Hot-Headed Moles in Antarctica

Problem written by Harold B. White
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716

Dr. Janice Lingle, an associate professor of physics, had acquired a reputation among her colleagues and students as a person who enjoyed solving and posing problems. Thus she wasn't particularly surprised one morning when she found a clipping from Discover magazine in her mail box with a Post-It note asking: "Is this for real? -- Barb". (Dr. Barbara Jenkins was an Assistant Professor of English who often ate lunch with Jan in the faculty dining room.) Jan quickly read the short article and thought to herself, "This is great! I can use this today to introduce the next topic," and she rushed off to make copies for her students.

At 9:30, the 65 students in her nonmajors introductory physics class strolled in talking about who would make the final four in the NCAA tournament and what they were planning for spring break. At the beginning of class, Jan asked, "Could you please sit together with your lab partners today? I think you can help me with a question Professor Jenkins from the English Department asked me this morning." The students pulled their chairs into groups of 3 or 4 as Jan handed out the Discover article to each group. They enjoyed these unexpected breaks in the routine. "In half an hour, I want each group to advise me how I should answer Prof. Jenkins and give well supported reasons for your recommendation."

During the following 30 minutes, Jan moved from group to group listening to the discussion and occasionally asking or fielding questions. In one group she overheard Jon mutter, "Of course it's true. It's in Discover." And in another group a puzzled Melissa said, "Like, this isn't physics, it's biology. Ya know what I mean? Like, how are we supposed to know the answer?" Jan's response didn't resolve Melissa's puzzlement when she said somewhat cryptically, "Actually one could also think of this as a chemistry, geology, or history problem. It doesn't matter to me what information or reasoning you use to come to a decision, so long as it makes sense and everybody in your group can explain the reasons for the decision."


One person from each table read aloud the news item, Life on Ice II: Hotheads, taken from Discover 16(4), 14-15 (1995).

Come to consensus within your group on whether the article is "for real."

Select a person to make a list of the reasons that support your conclusion and then rank them in order of the strength of their support.

Make another list of the things your group would like to review or learn more about that might help you feel more confident about your conclusion.

Note: This short problem is intended to demonstrate the process of problem-based learning to an interdisciplinary audience. If this problem were to be used in an introductory class, it would be followed by other activities to promote the learning of important concepts raised in the problem.

Last updated Feb. 20, 1997.
Copyright Univ. of Delaware, 1997.