Advocacy for Policy Change was designed by Stimell and her students in 2009. Since then, it has expanded to a network of courses offered at universities beyond Brandeis, fueling student legislative action around the country.

Graphic collage illustration that shows various fantasy characters, with a green dragon in the background and a scene from Gulliver's Travels that shows the central character, giant, extending beyond the scenery and image frame, in the foreground.

Fantasy Worlds: From Lilliput and Middle Earth to LARPs

Imagine a class where you read an Ursula Le Guin Earthsea novel, watch a "Lord of the Rings" movie and create your own role-playing game.

If this sounds like your fantasy class, maybe it’s because it’s a real course on fantasy.

English professor John Plotz starts the semester with a novel from Ancient Greece about an outer space battle between the kings of the sun and moon and a voyage to an island of cheese. The class then moves on to the epic "Gilgamesh," "Hansel and Gretel" and stories by Mark Twain, Franz Kafka and Oscar Wilde. It ends with contemporary writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and the Afrofuturist N. K. Jemisin.

And there’s an entire unit on Dungeons and Dragons.

One class assignment asks students to design their own fantasy world, tabletop or app-based, or create a LARP for others to play.

"I want my students to take the energy and passion they have for fantasy and world-building and see how taking a scholarly approach can make you appreciate and love them even more," Plotz says. "There's a genealogy and history to these works that's really fascinating.

An image of a four wheeled rover-type robot in the foreground with an architectural-style sketch of an office space in the background. The robot has two cups of coffee and a brown paper bag resting on top of it.

Autonomous Robotics

Four years ago, computer science professor Pito Salas ’76 hatched the idea for a class in which students would build a robot that could deliver packages across the entire Brandeis campus.

The "Campus Rover" would be able to navigate hallways, ride elevators, find offices, take commands and drop mail in the right baskets.

The only problem was it couldn't be done quickly — and certainly not in a semester. Though robots have come a long way in the last few decades, they're still not advanced enough to handle the demands of a college campus.

So instead of trying to build an entire "Campus Rover" in a semester, each class tries to solve a different technical robotics problem and then hands the baton to the following year's students.

Salas, a software developer, says he wanted his class to combine programming with applied engineering.

The software for the rover is written in Python and runs on the Robot Operating System (ROS), the same framework used at major robotics firms. It takes voice commands using Amazon's Alexa protocol. Much of its hardware is based on TurtleBot, an open-source robot kit. The course has used a variety of small mobile robots such as mBots, TurtleBots and the GoPiGo3.

Students in the class record their progress in an online notebook to be read by their successors. Even though the semester doesn't end with a completed product, the students find accomplishment in being part of such an ambitious project.

"This project was a strong lesson in the risks of attempting a large project in a short time span that combines two complex fields within computer science (Robotics and Machine Learning)," a student in Salas' class last year wrote in the online notebook. "It was quite humbling to be very ambitious with our project goals and fall short of many of the 'exciting' parts of the project."

An image from the board game Pandemic, that shows mutlicolored pieces on the board.

Global Pandemics: History, Society and Policy

Several years ago, a student approached anthropologist Elanah Uretsky and asked if she'd consider using a board game to teach her class on global pandemics. The game, sold at stores and online, was called Pandemic. It requires players to collaborate on a strategy to combat infections spreading across the globe through such measures as conducting research or providing medical treatment.

Uretsky decided to go for it. "I want the classes I teach to be fun," she says.

Students play Pandemic and then compare their strategy and moves with those of countries and governments in the past. The course starts with the 14th century's bubonic plague and ends with COVID-19.  

Uretsky is especially interested in the way plagues expose divisions in society and stigmatize already marginalized groups. She has also updated the curriculum to explore such questions as why America was so unprepared for COVID-19 and whether the rift in U.S.-China relations made the pandemic worse.

The final class assignment is "Pandemic in Real Life!" Students analyze what it took to win the board game and then assess what else would be necessary to respond to a global pandemic. 

Graphic collage with graffiti art in the background and musical artists, from left to right, Thelonious Monk, Lauryn Hill and Drake in the foreground.

Hip-Hop History and Culture 

This class teaches hip-hop as a culture, composed of rap, DJing, graffiti art and breakdancing that has evolved over time.

It starts by examining the music genre's African roots then explores how such artists as blues singer Bessie Smith and jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk laid the groundwork for what was to come. 

It also examines hip-hop's role in shaping American culture and politics and how in turn, it was shaped by Black Power, corporate consolidation in the entertainment industry and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Hip-hop has become a defining feature of American and global culture in the 21st century," historian Chad Williams says. "The current influence of hip-hop is undeniable and permeates every aspect of social, political, economic and cultural life in the United States and beyond."

Every week, Williams assigns playlists with songs to listen to. One week, the tracks include artists Kendrick Lamar and Drake. 

Another week the homework is watching YouTube videos by Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X.

The research paper for the class requires students to analyze and place in a historical context a hip-hop record released before the year 2000.

Other assignments include writing rap lyrics and creating a work of graffiti based on a hip-hop name the students give themselves.

Williams always invites guest lecturers to speak to the class. Past visitors have included the hip-hop icon KRS-One and the recording and mixing engineer Prince Charles Alexander, whose clients have included P. Diddy, the Notorious B.I.G., Usher and Boyz II Men.

An image of bacteriophages. The bacteriophages are yellow-greenish in color against a blue and purple background.

Virus Hunter Lab

It's not every science class where you and your classmates wind up as authors on an article published in an academic journal. But that's what happened last year after students in the class discovered two new strains of bacteriophages, a type of virus that infects bacteria.

Every summer, the professors who lead the class, biologists Michael Marr and Susan Lovett, travel to the salt marshes in Cape Cod where the brackish, muddy waters are full of bacteriophages.

Marr and Lovett bring a sample of the marsh water and sediment back to the lab where the students add it to petri plates full of bacteria. Bacteriophages reveal themselves as killing zones on the plates.

Once found, the bacteriophages are purified and amplified. Their DNA is then broken into millions of random pieces and each snippet of DNA is sequenced individually.
The second half of the course focuses on bioinformatics.

The snippets of the bacteriophage's genetic code are combined by identifying overlapping identical sequences in each piece and assembling them into one long continuous string. By identifying coding regions in this string and comparing it with those stored on several national databases, the students are able to identify the genes in the virus.

The entire procedure is similar to methods used in biotech and medicine to identify new viruses and strains that affect human health. Scientists also took a similar approach to sequencing SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

It's not entirely surprising that the students were able to identify new strains of bacteriophages. It is estimated that there are more than 1 quintillion of them on the planet, most still undiscovered. But researchers still want to find as many as they can. You never know when a small discovery will lead to a major advance down the road.

The paper appeared in Microbiology Resource Announcements in early November 2020. 

An image showing a collection of mannequins wearing various red dresses. The mannequins have their arms raised at various heights..

The Social Fabric: An Anthropology of Fashion 

Fashion is where the personal meets the political, economic, cultural and environmental.

The seemingly simple question — what will I wear today? — is influenced by powerful forces operating across the globe.

This class explores those forces.

Students discuss labor conditions in developing countries where clothes are made. They explore how clothes thrown away by Americans wind up in Africa and Asia, influencing culture, politics and the economy.

The class analyzes the effects of race, class and gender on clothing design and debate over the cultural appropriation of Indigenous peoples' fashions by white consumers.

One assignment asks students to analyze how a high-profile fashion influencer on social media influences taste and markets products.

"Fashion is a lot more complex than what we imagine," says anthropologist and course instructor Patricia Alvarez Astacio. "Every piece of clothing you put on has a kind of cultural meaning that lets someone else read who you are."