Sharing a Passion for Ancient Egypt, or Who Is as Smart as a Nine-Year-Old?

December 15, 2016

The Penn Museum’s Ancient Egypt Open House featured talks (Coursera professor David Silverman discusses Penn Museum excavation work in Egypt), interactive “cartifacts,” and an Egyptian hieroglyph class–as well as gallery tours, information tables, and a “mummy maker” workshop.

More than 23,000 people from around the world signed up to take Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization, a free online class with Dr. David Silverman, Curator-in-Charge of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section, via Coursera. I am one of those 23,000 people. And now a confession: I started the class, but grew nervous about taking the quizzes (we are talking about an ancient civilization with more than 3,000 years of history, after all), so I haven’t quite finished. That’s why when the Museum offered an Ancient Egypt Open House for students and prospective students on Saturday, December 10, I was more than a little curious to see who else was going to show up.

At the Open House, I met William Wojtowicz. He had taken the course, tests and all, in four days. That’s right, four days. Impressive, I said—wasn’t it hard?

“I watched the videos twice before taking the tests,” he admitted. OK. I wondered how many times I’d need to watch.

It wasn’t just the four days that had me impressed. William Wojtowicz came all the way from Yellow Spring, West Virginia, to meet Dr. Silverman and see the Museum’s collection. It was a four and a half hour drive—but he didn’t do the driving. That is probably because William is nine years old.

Dr. David Silverman with Coursera student William Wojtowicz in front of the Museum’s Sphinx at the Ancient Egypt Open House.

This wasn’t his first Coursera course, either. William and his twin brother Ralph started another Penn online course on ancient Greece. Since it was a bit long, the boys didn’t complete it; instead, they each downloaded a book and read it: William, The Odyssey, and Ralph (who distinctly recalls it was 648 pages) completed The Iliad. Their father, Ralph Wojtowicz, suggested they explore the Coursera courses, after he had taken several math-focused courses himself. His son William has a definite affinity for history.

Thinking that William’s success was a unique situation, I soon learned otherwise. At a Penn Museum Members-Only informal reception to meet Dr. Silverman, Kate Fox, the Museum’s Associate Director for Membership & Annual Fund, asked how many guests had taken the course, and just about every hand shot up—including those of siblings Madison (12), Michael (10), and Mason (8) Grohman from New Jersey. I caught up with them later, to find out if they had done the quizzes—they had, working together, done it all. Wow.The Open House concluded with a book signing by all three Egyptian Section curators: David Silverman, Josef Wegner, and Jennifer Houser Wegner. The line was long, with visitors of all ages eager to talk to the Egyptologists and get their books personalized. Something about ancient Egypt captures the imagination of people of all ages. Several adults told me that they had, indeed, completed the course and the quizzes—though the questions were hard. One guest suggested I take copious notes beforehand. Good advice, to be sure!

For Dr. Silverman, the Open House made the virtual course he’d worked on for several years suddenly more real. “Last Saturday in the Museum answering questions and having dialogue was really, really special to me. Up until then I knew only the number of students taking the class, but now it has become more personal since I had the opportunity of seeing people face-to-face.”

The good news, for all those who are ready to join William Wojtowicz and the Grohman siblings and take Introduction to Ancient Egypt and Its Civilization, quizzes and all—there are new dates to sign up and do just that: December 26, 2016, and in the new year, new signups accepted January 23, February 20, March 20, and April 17—and beyond.

You don’t want to wait too long, though—a second Coursera course, Wonders of Ancient Egypt, kicks off in the spring of 2017!

Penn Museum member Michael Grohman with his three children who completed the Coursera course by working together: Madison, Mason, and Michael.

Pam Kosty is the Penn Museum’s Public Relations Director. She is still working up the courage to take the Coursera quizzes.