George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Honors 353 with James Trefil

Jim Trefil, Physics faculty and Robinson Professor, speaks to students in his Honors class. Honors College students have access to world-class instructors during their time at Mason. Professor James Trefil, GMU’s Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics, strengthens Honors College students’ communication skills through in his HNRS 353 capstone courses “Science of Cities” and “Scientific Revolutions in the 20th Century.” Trefil’s students collaborate in research groups to produce presentations that communicate scientific progress in areas ranging from genetic engineering to cosmology to public transportation innovation, in addition to writing a final term paper on a scientific topic of their choice.

The author of over 30 books focused on developing scientific literacy among nonscientists, Trefil is renowned for his commitment to bridging the gap between science and society. Trefil’s HNRS 353 course “Scientific Revolutions in the 20th Century” engages Honors College students from a variety of majors with topics ranging from particle physics to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to modern molecular biology. “Throughout the first four weeks of this course, we review where science was at the beginning of the 20th century,” says Trefil, who then leads class discussion on a scientific topic each week until group presentations begin.

Trefil tells his students “if you want to appreciate science, you don’t need the math, you need the concepts,” challenging them to discuss the progress of complex ideas and innovations across various scientific mediums.

In his “Science of Cities” HNRS 353 course, Trefil assigns students to “go out and observe a city, see what’s going on, formulate a question, and find an answer,” designing his curriculum from a learn-by-doing approach. “I like turning students loose,” explains Trefil, whose students grapple with questions like “How did DC get to be the way it is?” and “What will DC be like 50 years from now?” Under Trefil’s mentorship, “Science of Cities” students present research on emerging innovations ranging from redesigning the metro system to the plausibility of “smart highways” and self-driving cars.

Trefil recounts one of his HNRS 353 students researched the history of the “first telephone installed in DC,” which turned out to be installed in the White House, with a phone number of “1”. “I didn’t even know that,” laughs Trefil, “I learn a lot through my Honors students’ research. We cover subject matter that isn’t covered in any university course.”

Honors College junior Lauren Lapid reflects positively on her experience with Trefil's Oxford-style pedagogy in HNRS 353. "We had the opportunity to collaborate with our Honors College peers in group presentations, but we also got to meet with Professor Trefil one on one to discuss our personal progress and research," says Lapid, who appreciated "the personal attention he gave each of us, catering advice to our different learning styles."

Co-author of a course and textbook series used in more than 200 universities across the U.S., Trefil’s passion for making science exciting and accessible shines through his commitment to student success. “My goal at the end of my HNRS 353 courses is for my students to have a sense of where the frontiers of knowledges are across the sciences,” says Trefil.

“I like seeing my students develop as communicators,” adds Trefil, “it gives them something they’ll need for life.”


Reporting by Jimmy O'Hara, Honors College; Photograph by Evan Cantwell, Creative Services