KSBN selection ‘The Ghost Map’ brings humor, mystery to the sciences

Parker Robb | The Collegian K-State Provost and Senior Vice President April Mason describes her enjoyment of "The Ghost Map," by Steven Johnson, and the interdisciplinary mystery within at the K-State Book Network's launch of the book as the university's common book for the 2014-15 school year Tuesday in the K-State Student Union courtyard. The book tells the story of how one man, using groundbreaking epidemiology techniques, pinpointed the exact location of the origin of the 1854 Broad Street Cholera epidemic in London.

Incoming students to K-State will have a literary adventure of epidemic proportions in store this fall because Tuesday afternoon, the K-State Book Network announced the common read book for the 2014-2015 academic year to be “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson.

KSBN is an yearlong reading program that invites students and staff to participate in campuswide events, in-classroom activities and extracurricular games related to the common read selection. After a monthslong voting process, the book was selected over Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” and “Defending Jacob” by William Landay.

“We would like to pick a book that says to freshman and incoming students that this is the kind of engagement that you’re going to have when you’re at the university,” said David Rintoul, associate director of the division of biology, associate professor of biology, and Book Selection Committee member. “We want something that’s relatable. We want something that’s intellectually engaging.”

This year’s selection, “The Ghost Map,” tells the true story of Dr. John Snow. Snow pioneered investigative epidemiology techniques to solve the mystery of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic in London. The techniques involved using a series of complex mathematical algorithms, known as centroidal Voronoi tessellations, of which Snow overlaid on a map of the affected neighborhood and was able to pinpoint the epicenter of the outbreak: a public water pump on Broad Street that had been contaminated by a sewage leak.

“It’s about a time and place which is distant: 1850s London,” Rintoul said. “Maybe if you’ve been outside the country recently or to other places, it’s not so different than today’s world. You can still find places that resemble, unfortunately, 1850s London in their water and sanitation capacities.”

Though the book deals primarily with a scientific mystery, organizers emphasize that the activities associated with the book are interdisciplinary and have application to a wide variety of academic fields.

“It will certainly generate lots of discussion about science, about technology, about sociology,” Rintoul said. “In civil engineering, ‘How do you build water systems and sewer systems that don’t kill people?’ In information technology, they can use this in their computer science classes because it’s one great example of visualization of data.”

The KSBN program encourages students to apply the knowledge they have acquired from the common read to their in-class studies, in part, by presenting a scholarship to a student who has exemplified their standards of student learning outcomes. This year’s winner, Brett Bachman, sophomore in business administration, won a $150 scholarship for his paper related to this year’s common read, Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One.”

“The student who won this award wrote a paper that used critical thinking and application of learning, two of our student learning outcomes for KSBN, when he talked about how taken aback he was and discouraged by the future portrayed in ‘Ready Player One,’” said Tara Coleman, public relations committee chair for KSBN and associate professor at Hale Library. “In his paper, he talked about the things he could do as a K-State student this semester to prevent that future from happening.”

Assistant professors of Hale Library, Dan Ireton and Joelle Pitts, and instructional technologist, Ben Ward, also won the KSBN Faculty/Staff Award for using the book in a way that brought people together as a means to think outside the box.

“Community building is another one of our student learning outcomes, and the winners of the Faculty/Staff Awards did this on a large scale,” Coleman said.

This year, the campuswide “Ready Player One” tie-in game created by K-State faculty and staff had over 300 participants across the Manhattan and Salina campuses. The game required participants to visit offices on campus, solve puzzles and build relationships around “Ready Player One.”

“I think there was a time where they went to the Challenge Course, and they learning about themes from the book as they got to know campus,” Coleman said.

A similar series of games and activities are already in the works by the Faculty/Staff Award winners for “The Ghost Map,” including a campus visit from the author.

Ryan Cloyd, graduate student in modern languages, participated in the activities associated with “Ready Player One,” and emphasized that students do not need to invest copious amounts of time in order to reap personal benefits from the game.

“The game was structured in a way where if you wanted to play it casually, then you could play it casually,” Cloyd said. “An interesting aspect of the game is that you could kind of put in as much as you wanted to.”

Cloyd also said he enjoyed that the common read game pushed him to try new things.

“For me personally, there were a lot of places on campus that I’ve never been, and never intended on going to at all,” Cloyd said. “The further along the game went, the more connections I made. I walk around campus seeing people that I might not know by name but I know by face, and to me that’s something that’s important. You can’t get that from just sticking to your own program of study and not branching out.”

Students can also get involved with the common read program by applying to be on the Book Selection Committee. This year, nine K-State students served on the committee that selected “The Ghost Map.”

“I never say ‘no’ to a student,” Coleman said. “I know that if they email me, they are really interested, and even if they can only commit a little bit of time because of their schedule, that little bit of time makes a big difference.”

Coleman explained that books are voted “in” and not “out,” and this year’s selections were narrowed down from an original group of 12-16 books.

“When we are narrowing down books, I have a really long list of questions that committee members have to answer,” Coleman said. “It’s a little daunting: ‘What are the strengths or weaknesses?’ ‘How would you use the book?’ ‘What are barriers that might prevent you from using this book?’”

Ultimately, “The Ghost Map” was selected because of it’s relationship to sustainability, it’s mystery-like qualities and it’s appeal to people who may not typically be fans of nonfiction.

“There were a lot of ways to tie it into campus,” Coleman said. “We have food safety and public health, activities like that. We thought it would be a good idea to sort of understand how fortunate we are currently in that it’s not an international state. I’ve never been to a place where I couldn’t drink out of the fountain.”

Coleman said she believes that the book is interesting, approachable and will bring humor and mystery to the sciences.

“Loving the book is not a requirement,” Coleman said. “Thinking about the book and thinking about things inspired by the book is what we really want.”

Iris LoCoco is a sophomore in computer science and 2015 K-State graduate in art history.