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McGill Reporter
April 6, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 14
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Of course: Bones and stones


Despite the large size of his class on Human Evolution, Michael Bisson manages to have some intimacy with his 180 students and it's all thanks to the bones and stones the students get to examine once per week in their 20-student lab.

"That's when they get to see the real stuff," says the professor of anthropology. "It's a unique opportunity for kids here. Very few university students get to handle stone tools that are more than one million years old."

Bisson's tool specimens come either from the Redpath Museum or from his own collection of replicas. The 30-odd casts of skulls, ranging from 3.5-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis to modern Homo sapiens, fill the shelves of an entire wall and are available to students to handle and compare.

In the lab on this particular Friday, students look carefully at La Ferrassie, a 45,000-year-old skull found in France. "You see how the perfect occlusion (where all teeth line up perfectly, unlike our own overbite of the upper front teeth) caused wearing of the incisors? Neanderthal had to hold meat in the teeth and use a scraper [stone knife] to cut it. You can tell if the person was right- or left-handed by the scrape marks on the teeth," explains Bisson who has crafted many a replica of the tools invented by our ancestors.

The lab group listens carefully. Students in Bisson's class come from a variety of disciplines though 20 percent are from the Faculty of Science. "It's actually a science course hidden in the Arts faculty," he says. Lecture subjects include the "infamous 'Out of Africa' hypothesis regarding the origin of Homo sapiens, basic skeletal anatomy and the evolution of human behaviour.

Ariel Burns, a student of social anthropology, took Human Evolution in her first year when she was considering anthropology as a major. The caring and personable approach of Bisson reminded her that it was possible to have a positive experience of a big class; he would visit her lab from time to time even though hers wasn't among the four of the 11 lab sections he usually leads.

Calling all Shakespearians

Some 700 preeminent Bard scholars from top universities across the globe are assembling in Montreal this week for a unique learning conference and literary love-in: the Twenty-Eighth Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.

Co-hosted by McGill University, the Université de Montréal and the Shakespeare Association of America, among others, the three-day meeting is the largest global scholarly event devoted to study of the 17th century English poet and playwright. Consider it an intensive Bard review, where some 65 academics will give workshops, seminars and lectures on Shakespeare from April 6 to 8.

This is the second time in the conference's three-decade history that Montreal has been selected as the host city. While lectures and workshops are taking place at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, McGill will host an opening cocktail party at Redpath Hall tonight and Columbia University scholar Jean Howard dropped by the University's campus earlier this week to give a lecture.

Several local Shakespearian scholars — including conference co-chairs and McGill English professors Michael Bristol and Leanor Lieblein — will be speaking at the conference. With so many Bard authorities here at once, says Bristol, the conference promises to be intellectually stimulating. "It would be hard to add up all the books that these people have written on Shakespeare," he says. "These conference-goers are some of the highest profile scholars, directors, actors and drama teachers in their field."

Indeed, conference participants have been drawn from such illustrious institutions as Oxford, Columbia, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. Another special aspect of the conference, says Lena Cowen Orlin, executive director of the Shakespeare Association of America, is how it permits Shakespeare academics a rare exchange on their favourite literary genius: "This is a special opportunity for scholars to meet their best working colleagues."

Soccer with no hooligans

You've heard of Robocop. Well, this is RoboCup, a tournament featuring 22 simulator robots playing soccer.

Unlike real robots, these simulators are red or yellow circles — one colour for each team — on a video screen. "It's a lot like watching a video game," says Jeremy Cooperstock, assistant professor at the Centre for Intelligent Machines and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "You can see the soccer field and the background."

One notable difference, Cooperstock points out, is that the two teams aren't all controlled by one person. Students have individually programmed each simulator to make its own decisions on the field. "They build the brains of these soccer players," Cooperstock explains, adding that the project has students investigate learning strategies that are applied to a common problem.

The first international Robot World Cup Initiative was held in Nagoya, Japan, in 1997 to encourage artificial intelligence and robotics research. Last summer, four McGill engineering students and five from computer science competed in RoboCup '99 in Stockholm. The next World Cup is in Australia in August.

Using simulators rather than real robots allows students to concentrate on programming artificial intelligence rather than having to worry about such details as mechanical wheels or batteries wearing down.

They also make for a more interesting game. At last summer's international competition using robots, "soccer play was abysmal," Cooperstock says. "You'd hope to hell the dogs could find the ball and push it along."

You won't see any of the students at today's tournament frantically pushing buttons to move their simulator robot around. "Students program them in advance and once the game begins, it's hands off," Cooperstock says. "Let the robots go and do their thing."

Anyone wanting to join the robots' "parents" in cheering them on today is welcome to the tournament in the McConnell Engineering Foyer, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

May the forces be with you

Those extracurricular activities could pay off for some McGill students. The second annual province-wide Gala Forces Avenir will recognize, promote and honour initiative and enterprise among university students. Open to undergraduates, awards range from $7,000 to $20,000 and three McGill students were among last year's winners.

Members of the jury evaluate applicants on a variety of criteria, including academic and exemplary extracurricular achievements. The latter can include participation in such projects as a homework clinic for children with learning difficulties, a campus safety escort service, aid to a developing country or the establishment of a soup kitchen.

Last year, McGill medical student Marlène Grenon and social work student Marcia Gibson each won $7,000 in the category of Personality Avenir. Biochemistry student Wendy Lai was awarded $15,000 and the Perseverance Avenir for her commitment to a variety of causes, including feminist issues and fighting racism. She was also involved in setting up Girlspace, a group whose goal is to encourage discussion among teenage girls from different backgrounds about issues such as anorexia. The Habitat for Humanity project, where McGill architecture students help low income people build or repair houses, was named a finalist in the Mutual Aid, Peace and Justice category.

A total of $105,000 in grants and international internships will be handed out this year in 10 categories, including business, the environment, peace and justice, arts and culture, science and technology.

The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2000. Applications are available at the Dean of Students Office and are also being automatically sent to last year's applicants for the Scarlet Key Award and Rhodes Scholarships. The award's website is at: www.forcesavenir.qc.ca.

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