What’s old becomes new again for Yale students through haptic learning

A photo of an astrolabe and an Egypt mummified animal.
Astrolabe (© stock.adobe.com), Egypt mummified animal (© wikimedia commons)

It takes about 17 days, 10 pounds of salt, 20 pounds of baking soda, linen, and incense to mummify a small object.

It also requires natron, one of the ingredients that Salima Ikram brought with her when she arrived on Yale’s campus this fall from Cairo, Egypt, to teach her new-to-Yale course “Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt,” in which her students will learn the ancient ritual of mummification.

Students in Kevin van Bladel’s new course on “Ancient and Medieval Astronomy” are building sundials as well as astrolabes, special devices that are used to make astronomical measurements and calculations, from scratch.

How to mummify something. How to build an astrolabe. Those are topics that one would not normally think of when reading a Yale course catalogue, but in each of these courses, these new faculty members in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) believe that the best way for their students to learn is to do.

This method of teaching is called haptic, or hands-on, learning.

Ikram, who is a visiting professor in NELC, equates it to reading a recipe versus cooking a dish. It is designed, she says, to make students’ brains more “elastic.”

In my courses, I incorporate a combination of textbook reading and hands-on learning. One of the things that is vital for a liberal arts education is that students learn the theory and the critical thinking, but then also apply it.”

You need two wings to fly,” says van Bladel, professor in NELC. “You need knowledge and you need understanding. Knowledge is data,” he explains, “and understanding means having methods and techniques of interpretation. You need both of those together and those are the two wings that will take you somewhere.”

In addition to her course on animal burials and death, Ikram is teaching a class on “Food in Ancient Egypt” or, as she informally calls it, “Food for Pharaohs.” For its final project, the class will hold a banquet, with each student contributing a dish that a pharaoh would eat. They will research this dish and give a five-minute presentation on it to the class.

The ancient Egyptians are fun, and I want these students to actually enjoy my courses and learn as much as they can. Learning doesn’t have to be painful,” says Ikram.

This is the first time that van Bladel has taught the course on ancient astronomy and astrology, and the premise, he says, is to put his students in the mindset of an ancient scientist. He hopes his students will begin to see what they are learning in the classroom take shape — as soon as they step out of it.

I told my students at some point during this course they are going to go outside and be aware of things around them differently. Where the sun is — what does it mean about the season we are in? How does that correlate with what they are studying in class? This allows them to confirm the utility of the instruments that they make in class,” says van Bladel.

He adds: “It is my hope that my students will have that changed, enriching perspective that goes with learning material that is strange and yet is based on experiences that we all have in common — some of which that we tend to filter out.”

Both of these scholars agree that learning about topics in ancient and medieval civilizations isn’t just for students whose aim is to pursue a career in academia. Instead, they say, these topics give students practical knowledge and enhance a liberal arts education.

They will learn about a civilization that existed 2,000 plus years ago but by looking at things that are core to human beings such as eating or dying. It really closes the divide and emphasizes our common humanity,” says Ikram.

Students don’t need to make sundials when they have clocks in their phones, nor do they need to be able to create calendars,” says van Bladel, explaining that he believes that learning about these topics makes students better educated citizens of the world. “I tell my students: I’m opening a door, you go through and you go as far beyond that door as you want to go. All I’m doing is opening the door.”

Ikram and van Bladel also credit their students with teaching them valuable lessons in class — sometimes by reminding them that to err is human.

The simplest case of a student teaching the teacher, says van Bladel, is when they catch him making a mistake. “I love that,” he says. “It means that they are really paying attention. Students with no background in the subject that I am teaching usually lead me to articulate the basics in a way that is really refreshing because it is easy to forget the basics.

The trick in being a teacher is you are never done learning the art of teaching,” continues van Bladel. “One of my goals is to maintain conscious awareness of all of the steps that I took to get where I am. Where I really get a kick out of teaching is when I can show them shortcuts that I never had.”

Students often provide a fresh perspective by asking unusual questions or by challenging long-held assumptions that force one to re-evaluate and rethink ideas. This is particularly so if one has students from a variety of academic backgrounds, which is the joy of a liberal arts education,” says Ikram.

Arts & Humanities

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Bess Connolly Martell: [email protected], 203-432-1324