- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

FROSTBURG, Md. — Harry Potter is in college: as a subject, not a student.

“The Science of Harry Potter,” a three-credit honors seminar new this fall at Frostburg State University, offers fans of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels an opportunity to study the links between magic and science.

Could antigravity research produce a flying broomstick? Can Fluffy, the three-headed dog, be explained by genetic engineering?

Those are some of the questions physics professor George R. Plitnik is exploring with 15 students, mostly juniors and seniors. He says the class is not all fun and games, despite his penchant for dressing up as Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

“This is not something where you just show up and talk about Harry Potter books and get a grade,” Mr. Plitnik said before donning his black wizard’s hat and robe for a recent session. “This is a college-level class.”

Frostburg State, a public school in Western Maryland with average annual undergraduate enrollment of 4,300, is not the only institution of higher education offering a scholarly take on the Potter phenomenon. The books were featured in a “Literature for Young Adults” course at Kent State University, and Cerritos College in California has an introductory composition class, “Words and Magic: Harry Potter and Vocabulary.”

Mr. Plitnik’s seminar may be the first science-based Harry Potter class offered for college credit, though other schools, including Penn State University, have developed similar programs for children’s summer camps.

Mr. Plitnik designed his course after reading “The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works,” by London-based science writer Roger Highfield. The book, published last year, uses Mrs. Rowling’s fanciful creations as springboards for what the New York Times Book Review called “an enjoyably indirect survey of modern science.”

In the book, one of two required texts in Mr. Plitnik’s class, Mr. Highfield discusses Muggle (ordinary human) technology capable of approximating such magical effects as walking through walls and re-growing bones. He covers the latest research on teleportation — “apparating” in the Potter books — and devotes an entire chapter to Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans and the science of taste.

Mr. Plitnik’s students must do similar research for their final project, a written and oral presentation on a scientific topic with a Harry Potter theme. It accounts for a fifth of their grade. Other grading factors include two written exams and daily quizzes on assigned reading in the Highfield book and in a collection of critical essays, “Reading Harry Potter,” edited by Giselle Liza Anatol, an assistant professor of English at the University of Kansas.

They are not required to have read the five Potter books. Just four of the 14 students at one recent session acknowledged having done so, though all had read at least one or seen one of the two Harry Potter movies.

The class is designed for non-science majors and has no laboratory work. Still, the workload is heavier than Jackie Boehm, an English major from Columbia, Md., expected.

“I was like, ‘Wow, we actually have to read books,’” she said.

Mr. Plitnik, 61, tempers the serious approach with sometimes zany teaching methods. The bearded acoustics expert is renowned on campus for his costumes, props (a rubber chicken is never far away) and other gimmicks. Last year, he invited a Brazilian colleague, Leonardo Fuks, to lecture one of his classes and lead them in a bicycle-riding musical performance.

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