51. Engaged scholarship

Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College, joins us to explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.

Show Notes

Transcript

46. Creative risk-taking

When you teach the same classes every year, it’s easy to fall into routines. Classes, though, can be much more fun for you and your students if you are willing to take some risk by experimenting with new teaching approaches. In this episode, Dr. Wendy Watson, a a senior lecturer of political science and pre-law advisor at the University of North Texas. joins us to discuss how she has engaged her students by introducing some very creative and fun assignments in her classes.

Show Notes

  • Ishiyama, J., & Watson, W. L. (2014). Using Computer-Based Writing Software to Facilitate Writing Assignments in Large Political Science Classes. Journal of Political Science Education, 10(1), 93-101.
  • Watson, W. L., Hamner, J., Oldmixon, E. A., & King, K. (2015). 14. After the apocalypse: a simulation for Introduction to Politics classes. Handbook on Teaching and Learning in Political Science and International Relations, 157.
  • Wendy Watson (2016) Best and Worst Teaching Moments (Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment, and Redesign, UNT video) – This contains a description of the zombie apocalypse project.
  • Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment, and Redesign at UNT
  • Olson, Katie (2017). “Local Author Gets Cozy with Mystery Genre.” The Dentonite. October 3, 2017
  • Wendy Lyn Watson – author website

Transcript

John: When you teach the same classes every year, it’s very easy to fall into routines. Classes, though, can be much more fun for you and your students if you are willing to take some risk by experimenting with new teaching approaches. In this episode, we examine how one professor has engaged her students by introducing some very creative and fun assignments in her classes.

[Music]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[Music]
Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Wendy Watson, a senior lecturer in political science and pre-law advisor at the University of North Texas. Welcome, Wendy.
Wendy: Hi, thank you for having me.

John: We’re glad to have you here.
Our teas today are:
Wendy: I am drinking Paris. It’s a blend from Harney and Sons.

John: We have that next door.
Rebecca: Yeah, a tasty one. I have Irish breakfast tea today.

John: …and I have ginger peach green tea.
We invited you here to talk a little bit about some of the interesting things you’re doing with your classes. Could you tell us first a little bit about the classes that you normally teach.
Wendy: Sure. In the state of Texas there is a requirement that every student take two Introduction to American Politics courses in our department. We refer to that as the full employment plan. So, I teach both of those courses and then, other than that, I teach all of our law related courses. I’m not the only one, but I teach all of the law related courses: our legal systems course, civil rights and civil liberties, the rights of criminal defendants, constitutional law, an LSAT prep class, gay rights in the Constitution, and a seminar on the death penalty, in varying cycles.

John: You do quite a few innovative things in your classes, and one of those is having your students rewrite the Constitution after a zombie apocalypse. Could you tell us a little bit about that activity?
Wendy: Yeah, the idea is that the zombie apocalypse has occurred. This is actually for one of the flavors of Introduction to American politics, and this particular course deals with institutions: the founding of the Constitution, federalism, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and civil rights and civil liberties. The idea is that the zombie apocalypse has occurred. Huge portions of the population of the US have been destroyed and the remaining members of the country are required to rebuild the United States and part of that is rewriting the Constitution. Essentially, what they’re doing is building a government from the state of nature, but they don’t know that. They think they’re building a constitution after the zombie apocalypse, and that’s way more fun. It’s a guided exercise; they get worksheets every week making them think about “What is bicameralism? What are the benefits of bicameralism? What are the drawbacks of bicameralism? etc. They don’t just get to go off and write crazy things. They actually have to think about stuff and then they work in groups to create these Constitutions. One of the things that I really love about the course is that they actually do have to grapple with these issues. They sometimes get pretty heated.

John: How large are the groups?
Wendy: Usually these introductory courses are about a hundred and twenty five students and I put them in groups of about five to seven.
Rebecca: And are these things that happened outside of class, in class, online?
Wendy: No. I’ve taught the class as an online class in which case it obviously happens online, but when I’m teaching the class as a face-to-face course I actually do give them class time. Having them do it outside of the class nothing ever happened, giving them the time in class keeps them from hating me and also ensures that they actually do provide some sort of useful product at the end.
Rebecca: What assignments or exercises or things that you would normally do in class does this exercise replace?
Wendy: You know it doesn’t actually replace any exercises because if I weren’t using this activity, all of their homework would be outside of class and they’re still doing all of that. So what it’s really replacing is me lecturing and I’ve got no problem with that and I don’t think they have a problem with that. It’s more exciting or more interesting for them to be doing something, talking to each other than it is to be sitting in a seat listening to me, I think, I’m pretty sure. And I think it’s actually more educational for them to be engaging in the material as opposed to passively sitting and listening to me. Yeah. So although all they’re missing out on is me talking.
Rebecca: How did you how did you decide to go in this direction and develop this particular activity?
Wendy: I was trying to think of a way to create a simulation that would last throughout that semester, so something that kind of continued over the course of a term. And I wasn’t really sure what that would be, and I think we were watching The Walking Dead. But honestly how that all came together I couldn’t tell you, but yeah I’m really happy with that. It’s been adopted by several of my colleagues and by a professor at University of Whitewater. She used it in a summer program for high school students, and yeah, I’m really happy with that how that one turned out.
Rebecca: How did the students respond?
Wendy: You know,of course there are always students who are not going to respond at all. But I’ve never had a student who actively said that they hated it which is, I guess, good. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback and I had you know one of my best student interactions ever over this particular assignment. Again, I’m going to apologize to all of my biology friends out there. One of the features of the assignment is that the zombies fall into two categories. The type one zombies who are traditional brain-eating zombies and then the type two zombies who have developed a lesser mutated form of the virus. And so they have features of zombies, they have the shuffling gait and the slurred speech, but they have higher order cognitive thinking and they don’t eat brains, and they’re just generally safe. But if two type two zombies have a child together there is a probability or a possibility that their child will be a type 1 zombie. Again, this makes no sense at all, since it’s a virus and that just doesn’t make any sense. But, it raises this question of what do you do with type 2 zombies? Do you sterilize them? Do you kill them? What do you do with them? And they were grappling with this issue one day. And this poor student comes in, and he was, I swear to God, he was almost in tears. Because his group had decided collectively to exterminate the type 2 zombies and he said,” what do you do when you encounter people who are terrible?” And so he ended up having this long talk about how do you deal with the notion that there are Hitler’s in the world. I was like “Well, you have to remember that there are Gandhi’s in the world.” It was a long and lovely conversation about the essence of mankind and the balance of good and evil. And I kept emphasizing to him that this wasn’t real and that his friends were not evil, but anyway it was it was a great conversation and I was so touched that he took it so seriously. It’s just a testament to me of the fact that students really are interested in the material if you give them an opportunity to be interested in the material.
Rebecca: It sounds to me too like it allows them to really grapple with the really difficult conversations that are around rights and lack of rights and who gets those rights. That might be really uncomfortable if you talk about it in a in a real situation, but in this safe simulation you can have some of those challenging conversations that you might not be able to have as effectively.
Wendy: Yeah, I think that’s right. If you’re talking about things like race or sexual orientation, you’re always confronted with the fact that there are people in the room whose actual rights are implicated, and that does tend to make people sent to themselves perhaps, and that’s not necessarily what you want in real active discourse. So, when you’re talking about something that is seemingly unreal, it is unreal… they’re zombies… it’s not real. I do think that it gives people the opportunity to think through issues in a way that is safer, but also more honest.

John: The type 2 zombies add to the degree of difficulty or the level of challenge there.
Wendy: Yes, exactly.

John: You’ve also created a 500-person learning community, could you tell us a little bit about that?
Wendy: Yeah, that was nuts! My university decided to try to create a variety of different models of learning communities, sort of all at once, that alone was nuts. But I was going to be involved in a combined course learning community, so without any residential component. And I found this wonderful man in the psychology department who probably had no idea what he was getting into, and we created this community that was 500 students. His Introduction to Psychology course and my Introduction of Political Behavior course, that’s the other half of our introductory American politics duo. And our courses were back-to-back, so there were times when he could have two hours, and times when I could have two hours. And we focused on political psychology, specifically as it related to campaigns. And over the course of the semester, they each had to read three or four articles and write one page papers about them, little summaries, and then they came together and they shared their information, and they had to come up with the campaign strategy for either one or two presumed political presidential candidates. At the time we thought that was going to be Clinton and Rubio… that obviously didn’t happen. But they created these poster presentations and then we picked from among those poster presentations the 10 best, and we took those to UNT on the square which is a little gallery space in downtown Denton. And we invited faculty and university administration and we invited the Denton Record Chronicle which is our local newspaper. And the students really got into it, the ones who won showed up with their little red bow ties if they were representing Rubio and they had candy at their stations. And it was really awesome. It was great.
Rebecca: What do you think one of the biggest learning gains was for students who were in this learning community scenario where you were diving into something in depth from two different points of view?
Wendy: I think one of the things that they gained was an understanding that these two disciplines actually interacted with one another, that psychology and political science weren’t sort of siloed ideas, that they actually were related to one another. And I think one of the other things that they learned is that what they learned in class actually had implications for the real world. That things that we were learning in psychology and political science had implications for how politicians were actually running their campaigns. And that they could take the skills that they were learning at UNT and potentially apply them to a job, which is always a big thing. [LAUGHTER] Getting a job is good.
Rebecca: What level are the students in these classes?
Wendy: In those particular learning communities, most of the students were freshmen, first-year students, because they had to be advised into them, somebody had to sort of point them towards this pair of courses, so they tended to be freshmen. Otherwise these courses actually tend to draw students all the way up to their senior year, because they put them off until they have to graduate. But for these particular communities, they pretty much have an advisor say, “Hey, here’s a good idea. Take both of these courses.” They tended to be freshmen.
Rebecca: Did you find that the learning community method works particularly well with first-year students?
Wendy: I think for a lot of types of innovation it doesn’t necessarily, but I think for this, it did, because I think their desire to please was strong. And I think that they didn’t any preconceived notions of what college classes were supposed to be like, so they were maybe more receptive to the idea of doing something different. For all they knew this is what it was supposed to be like. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and getting that introduction to an interdisciplinary view of the world is probably good to do before they get too deeply into the silos of their major.
Wendy: Yeah, I agree.
Rebecca: So you’re full of brainy ideas and another one that you pulled off was an online Electoral College simulation game, can you tell us about that too?
Wendy: Yeah. So that was a lot of that was a lot of fun. I actually have to give most of the credit for the online component to our office, here it’s called CLEAR the Center for Learning Enhancement Assessment and Redesign. The assessment component has largely gone out of clear, but that’s still what we call them. They do all of our online support, learning management system, redesigned helping us create online courses, all of that sort of work. And I had a sort of a low-tech version of this course. Originally they were working in groups, I always make them work in groups, I don’t know why. But they had groups and the idea was I used the map from 270 to win, which has sort of the baseline Electoral College predictions, and which states are going red, which states are going blue, etc. And then students had campaign money and they could essentially bet their money on individual states. And if you were the Republican Party and you bet fifty dollars here, but then the Democrats get 51, then the Democrats won the state, so whoever bet more money in a state won the state. And so you could see the strategy of betting in different states of spending more campaign money more campaign resources in each state, and as you won a state, the states that were blue moved around or the states that were red moved around and you could see the total – who was winning the electoral college. And it was played in three rounds. But this was a huge pain to implement in the classroom with having to update this Excel spreadsheet every round and get people’s votes every round. It was a nightmare. So CLEAR created an online version for us that allowed students to play against each other online and it was really slick, it was beautiful, I loved it.
Rebecca: So, I’m noticing the “loved” as opposed to “I love it”.
Wendy: You notice that didn’t you.[LAUGHTER]…… Yeah, so I think another point to make here is that if you’re going to launch into one of these grand plans, you really do want to have some long-term commitment from your University. I love my university but long-term commitment is not their forte and for the learning community, for example, Adriel and I (my co-conspirator and I), we put a lot of effort into that course and we ended up offering it twice. It went really well both times but to the extent we needed money it came from a Title III grant that ended. So, we didn’t have the money anymore and then we also depended very much on help from the registrar, from advising, and from admissions to help us coordinate all of the the details. Because it was no small matter, right? It was actually very difficult. It wasn’t just us. There are all sorts of offices that had to help us out with this. And the university basically was like, “Oh, we’re done.” That was difficult and so we just lost the necessary institutional support for maintaining that program. And with the electoral college I went for like a year and a half without teaching that course, so it didn’t get used because nobody else was using it. And so CLEAR stopped supporting it on their website. It just went away and it’s just gone. So, it’s just one of those things. You kind of need to get it in writing, because there’s a tremendous amount of start-up costs associated with these programs and unless you know that that’s going to carry forth and this investment is going to pay out over an extended period of time, tt could be a little bit demoralizing.

John: In one of your other experiments in class, you did something with a mystery room. Could you tell us how that worked?
Wendy: Oh yeah, that was this last year. That was so much fun. Yeah, so the game was actually called Free Lucky. Lucky is UNT’s unofficial mascot. He’s an albino squirrel; he’s actually not lucky at all. We’ve had a series of Lucky’s on campus and the only two that I’m aware of… one got carried off by a red tail hawk and the other one got hit by a car, so they’re not lucky. [LAUGHTER] But we call him Lucky and you can get little lucky dolls. And so I got little Lucky dolls and I shoved them in little cloth pencil cases and I put combination locks on the pencil cases, so he had to get him out by undoing the lock. And I’m put my groups of students… groups again… in various study rooms in the library and they each had a little encased enshrouded Lucky in their room. And then they started the game with a question on their learning management system on Blackboard. This was for an LSAT prep course and the beautiful thing about the LSAT is that you have these questions with very specific answers. No question… here’s the answer… that’s it. The first question, if they got it right, it led them to a webpage with another question; if they got it wrong it led them to a webpage that had nothing and then it sent them back to the original page, and so forth and so on. It sent them to various pages around the web, some of them with clues, some of them with other questions, eventually it would’ve taken them off of the web and sometimes it pointed them to different clues around the room. There were various and sundry things on the table, some of them which mattered… there was a playing card… it actually was a clue, but then there were things like spools of thread that meant nothing. There was envelopes taped under the table that had a whole series of questions. And the questions there, if you answered them all, there were four of them and those gave you letters and then there was a tongue depressor on the table that helped you translate the letters into numbers and that was the code to the combination lock and that allowed you to free Lucky. And the first team that got Lucky to me… I was sitting in the lobby of the library, first team that got Lucky to me won… and they won packets of colored highlighters, which doesn’t sound exciting but they were all pre-law students and that’s like gold in the legal community… is colored highlighters. So it was exciting, they were really thrilled.

John: It sounds like fun.
Rebecca: It sounds like a lot of fun.
Wendy: It was.
Rebecca: What made you decide to do a mystery room?
Wendy: Well, you know, we have one here in Denton, and I think it looks really cool and I want to go, but I can never get people to go with me, and so I decided well I’m just gonna create my own. I wanted to do something, again, that was interesting. As much as the LSAT prep stuff was really interesting and important for my students, it’s not super engaging. We could stand up there and write logic game trees on the board, for hours on end, but that’s not exciting. That’s not even lecture exciting, that’s just really really boring. So I wanted to at least break up the class a little bit by having something that was more engaging, more active, something that was interesting.

John: And it brings in gamification too, where there’s some incentives and competition.
Wendy: Yeah. Oh yeah, the competition was big. I had one group that came down with Lucky after about a minute and a half. I was like, “You did not answer all those questions.” The guy who handed me Lucky, he’s like, “You gave this puzzle to a marine .” [LAUGHTER] I was like, “So, did you just bust the lock?” He’s like “No, I didn’t have to bust the lock. I could get him out without busting the lock.” I was like “You have to open the lock, you can’t cheat.” [LAUGHTER]. So they went back, they did it. But anyway, yeah, it was definitely a game to them. They were serious about it.
Rebecca: That’s hysterical and unexpected, right? [LAUGHTER]
Wendy: Completely.

John: A common theme of all this is that you seem to experiment with your classes and take some risks in trying new things. Could you tell us a little bit about what prompts you to do that?
Wendy: A couple of things. One, is that honestly it keeps me interested in the courses. I can get bored with the material as much as they can. In fact, they sit through it for a single semester, I sit through it for semester, after semester, after semester. And you can only talk about the appointments clause for one or two times before you’re like “Oh my god, I’m gonna dig my eyes out. This is really dull.” And that’s something I actually enjoy, right? I think the appointments clause is interesting. You still want to shake it up a little bit. And the other reason is that I really do believe that students learn better if they are engaged. As much as I love to hear myself speak, I don’t necessarily think that they love to hear me speak. I think that they get more out of my class if they are doing something. If they are seeing some connection between what we’re doing in the real world. If they can see themselves actively engaged. If they have a sense that they have power in the class. Some sense of control over their own education. I think all of those things are really valuable to them. So it’s a little more effort for me, but I think the payoffs are worth it.
Rebecca: So all of these examples that you’ve shared with us today are really different from one another: they use different technologies, different setups. What is your advice to someone who wants to take some risks and try something new, but it’s something that they’ve never done before?
Wendy: Start small. Don’t start with a 500 person learning community, which is what I did. That was dumb. It worked out, but it was dumb. Yeah, start small. Collaborate with somebody so you have somebody to lean on and share ideas. That’s maybe why the learning community worked, is that I had something called the Core Academy, so we were focused on these sorts of things together. And then I had my my co-teacher, Adriel, to work with. I think having a support system and starting small is the way to go. You don’t have to do a semester long simulation, you can devote one class to something. Use a method that lots of people are using, like team-based learning. You don’t have to do that all semester you could do it for one class. There’s nothing wrong with starting small and then getting bigger.
Rebecca: Did you start small?
Wendy: I did not [Laughter].

John: Somehow I suspected that would be the answer.
Wendy: Yeah, that’s not my style. But again, I think that if you’re worried about getting started, if you are less stupid than I am, then don’t hesitate to start small. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Rebecca: Have you had any student resistance to some of the alternative or non-traditional methods that you’ve been using in your classes?
Wendy: I get a little resistance sometimes. For the most part, they actually seem to enjoy it. Every now and then I’ll get a student who seems to think that I’m not doing my job. I mean I’ve had students who flat out on evaluation have said “I expected to come to class and hear you talk and you didn’t.” Like “Really? That was what you expected?” I mean, yeah, I assumed that is the expectation, but like, “You’re disappointed that didn’t happen?” I can’t imagine that. And of course there’s always, as I mentioned, a lot of these things involve group work, and a lot of students have resistance to group work. Even when the group work ultimately works out okay, they still are annoyed that I put them in groups. Just the anxiety associated with group work carries over to the end of the semester. Of course, some groups don’t work out. You’ve always got somebody in some group that either doesn’t pull their weight, or is responsible for a part of the project and fails to turn it in, or somebody in the group who is bossy. You always have some group that’s got a problem and I usually try to mediate that situation, but sometimes they don’t come to me until it’s too late. There are always points of contention. But they’re relatively few, and honestly I’ve always got a few complaints when I lecture too. I’d like to say I never have complaints there, but I do.
Rebecca: I read this really great article about you being a mystery novelist.
Wendy: I am.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about that?
Wendy: Sure, yeah. I am a mystery writer. I started writing a long time ago, right around 2001 actually. A bad year. But I had my first novel published in 2009. I write a type of mystery called a Cozy, which is exactly what it sounds like, it’s cozy. They are light, often funny mysteries. Amateur sleuths, so no cops or private investigators. They can be in the book, but they’re not the primary character. Usually female sleuths, small town, no sex or violence on the page. I mean obviously somebody dies but it happens off the screen. They’re really quite delightful. I said PG-13, I actually included the word “bitch” in my first book, and it wasn’t even calling somebody bitch. It was like son of a bitch. I hope I’m not destroying your podcast by using that word [Laughter]. I actually got nasty emails about using that word. Really? Oh my goodness. I don’t use that word there anymore. Yeah so I started writing I’m working on number seven right now and, that’s that.

John: How do you manage that along with all your innovation in class? It seems like that’s a lot of demands on your time. How do you allocate your time?
Wendy: Not well. Yeah, I was talking about this with a colleague this morning, we were talking about this LSAT prep course (she’s teaching it this semester) about the fact that prelaw students really should be studying a lot for the LSAT. It’s a huge portion of their application. Yet, for some reason, they don’t and instead they focus so much on their GPA, which is important, but honestly, not as important as their LSAT score. They shouldn’t let their GPA slide either, let’s be clear. But in the grand scheme they should be focusing on their LSAT score. We were discussing the fact that the LSAT is way far away but their GPA is right in front of them, and so that just feels like the thing they need to tackle right now. And for me my deadlines are way far away and my courses right in front of me. So I tend to focus on my coursework and I’m not so great about meeting my deadlines, and I apologize deeply to my editor, but that’s just the way it is. I do though have a calendar, a very detailed calendar, that I keep, that has specific time set aside for every single thing that I do. Not always true to that calendar, but I do have a calendar, and it includes time set aside for writing.
Rebecca: Do you find that your writing life and your teaching life influence one another?
Wendy: Yes. Certainly my academic life has influenced my writing life. One of my books was set on college campus and I got to kill off a couple people that I didn’t like so much, which was awesome [Laughter]. Certainly, I think that my tendency toward narrative, toward storytelling, influences my use of hypotheticals in my classes. To the extent that I’m sort of telling stories. Like the zombie apocalypse, I didn’t just write a paragraph: there has been a zombie apocalypse. It’s this, probably too long story, about this has happened, and it’s all dramatic, and that’s definitely a carryover from my writing life.
Rebecca: I imagine that those details though and that spike in the climax to a story, are all the things that get students really engaged and interested and and buy into the simulation and take it seriously. As opposed to something that’s a little more surface level and that it’s a little harder to imagine.
Wendy: Yeah, and I think sometimes one of the things my cozies tend to include is humor, at least I hope it’s humor. I tend to inject that into my hypotheticals a lot and I think that that helps. One of the simulations that I do in my legal systems class is a negotiation divorce case. Each side in the negotiation has information about their client. Some of its common knowledge, that both sides have, and the wife’s attorney has knowledge that only the wife has provided and the husband’s attorney has information that only the husband has provided, and they know that that information is going to come up during the negotiation in a series of PowerPoint slides. They don’t know when that’s going to happen, but the idea is that all the sudden the wife is going to blurt something out during the negotiation. They also don’t know that there’s information that the husband and wife have not told their own attorney and that’s going to come out in the course of the negotiation. So I had great fun crafting the simulation; like the things that the husband and wife have done, and the pieces of information that come out are delicious, and the students have so much fun finding out about these details. And yeah, I think that that makes the whole simulation so much more engaging, instead of just calculating the appropriate alimony. I think it’s a lot more fun.
Rebecca: Can you share a couple of tips from your creative writing self that might help other people come up with hypotheticals or examples that they could use in their classes?
Wendy: Yeah, I think one thing that you want to do is provide detail. If you’re going to create a hypothetical, create a character to go with the hypothetical, and then provide some detail about the character and the setting and those sorts of things. It really enriches the hypothetical. It doesn’t all have to be completely relevant. In fact, sometimes it’s better if it’s not all relevant because then it forces the student to look past the things that aren’t relevant to find the things that are. I think that’s probably the key is to include at least one person in your narrative and then provide some detail. Provide a setting, provide some description of your character, provide some element of detail about what’s happening, so that it’s not sterile or clinical. Because that’s, like you said, that’s really going to draw the student in, in a way that’s sort of, A happened, B happened, C happened, or not.
Rebecca: That’s great advice [LAUGHTER].

John: We always end with the question, what are you going to do next?
Wendy: So this year I’m actually not teaching, which it is really weird for me. Last year this time, I took a position as the director of the university’s core curriculum. So, this year I’m going to be continuing with my pre-law advising but otherwise I’m focused on the university’s core curriculum. I will be engaged in assessment, which is everybody’s favorite thing, but I’m also gonna be developing a lot of programs related to our cores. So some programs related to writing across the curriculum, some programs related to bringing back, I hope, some of our learning community endeavors, and possibly exploring some other options that would allow us to really enrich our university core curriculum for our students. When I talk to students now they talk about them as the basics or the things that they have to check off, and I want them to think of those classes as something more than that. So that’s what’s next for me.
Rebecca: Sounds like the right person might be in that job to help inspire students. [LAUGHTER] I think sometimes that’s a hard sell these days, helping students recognize the value of a liberal education, and get them excited about it and help them find connections.
Wendy: Yeah, I agree. I think I have a tough road ahead of me but I’m going to do my best.
Rebecca: I look forward to hearing more about it.
Wendy: Yeah, thank you. I’d love to come back sometime.

John: We’d love to have you back.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for spending time with us this afternoon and sharing all your great initiatives in your classes, I hope it’ll inspire a lot of our listeners.
Wendy: Thank you, I really enjoyed it.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.

45. Opening the STEM Pipeline

Preschool through high school experiences have a direct impact on the majors and disciplines that students want to study and engage with in college. Designing these experiences to invite underrepresented groups into the discipline early can help to inspire and motivate a new generation of professionals. In this episode, Dr. Stacy Klein-Gardner joins us to discuss how engineers are attempting to diversify the field.

Show Notes

Related publications:

  • Parry, EA, PS Lottero-Perdue, SS Klein-Gardner.  Engineering Professional Societies and Pre-university Engineering Education.  In M. deVries, L. Gumaelius, and I.-B Skogh (Eds.) Pre-university Engineering Education.  Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers. 2016.
  • Reimers, J. E., Farmer, C. L., & Klein-Gardner, S. S. (2015). An introduction to the standards for preparation and professional development for teachers of engineering. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 5(1), 5.
  • Klein-Gardner, S. S., Johnston, M. E., & Benson, L. (2012). Impact of RET teacher-developed curriculum units on classroom experiences for teachers and students. Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research (J-PEER), 2(2), 4.
  • Klein-Gardner, SS, ME Johnston, L Benson. Impact of the RET Teacher-Developed Curriculum on their teaching strategies and student motivation.  Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research. 2(2):21-35. 2012.
  • Faber, C., Hardin, E., Klein-Gardner, S., & Benson, L. (2014). Development of teachers as scientists in research experiences for teachers programs. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(7), 785-806.
  • Mckay, M., Klein-Gardner, S. S., Zook, K. A., Yoder, M., Moskal, B. M., Hacker, M., … & Houchens, B. C. (2011). Best Practices in K-12 and University Partnerships Panel Winners ASEE K-12 and Pre-College Engineering Division. In American Society for Engineering Education. American Society for Engineering Education.

Transcript

Rebecca: Preschool through high school experiences have a direct impact on the majors and disciplines that students want to study and engage with in college. Designing these experiences to invite underrepresented groups into the discipline early can help to inspire and motivate a new generation of professionals. In this episode, we explore how engineers are attempting to diversify the field.

[Music]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[Music]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Stacy Klein-Gardner, the founding director of the Center for STEM Education for Girls, and currently an Adoint Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, and a Senior Professional Development Provider with Engineering is Elementary, at the Museum of Science in Boston. She recently was appointed as a Fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education.
Welcome, Stacy.

Stacy: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

Rebecca: Welcome. Today our teas are…

Stacy: Well, I have to confess that I don’t care for tea. So, I had some lemonade with lunch and I’m good to go now. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: …and I’m having Lady Grey today.

John: We’ve invited you to join us because of your very extensive work in improving educational, P to 12 STEM and STEAM education pathways in many ways. First, though, could you talk a little bit about your own pathway to a career in engineering and engineering education?

Stacy: Sure. I’d be happy to. I grew up in the American South…actually went to junior high and high school in Oxford, Mississippi. I wasn’t always satisfied with my educational opportunities there, so I spent every summer possible at the Duke University talent identification program, or Duke TIP. Which is where I made some wonderful lifelong friends that have influenced my personal life and career since then. I did go to Duke University, where I double majored in biomedical and electrical engineering. I spent my summers working at Duke TIP, really falling in love with education and realizing my passion for that. I did a masters and a PhD in biomedical engineering from Drexel and Vanderbilt University, respectively. Then, I always thought I would retire to teach high school one day and realized that was stupid, and if that’s what I really wanted to do, I should go do it. So, in the same Fall, I defended my dissertation, I started teaching high school full time and fell in love with being in the classroom and working with teachers. Since then, I’ve been a high school teacher, full or part-time, for over 20 years now and I’ve been on the Vanderbilt University faculty since 1999…and I’ve done everything from being Associate Dean to research track professor to adjoint professor now…but really have enjoyed creating my own career in engineering education.

Rebecca: You mentioned being the Associate Dean for Outreach at Vanderbilt School of Engineering. Can you describe what your role was like? I think it’s a little unusual, perhaps, to have an outreach dean so I think it’d be interesting to hear about that.

Stacy: Yeah, the title was definitely unusual at the time. You do find more positions now, often maybe at the assistant level. But, I had a really diverse group of things I was in charge of. I worked with our Career Center on setting up appropriate opportunities for the undergraduate and graduate engineers coming out. I managed a big sponsored lecture we had every year. My favorite part was definitely doing K-12 outreach for the School of Engineering and reaching out to local communities and schools and students. Another favorite part, one that maybe surprised me a bit that I ended up really loving, was study abroad for engineers and finding ways to help engineers figure out a way to get abroad. ‘Cause the rumor used to be that engineers couldn’t study abroad, but there’s so many more types of programs that you can go to and so mine was, finding the right kind of programs and aligning those with the degree requirements of Engineers and then helping the engineers know how to plan ahead to actually travel on them.

Rebecca: So, can you talk a little bit more about your work in K-12 and also the study abroad stuff because in fields where we might not usually think about these as being good matches, like engineering, we’re always looking for new strategies to find those relationships and what have you. So, can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies or things that you developed?

Stacy: Sure. In study abroad, a lot of it was doing the logistics, but some of it was also helping engineers realize that in order to come up with good engineering solutions, you have to really understand the client for whom you’re working; the person who’s found the problem that you’re looking to solve. So you need to not just understand the straight up science, technology, engineering, and math, but you also need to understand the culture of the person, perhaps the language…What is it about their environment that makes different design constraints? So, I think, having engineers study abroad, in such an international world that we live in, is crucial now. I’ve really seen it grow in popularity which has been really fun, even though I’m not in charge of it anymore. We have a very high percentage of students at Vanderbilt who now study abroad as engineers. The second half of that question, or maybe I took him in out of order, was around K-12. You know, at the time I was doing a lot of funded work by the National Science Foundation. My favorite project was a Research Experiences for Teachers program (RET). This is a program where you bring, typically, high school faculty (although that’s broadened some since then) onto your university campus, for six weeks during the summer. Then I would place those teachers into different labs that I had picked very carefully and they would have an assigned project that they worked on full-time, for most of those six weeks…and then at the end of that time, I would work with them on designing curriculum that would be both standards-based (so they would be allowed to teach it in their classroom) as well as based in the research of their labs. So that they were bringing in real-world, current research that was going on, and often the people from that lab would come to the high school as well. Then we would publish those units through a wonderful national digital library called TeachEngineering.org. So that was definitely my favorite piece. I did some other work. I designed some high school level medical imaging curriculum units, and getting to where people have a better grasp of “what is ultrasound? or MRI? and how do those things work?” and actually motivate you to want to study high school physics or math or something like that.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting and a great way to get people involved in fields they might not know that much about.

Stacy: It’s definitely important, especially when you’re thinking about subjects that sometimes get a bad rap for being particularly challenging. It’s good to let people see why it is they’re learning those and to put that, when am I ever going to use that, upfront so they know exactly when and how they’re going to use that.

John: Has there been any follow up in terms of following students to see how many of them did go into careers in STEM fields?

Stacy: It’s a little hard to get some of that data because I often work at the teacher level and it’s a whole other level of IRB [LAUGHTER] to get at student level data.

John: That’s true.

Stacy: You know, I think it’s somewhat depressing in that the numbers for engineering percentage-wise aren’t increasing rapidly at all, even though a lot of people are putting a lot of time and effort into it. So, not always, I mean I definitely have a lot more confident teachers in the Middle Tennessee area who are integrating what is going on in engineering into their classrooms. Of course it helps now that the next generation science standards have engineering embedded into them and just recently in my state the Tennessee state science standards do as well.

John: In 2010 to 11, you established the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools K to 12 Engineering Pathways. What problems did this address? How has it worked and are you still working with the Nashville public schools?

Stacy: I think one of the biggest problems it was created to address is a misalignment between what different careers and companies are looking for in their high school graduates, as well as probably colleges too, with what the high schools were producing. There’s such an emphasis now on STEM, and problem solving, and computational thinking that really wasn’t being addressed by the schools and so, with Race to the Top money, Metro Nashville Public Schools set out to form this engineering pathway. I was heavily involved with it for that particular year. I did a lot of professional development. I did all of the professional development for the elementary school that was part of this K through 12 pathway, using the Engineering As Elementary curricula and integrating that. Then, at the high school level, I actually co-taught a ninth grade engineering course at this particular school. So, I was helping another teacher who was an engineer by training but didn’t have as much of pedagogy, and that sort of thing. Trying to help her build up her skills and left her rolling. That high school, Stratford High School, is still clicking along and doing really well with STEM education. It’s growing in reputation and now has a middle school that’s been integrated into the campus as well. So, I think it’s it’s been a success and will continue to be. One of the teachers with whom I worked with the most there is now the STEM director for the entire district. It’s been nice to watch her come from being one of my RET teachers to that position at Stratford, now to leading our entire district. My involvement with the district kind of waxes and wanes over the years. You know, I’ll get really involved for a while, and then I’ll be less involved for a while. I’m not working with Metro Nashville Public Schools right now although I’m always available if they call on me for anything in particular. I’ve actually just joined an advisory board for the Williamson County Public Schools which is just south of here. So, I like to keep my finger in the pie in something locally, but then I often try to work more on a national level.

Rebecca: I wanted to follow up a little bit on what you were talking about elementary education and engineering. For many of us, perhaps, when we went to elementary school, engineering wasn’t a part of that curriculum. So, for those of us that aren’t in engineering can you talk a little bit about what that even looks like?

Stacy: I’d be delighted to. If you think about what the characteristics of an engineer really are…it’s around someone who’s creative, and who thinks outside of the box, and brings in different kinds of solutions, and doesn’t have a lot of preconceived notions. If anything, that’s exactly what a preschool to elementary age child does. They haven’t sort of been beaten down by the system to think in a particular way. They still have that inherent creativity. So, the ideal time to introduce the field of engineering is at the preschool through elementary levels…so that they learn what the field is about, can identify what an engineer does, and have positive feelings towards it, and that we’re creating them to be more STEM literate citizens. There are multiple programs out there. The one with which I’m most familiar, and have even liked so much I’ve joined their staff, is with Engineering is Elementary. But, with any of them you find an authentic but sort of compacted version of the engineering design process. I might look at what a college student would use, or even a high school student might use. and we might call out 12 different phases of the engineering design process. But, in elementary school we have five fingers, so we have five steps to the engineering design process, [LAUGHTER], and in preschool we have three steps. So, just kind of compacting it a little bit…always providing an accurate view of the field. Then giving the kids age-appropriate challenges, things that might happen to an elementary aged child, and then asking them to problem-solve.

Rebecca: Can you give an example?

Stacy: Oh sure. There’s one of the EIE units that comes to mind, where the kids are out there playing a sport and their team needs to be cheered on. They find this little turtle nearby, and they win the game, and so they decide that they’re gonna keep the turtle, and they have to bring the turtle back for the next round of the playoffs. Somebody’s got to keep the turtle in a place where the turtle can not die, because that would not be good for school spirit at all. So, the whole question becomes around, what do you need to design in order to have a habitat that this turtle can live in? They draw upon the appropriate science in this particular unit…and a lot of its around membranes and creating a habitat that has enough water but not too much water. So they draw upon things they’re already learning through the science standards for elementary age children, but they’re putting them to use, and they’re working to save the turtle. Of course they do. It’s an exciting unit, it’s based on a story book that sets the stage for it so you get a lot of your reading and ELA minutes and that sort of thing in it, but then really does bring in science and math as they use the engineering design process.

Rebecca: Sounds really fun.

John: It does.

Stacy: It is a lot of fun [LAUGHTER].

Rebecca: I mean I have to admit I asked that question just because I have a toddler and I was just really curious [LAUGHTER].

Stacy: Talking about the new Wee Engineer, WEE, it’s very cute its for preschool kids.

Rebecca: Yes, yes. Yeah, I want to hear about it. [LAUGHTER]

Stacy: Oh, you really do want to hear about it?

Rebecca: No, I really do.

John: She does [LAUGHTER].

Stacy: The new Wee Engineer units that are coming out are meant for the preschool setting where the teacher introduces the problem…and it’s actually not a teacher, it’s a puppet…and so the puppet comes and introduces and says something like “I want to throw a party for my friends, and I want to make this noise maker really loud, and what do you think of my noisemaker?” …and of course it makes no noise. The puppet then says, “Can you help me?“ …and so the students go through an explore stage, where they explore the materials that are available. A lot of the work at this age focuses on helping students think about how a material is made and how that affects its function. So, they explore different materials and then they get to create their own noisemaker in small groups… and they test it… and then they do it again…and they improve (which is a big part of the engineering design process), until they all have really loud noise makers which they then share with each other and they of course give back to the puppet so the puppet can help throw a good party.

Rebecca: I like that it’s given back to the puppet so that the teachers don’t go crazy. [LAUGHTER]

Stacy: Yes, that would be a critical part of not driving the poor preschool teacher insane.

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun. Maybe I need to go back and teach preschool engineering instead of web design. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, so many students get turned off early on and reaching them early can be really effective in stimulating later interest.

Stacy: They do.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve done with STEM for girls and other underrepresented groups and how to get them interested and excited about STEM?

Stacy: Absolutely. My study of the literature shows that a lot of the things that motivate girls also motivates different underrepresented groups, particularly underrepresented minorities/ethnicities, and is often just generally in line with what is good pedagogy, if people actually stopped and thought about that in engineering. I’ll focus on the girls just because that’s been my wheelhouse for the last seven or eight years now. But, a lot of the research shows that girls are interested in helping people or the environment, or something like that. If we can help frame STEM as being something in which you can help people, we will inherently pull a lot more girls into that field. So, that’s kind of one basic way. Often, if I talk to a girl, she’ll say she wants to be a doctor or nurse or something like that in the medical field, because it’s so painfully obvious of how you help people. I try to turn her into thinking about engineering and what engineering really is. Majors like biomedical engineering and environmental engineering are often popular with women, because again, it’s obvious how you’re helping people or things. But if engineers are good, and there’s actually a whole book called Changing the Conversation published by the National Academy of Engineering, on how do we praise engineering appropriately, because it is all about solving human needs and want. If we can present the field more accurately and more fully that will help. I think also when I look at a lot of these things, I like to be very explicit about things like stereotype threat, or implicit bias, or imposter syndrome, and I try to be very overt about teaching students what these things are so that they can recognize it in themselves, know what it is. There’s something about identifying it. I even still have imposter syndrome at times, where I feel like somebody’s gonna figure me out…that I’m not actually that good at engineering education, despite having just been named a fellow of a prestigious Society, I feel like still somebody might figure that out. But I know what it is, I can call it out and say you’re just having a case of imposter syndrome and, somehow, it’s easier to move aside and move along if you know that it’s a real thing and you’re not the only person who has some of these…I call them issues, I’m not sure that’s the right word.

Rebecca: I agree with you. The ability to name it out and file it away allows you to move forward. When I finally learned what some of those things were as a designer, I too, was able to overcome some of those hurdles.

Stacy: I guess the other thing I’ll add, is Carol Dweck’s work with growth mindset, has really put a name to something…about having the ability to think of your brain as a muscle that you can flex and you can grow and it can get stronger. I think letting students know that that’s a thing. Or, at the school where I worked most recently, you were not allowed to say “I’m not good at whatever it was,” you were only allowed to say “I’m not good at _____ yet.” …and I really appreciated that word “yet” there, and the implication that you can and will be good with it, but it’s going to take some hard work, and things don’t always come easily…whether you’re gifted or not doesn’t really matter, you still have to work to accomplish anything good.

John: Besides stereotype threat, implicit bias, and imposter syndrome, what are some of the things that are being done in classes now that deter women and minorities from entering engineering and other STEM fields?

Stacy: The first thing that pops in my mind there is thinking about the examples that are used in a classroom. If there are examples that are supposed to illustrate some concept, yet they are completely unfamiliar to you because the situation in which you’re growing up provides you no context for experiencing that or understanding that, you’re immediately set at a disadvantage in the classroom, and that’s not going to encourage anyone to want to continue in that field. I think there’s also some cases of just downright bias. I had a professor in college that didn’t really seem to think women should be engineers, and well I do know that that is improved, that’s not gone. There are cases of bias that are still out there. I also think a lot about parents and the role of parents, and what they believe their children, their daughters especially, can do…and what’s appropriate for them. Because there are some cultures that have a lot of bias kind of built into them and so it’s about changing the way parents think. Because if a student…if her parents don’t think she should study engineering or science or something, she’s probably not gonna go study that in college. So, we need our parents to understand what these fields are about…educate them…and then get them as a part of our moving more and more diverse people into these STEM fields.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think a lot about is the relationship between design and engineering. As a visual designer, I know that I end up with a lot of students who seem to have a fear of math, or a belief that they just can’t do math, which the process of engineering in the process of visual design is, I don’t know, almost exactly the same. So it’s always interesting to me that they err on the side of the arts thinking that they’re somehow avoiding math, but then of course they discover that there is math there too. Are there things that we can do to help overcome this…I don’t know…. it’s like almost like a preemptive strike, that like “Oh, there’s math. so I obviously can’t participate in this.”

Stacy: I hope so. I feel like we’re making some strides in that area, because you’re right, it is often math that is the big hang-up on why people don’t stay in STEM. Some of that is from having one of your parents, especially the mom, saying “Oh, Honey, I wasn’t good at math, you don’t have to be either.” …which, of course, we would never in a million years say about reading or a lot of other areas. So, I’m not sure why we say that about math sometimes. I think we’ve got to figure out how to let the math come naturally; that, if it’s a part of some problem that you are actually interested in solving, you have empathy for your client, and you’re invested in it, the teachers picked a good problem…“Oh gosh, look we’re gonna have to do this math here” and suddenly it makes sense why you’re doing the math…and you have a reason to want to do it. I think those are critical things that we need to have in our math sequences from elementary on up, so that students don’t develop this hatred or fear of it that is somehow irrational. I also think that while there is math in engineering, not every engineer does mathematics all day long. So, there is some conceptual understandings you have to obtain in order to become an engineer, but it doesn’t mean you sit around and solve differential equations all day long, necessarily. Some can, but many don’t.

Rebecca: I think that’s an important thing. I think there’s a lot of fields where we just assume that people just do math all day and it’s just a misunderstanding or misconception about the field. I think it’s also, sometimes, we present some things in such an abstract way that it doesn’t seem relevant. So, I always like to share with my students the experience that I had around geometry. When I was learning geometry in high school, I could do geometry, I could answer the questions correctly, but I never really understood what the point was and like “I’m never gonna use this.” Then I started doing more programming stuff and made visual interfaces and then all of a sudden was like: “I understand why this is relevant” [LAUGHTER] and I had that breakthrough moment where I was using all kinds of different geometry equations and things to create visual interfaces, essentially.” So, I share that with students and that sometimes helps a little bit. I could put in the math, and then all of a sudden I saw a visual, and then it just clicked and made sense.

Stacy: …made sense…it had purpose to it.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Stacy: I think a lot of math traditionally has been taught like as this separate silo, never to be used…and sometimes I think it’s because the math teachers themselves don’t know when it’s used. They don’t know the science or whatever the other field is…or psychology…and there plenty of places with statistics that use math. But, I feel like we have to lead with those things. So, when I was a high school math teacher and I wanted to teach sinusoids, I would lead with “What’s the temperature gonna be on your graduation day?” …and so we would have to develop this whole model to predict what the temperature was going to be on their high school graduation day – which was not just in a few months, most of them are juniors taking the class. So, we would have to develop this whole mathematical model which involves sinusoids and all the different parameters of one, and then on the test I would give for that unit they had to answer that question for me. It was always fun on their actual graduation day to see how close we had come.
[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun and a great way to make things seem relevant.

Stacy: mm-hmm.

John: So, one thing that would help is if math instruction and science instruction was made more meaningful by using more meaningful examples, so that the math is motivated…so people can get past the fear, because they see that there’s a purpose to it it’s difficult to do that. But, you’re doing some of that with the Nashville schools. I hope we see that more nationwide.
Could you talk a little bit about your work with Engineering is Elementary in designing curriculum?

Stacy: Sure. I have been affiliated with the Engineering is Elementary program for about a decade now. I have followed their work…their research as it was designed and presented at the American Society for Engineering Education. I was super impressed along the way that they were actually doing real education research and they weren’t just developing some curriculum and going “Oh, look how many people use our curriculum.” They were actually looking to see if learning objectives were being met and things like that. So, I’ve had a lot of respect for them. About ten years ago, I affiliated myself with them and became one of their endorsed network providers, such that I could provide their workshops whenever I wanted to around the country, I always really loved and admired how they set up their professional development…how its implemented…that the PD itself is based in research. So, when I was looking for a new educational intellectual pursuit to take on in my career, I approached them and asked if I could come work for them, and to my delight they said “Yes.” So, I started working there part time in January and have enjoyed that. There are separate teams within EIE and I serve on the professional development team right now. So, I’m enjoying working with our extended network of partners, so the people I used to be one of, I now work with and help to take the best of what we’re doing in house in Boston and get that material and the best practices for engineering education out to all these people across the country who can help spread the word and get more kids into engineering. So, I’m really enjoying that piece. I’m gonna be developing some of my first, I’ll call it online PD, but it’ll have some hands-on components to it also, for the adult learners. I think that’s a fun new pursuit for me. In house at EIE, they’ve just created (as I was mentioning earlier) this new Wee Engineer program for preschool and pre-K and there’s also a new EIE for Kindergarten, which I’m thrilled to see, because those age groups desperately need some authentic well-designed, well-researched curriculum. That’s kind of been my role right now. We’ve got some middle school projects as well, but I’m really enjoying starting young and going all the way up through eighth grade and looking at how do you do that best.

Rebecca: As a college faculty member, I’m interested in how you got involved in more of the P-12 things. How might you encourage other faculty, no matter what their discipline is, to get involved at those earlier levels?

Stacy: Great question. I think it’s kind of fun to see, once it clicks to faculty members that what goes on in P-12 definitely affects what can go on at the university level. Some of it can even be slightly self-serving in that they want more students or more diverse students to enter into the university process. So, I think that’s part of it. I think that it’s fun to help a university faculty member see how they can take their passion and enthusiasm that they have for whatever their research field is and take that down to younger kids and distill it to the basics, but increase people’s understanding of their field overall. So, I like that piece of it. There’s the other motivating factor, if you’re gonna apply for like a National Science Foundation grant you have to have an education and outreach component. So, that there’s that external motivator as well to think about how could I be involved in this process. I also worry a lot about we have these new next generation science standards. which I think are quite good but they have a lot of engineering in them. So, who exactly do we think is going to help the K-12 teachers know how to do that, and do it authentically, if we ourselves are not out there helping them and teaching them.

Rebecca: What would you encourage a faculty to do as their first step to get involved in P-12
STACY. I’m trying to think of one single first step…probably, reach out to your kids’ local school and listen…ask the teachers and the administrators…but especially the teachers…ask them what they need. Because the teacher will know. He or she may not know how to go about getting it, but they will know what they need. Don’t go in and be like “I know everything” when in fact you really don’t know everything about what it’s like to be a K-12 teacher…but go in and ask how to be helpful. Listen to what they say and honor the fact that they have to be standards-based.

Rebecca: Sounds like really good advice, but at times, it’s just that little encouragement of what that step could be is helpful. So, thanks for that nugget.

Stacy: Yeah. I mean, go ask. People really want you to.

John: …and in many disciplines, I think, there are organizations that work with elementary and secondary schools. In economics, there’s the centers for economic education spread throughout the country, who do work with middle schools and high schools in providing some educational resources. I don’t know how common that is in other disciplines. Is there anything like that in art?

Rebecca: There is something more general for art, but not for design. Design stuff is kind of under the umbrella of art which, depending on what your position is, you might not think that they’re entirely related. They are, but they aren’t, you know. It’s kind of complicated. {LAUGHTER]

John: You’re working on a new advanced course in engineering for high school students. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Stacy: Yeah, this is a project that has been near and dear to my heart, and some of my wonderful colleagues, particularly from the University of Maryland (Dr. Leigh Abts, in particular). We have been trying to get an AP engineering course started for 14 years now, and when we started, really, the colleges weren’t ready for it. The schools of engineering were not interested in it. They weren’t interested in accepting credit for it. They didn’t really see the value of it. Thankfully, that has changed over time, which I’m really excited about. The College Board got interested in AP engineering and created a framework for the course. They had to put the brakes on that for a little while while they focused on the redesign of the SAT, but now they’re back to being interested in it. So, my team approached the National Science Foundation who said “Yes, we’re on board with this. This needs to happen.” So, we’re modeling our upcoming work off the very successful work of creating the new AP computer science principles course which has been a highly successful course for AP…and it’s also really successful in that a lot of women and underrepresented students are taking the course and taking the test, so that’s super exciting. So, we’re trying to draw some best practices from that and, knock on wood, I hope that the NSF will approve our final proposal to begin the work later this fall. The basic idea around it is we’re going to finish the framework…make sure it’s right…and we’re going to be developing a sample curricula and sample professional development for that. As you may know, with AP courses there isn’t any one set curricula that you’re expected to follow. You can do it however you see fit. You just have to make sure it fits the framework. So, we’ll be developing some sample ones and then we’ll be partnering with high schools. We’re hoping for about 70 high schools all over the country and a lot of diverse settings to train their teachers and have them work with our students and do engineering design at that level. We’re looking at having ultimately an assessment that is a bit like AP art studio actually in that we’re hoping for a portfolio process where you would submit engineering design work that you’ve done over the course of the semester or the year, and then that work would later be evaluated for possible engineering credit.

Rebecca: That sounds like an exciting advancement.

Stacy: I hope so. we’ve had over 110 Deans so far say that they’ll be interested in giving some sort of credit for it. I think it’ll be interesting to see how the universities handle it. I think some might give credit for their actual Intro to Engineering course while others might give it as more general science and engineering credit. I think that the universities now see it as a great way to get more STEM literacy in our population and I think they’ve started to see it as a great way to get more diverse students into their programs, because they will have done engineering at a younger age and done it in the more friendly confines of their local high school.

Rebecca: …and perhaps introduced populations who aren’t really familiar with the field at all to what the field is rather than expecting college students to just magically know what all of our disciplines are.

Stacy: Right, that’s true of a lot of disciplines, so it’s not just engineering.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly.

Stacy: There aren’t tons of schools that have economics in them but you’re probably not gonna major in it if you don’t know what it is.

John: Actually, I think most schools do now have economics. It’s part of the New York State curriculum and I think most states do have at least one semester economics course. But, it took many many years before that was widespread.

Stacy: We’re trying to catch up with you, John.

John: It’s not always taught by people who know much about economics, unfortunately…. [LAUGHTER] …which is one of the reasons why the Centers do so much work.

Stacy: I would mention that if someone is interested in engineering education, I know that there are now actual programs in engineering education. You can get graduate degrees in it, and I would also steer them towards the American Society for Engineering Education. It’s a wonderful Society. It is the place to go to for what the best pedagogy is in engineering education, and to find your people there. They have lots of divisions, some are specific to your field of engineering and then we have a wonderful pre-college division there as well. So, it can be a great resource if anybody who’s listening wants to jump in jump in and join it.

Rebecca: So, we generally wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next?

Stacy: What’s next? Well, I feel like I’ve hit some of the “what’s next” because I’m in this great transition period in my career, which I’m excited about. So, I’m hoping that what’s next is that personally I’m able to view engineering education from preschool all the way through 12th grade and then into college and look for “How does that pathway work?” Are there things that are missing? Are there things we should be doing differently? So, I’m excited about taking that long view across engineering education and I’m always looking for new collaborators and people who are as excited about the field as I am.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us. I hope that you’ve motivated a lot of others to think about their own disciplines plans from the elementary level all the way up through the university level. Sometimes, that longitudinal perspective can really help us have better perspective on what we’re teaching in higher ed.

Stacy: Definitely. Just to think about like “What matters? “What’s actually important?” It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of these little things you have to be sure you’ve mentioned to your students. Not really. Focus in on the big thing.

John: …and if you really want to do something about the gender imbalance in STEM fields you do have to reach out earlier because by the time you get to high school, people have already been sorted out. So, it’s really important to do that sort of work early.

Stacy: Very true. Most of the girls are getting sorted out late elementary to middle school, at the latest. So, you’re absolutely right there.

John: Well, thank you.

Stacy: Well, thanks for having me. This was fun. I appreciate you reaching out to me John, I was flattered.

John: Thank you, Stacy. We very much appreciate you joining us today.
[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.

44. Industry realistic experiences

Student motivation is enhanced when students see that the work they are doing is relevant to their future careers. In this episode, Dr. Bastian Tenbergen, an assistant professor of Computer Science at the State University of New York at Oswego, joins us to discuss how industry realistic projects may be used to enhance learning in software engineering classes.

Show Notes

  • Daun, M., Salmon, A., Tenbergen, B., Weyer, T., & Pohl, K. (2014, April). Industrial case studies in graduate requirements engineering courses: The impact on student motivation. In Software Engineering Education and Training (CSEE&T), 2014 IEEE 27th Conference on (pp. 3-12). IEEE.
  • Daun, M., Salmon, A., Weyer, T., Pohl, K., & Tenbergen, B. (2016, April). Project-based learning with examples from industry in university courses: an experience report from an undergraduate requirements engineering course. In Software Engineering Education and Training (CSEET), 2016 IEEE 29th International Conference on (pp. 184-193). IEEE.
  • Dijkstra, E. W. (1959). “A Note on Two Problems in Connection with Graphs.” Numerische Math. 1, 269-271.

Transcript

John: Student motivation is enhanced when students see that the work they’re doing in their classes is relevant to their future careers. In this episode we examine how industry realistic projects may be used to enhance learning in software engineering classes.
Thanks for joining us for “Tea for Teaching,” an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego [Music]

John: Today our guest is Dr. Bastian Tenbergen, an assistant professor of computer science at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome!

Bastian: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Bastian: Well, upon John’s recommendation, I’m having the mint herbal mix tea, which is excellent! I’m a peppermint tea drinker, so this is blowing my mind right now.

Rebecca: Excellent!

John: I’m having ginger tea.

Rebecca: I’m having Prince of Wales today.

Bastian: I like the ginger tea, that is my favorite tea.

John: It’s good.

Bastian: Ginger and fennel and peppermint, those are my three.

John: We invited you here to talk a bit about the projects that you have students do in your computer science classes. What classes do you generally teach?

Bastian: I’m teaching in the computer science department, but I’m mostly teaching software engineering courses. We actually have two separate majors: we have computer science majors (Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science) and we also have a software engineering Bachelor of Science program. People usually confuse software engineering and computer science or at the very least don’t really know what the differentiation is. In contrast to computer science where it’s really all about programming and all about finding optimal algorithms to solve problem x for person Y, software engineering is concerned with the process of development from A to Z. So from requirements all the way to programming which is a small part of it, all the way to Quality Assurance and also budgeting. Also, the business aspect of it, so it has a wider focus.

Rebecca: It’s a little more client facing?

Bastian: Very much client facing, yes. By trade I’m a requirements engineer you can say and a very smart person who very recently submitted his PhD dissertation (which I’m very proud of him that he did finally did that). He wants to find requirements engineering as a socio technical process that implements the vision of a system given the time and budget constraints that you have. They usually also call us the context of the system, the developmental context of a system. It’s the budget, the time, the resources you have and such things. Those are considerations during software engineering.

John: In what classes do you have students engage in projects?

Bastian: Well it is very hard to teach computer science without actually using projects. You can teach the skills but at some point the art of making software becomes more than the alignment of skills in a particular way. Legitimately almost all classes we teach have a very heavy focus on projects. I’m teaching a software and safety requirements engineering course which is project-based, at least a quarter to half the students grades depends on the project. I’m also teaching a software quality assurance class where at least a quarter, sometimes half of the grade depends on project performance. I’m also teaching occasionally capstone courses, where the capstone experience in the software engineering program really tries to simulate how an independent developer develops a spoke software for one individual client and one of my favorite things to teach is a class called “Software Design”. The term design implies software architecture but it’s not just that. For those software engineers out there listening, this particular course is called that for historic reasons, but it’s really a design process class. The entire class collaborates together on producing one substantial piece of software, which is usually on the first day of class. I demand like big evil Papa Smurf that this project could be marketable, so the explicit goal is we want to market it, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but that’s the goal. Then we differentiate the students into teams and have a database team, a GUI team, we have graduate students at our university that specifically focus on usability and human factors so we have those as a team, we have requirements teams, we have Quality Assurance teams. They have to learn not only how to work together, they also have to learn how to apply their skills, have to learn how to best make design decisions, how to communicate them and not only how to communicate them with like-minded peers that are also scientifically or engineering capable but also with a stakeholder. Software engineering in general is very focused on the people who are giving the money for a project. In my classes I really focus on the fact that students should be able to argue their rationales, not to other engineers and not to other technicians, but to their grandmother because if you can explain it to your grandma, you can explain it to the person who gives you money in the project; and that usually worked well.

John: How early in the term do students decide on the project?

Bastian: So, It depends. It depends on the course. In my requirements engineering and software quality assurance class where we also teach skills, we also teach requirements, solicitation, or you teach let’s say data flow based testing, which is a new technique for them to pick up. There, I usually pick the projects for them or if they have a particular good idea we’ll discuss it, but usually it’s in the first week or so that they finalize the project. In capstone classes and in the software design process class, I usually conceive the project ideas and then we make the necessary choices, let’s say the necessary preliminary choices in the first week. What I mean by necessary and preliminary choices it’s this; I basically say “I want a universal all-transfunctionater” and no one has any clue what that is and I say “great it’s your job to ask the stakeholder, who is also me, what I mean by that.” Then the requirements team would differentiate the people into teams and the people who self-select into requirements they say: “Ok, well Bastian, what did you mean by that?” …and I say “Well, I meant… really… whatever… a cow milking device.” So the project kind of takes shape. So, I force them to come up with the requirements and to get them out of me, so that, as an instructor I basically have a dual role… or actually triple role, sometimes quadruple role and I’m project manager for them. I’m also the stakeholder, I’m also the person who gives them advice and the instructor that says “dude you shouldn’t do this because X & Y & Z or whatever. Or, maybe here’s a great idea that someone else just had and maybe try this.” More often than not I’m also the conflict solver and a psychologist that lets them cry on the shoulder because at some point during the semester everyone is just frustrated. This is part of the experience I guess but that’s why I usually tell my students the trick is to be successful despite other humans and once that idea clicks, working together never becomes a problem ever again. So as you lose one conflict earlier in the semester and then it kind of dissolves and this is when you see the students go from students to professionals. It’s my favorite class to teach because you can see how the students go from “professor, how do you want this” to “well Bastian I know you said you want a cow milking device but see we don’t have any cows, so how about we build you this instead”. It’s important in these kinds of projects for them to be able to communicate what the stakeholder wanted versus what we can conceivably give to the stakeholder given the time and the budget and the people that we have on staff.

Rebecca: Or what this stakeholder may actually need and doesn’t realize that they need.

Bastian: That’s right! Two years ago, I co-taught to this class for the first time which was great because then we could literally play good-cop and bad-cop. One stakeholder and one instructor will always be against the ideas, which believe it or not wasn’t necessarily me, and the other one was always in favor and would always say “oh yes that’s fine, that’s fine, Keep going”. But you know even if you have someone who constantly approves of what you do you don’t know whether or not you’re actually making any good progress. So it may feel good to have your ego stroked and be told that yes everything is great but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re making useful progress. Really in the end the only way you learn is if you make mistakes. On the other hand of course being told everything is bad or everything is completely horrible and how dare you even propose this doesn’t help either. So the truth is somewhere in the middle and it’s for the students to find out what goes. That’s the tricky part about teaching this kind of class, is to guide the knowledge discovery process such that they find it but they can still be successful despite having to do all the work themselves really.

Rebecca: So you’re describing mostly the setup for your software design class right? Which is a big team right that has small teams on it, but you’re all working on the same project.

Bastian: Yes.

Rebecca: Are your other projects and your other classes also set up so that everyone’s working on the same project or individuals working on a project? How are the setup similar are different?

Bastian: You have teams of students I have a very much focused on that that students would at least together with one other person. And the reason is, four eyes see more than two eyes, that’s why. Plus I encourage them like, hey, you know if you talk to another person, if you vocalize your problems, it helps, it stimulates your thinking. So that’s why I do this for example my requirements class, I give the general theme of the project and then let the students do some of it on their own. For example, a little while ago when I taught this software and safety the requirements class first here in the US, I gave the students the opportunity to I said, “okay, we have these cyber physical Rovers or robots, never mind what cyber physical systems are but it’s a buzzword and they can do certain things something makes them special”. We discussed this in class and I said, “we have these robots, and I want you to do something cool with them.” “They each have individual functionalities, pick one for different sensors, different robots had different sensors, pick one and do something fun with it”. And they pitched the project ideas. For example, one of them said, “I want my robot to exit a maze.” Great idea do it. Another person said, “I want my robot to use the camera and use computer vision to recognize another robot and drive after him”. And it was a cool project. Another team of thing was three students actually said, “no we don’t like the robots we’d much rather do something else and here’s an idea”, and I said “okay”. Soon as the learning objectives that I have to find in my syllabus are roughly aligned, I’ll let them go. My general philosophy is if the student has a better idea than me and can argue it, ok. Because I want to learn something too, right? (laughter). So I let them do it and let him explore it if they have the idea right.

John: The students would have more ownership till when they come up with the idea.

Bastian: True. Usually I’m not sure if it’s me over the project or it’s just those cute little robots that we have, but usually students are quite enthusiastic about projects. For the coming semester believe it or not we bought programmable slot cars. Remember those slot cars that you used to race on the like little tracks, you a little controller in your hand you can push more and less gas and throttle. We bought programmable ones and we’re gonna be using that in a project. I’m super excited about this and can’t wait to play with that. I’m hoping students will be excited about this too. And if they’re not then fine they’re not expensive.(Laughter). Plus we have several other faculty in our department who are quite excited about these. I’m not going to tell you the name of the manufacturer but they have a very cool API, which is an application programming interface, which is really simple and open. I haven’t tried them out yet, so I’m hoping it that’s a needle platform to automotive software engineering projects which would be cool.

Rebecca: So, as your students are working in teams and you’re trying to make sure that they’re prepared for professional life, right? You’ve talked a little bit about thinking about clients and things like that. How do you make sure that the problem that they’re solving is realistic and it’s not pared down so much that it’s unrealistic? Sometimes when students self define a project, it’s in a context that wouldn’t generally exist when they are working on their own unless they’re at a startup.

Bastian: That is so true. I would argue that finding the project not necessarily the scope, but the project domain is probably one of the two hardest things about doing the project. In fact, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this and make some advertisement on my own behalf here, but colleagues of mine and I wrote two academic papers and we’ve just submitted the third one on project-based learning in industry-realistic case examples in software engineering to a fairly substantial fairly high ranking conference. The industry realistic examples, they usually reflect one or two aspects that you would commonly find in let’s say industrial development projects. For example, the problem of, let’s say sensor integration. If you have a little robot and you tell the robot to rotate 90 degrees, you can know whether or not that thing actually turned 90 degrees because the one motor if you have two wheels, assuming you have a two-wheeled robot one motor might be have different manufacturing tolerances and maybe a little bit stronger than the other one, so you may be turned 89 degrees, maybe you turn 94 degrees. So how do you fix that? Well you could put a little sensor on it that does that, but the only rotational sensors you have they are going to be inaccurate too. Especially if you have let’s say have the robot run on carpet rather than tile. All of a sudden the physical setting and that the robot is in has a great impact on the software that you’re developing, and that is an industry realistic problem. Let’s say you fly an autonomous aerial vehicle somewhere and try to detect wildfires, which we are currently experiencing a very hot summer with a lot of drought. So they do this, they use drones to detect wildfires. How do you know you’re actually currently flying through smoke as opposed to through humidity or through fog or through a regular cloud? You have to use sensors. It’s a realistic problem. So the domain flying an actual drone is hard, so we use a little robot which however has the same kind of problems. I was very fortunate that earlier in life, I was working with some industrial companies in research projects and so it’s relatively easy for me to figure out what could be a challenge that the software developer or software engineers is going to be facing. So in those two papers that are just described, we focused on how to apply industry realistic case examples and we figured out what kind of properties these have. For example, you want to be sure that the project that you give to your students doesn’t have a bunch of challenges, but just one is usually enough, just to focus on one little challenge. For example, get the little robot to rotate accurately, but you don’t tell them make a project that lets the robot rotate, because that’s boring. Instead you say, “hey, why don’t you write an overtaking algorithm for robots?” And usually you know full well that in order to make those robots actually overtake one another like cars on a highway, a lot of things have to fall into place. First for example, you have to figure out how to make this robot drive straight and that is already a project in an art of itself. So the other important criterion for these industry realistic projects is to have the project scalable. So toward the end of the semester I usually joke with my students and say, “well, if you can’t finish your project in time, it’s either because you didn’t scope the requirements right, or because you bit off more you can chew, development is harder than you initially thought, or maybe because we haven’t redefined success yet.” So if you can’t be successful redefine success. Which when I say that really what I mean is I tell them, listen, you can’t deliver what you wanted to deliver, fine, not a problem happens all the time in reality, instead tell me what we can expect. Given the time that’s left what can we expect. “Well, we can actually make the robot overtake”, they will say, “but we can make it drive straight with a certain level of accuracy.” That seems boring and uninteresting when I say it like this but it’s actually a remarkable feat. At the end of the semester, two kinds of students those that are happy to be done because this was horrible experience, the minority thankfully, or you have the people that say, “oh my god, had no idea how hard it actually is to interface hardware and software.”

Rebecca: Really a big lesson in scoping, it’s like how do you break a big project into small pieces.

Bastian: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Understand that small pieces have to be completed before you can put them together to make a big piece. It’s like modular design.

Bastian: Yeah, absolutely. Modular design is one of those keywords buzzwords almost from the 90s, but they were right. You divide and conquer is a recurring theme in computer science that works everywhere. If you want to sort numbers you divide and you conquer it’s the fastest way to do it and if you want to develop a software project you divide and you conquer. Your first build project one and project two. You can scope this whatever way you want. Very often actually I have students who halfway through the project realize the potential that the project has that they’re working on and say, “hey Bastion, I really would like to bring this project into this direction instead I know you said overtake algorithm, but let’s do a path finding algorithm instead.” Esker Dijkstra in the 1960s wrote basically the silver bullet of shortest path algorithms and, can I implement that and put it in the robot? And why not? Just last semester I had someone interested in that doing it. The third characteristic about these projects is don’t be a stickler too much for what the industry really experiences and let the student figure it out on their own. And the one hand you could simulate what companies develop software to particular degree. So you could say, oh we are all now going to fill out application slips or vacation slips or things like this right, but that this misleading from the art of developing software. On the other hand when you tell the student hey listen or when the student asks, “hey listen, I want to bring this in another direction because I find this really interesting,” usually what comes out is something really rewarding, In my experience at least. So the third concept is don’t overdo it students will by themselves, with enough enthusiasm, drive it into a direction that is going to blow your mind, theirs and yours.

Rebecca: So when students are working together in teams and they’re taking on kind of different roles. How do you help the students divide those rules but then also make sure that they’re learning all of the skills or techniques that you want them to learn.

Bastian: That’s hard it’s really really hard and I would say that there’s no silver bullet of how to do this. It is an unfortunate truth that the larger the project is the more people are working on the same project, the higher the chance that at least one person is simply left out and you can be the kind of person that says okay, let’s try to live this person up to make sure that they learn something, but to be entirely honest, in part, in my opinion it’s a component of the experience to make yourself available to your team. So what I do throughout the semester is encourage students to contribute any way they can and students miss understand sometimes from a grading perspective that contributing means being the natural-born leader. In my experience, every team no matter what has one or maybe two people who are really great at the technology and also really great with people and their form naturally adopt the role of the leader. Assigning a leader doesn’t really work all that often. You can say okay you’re a graduate student so you’ll have more management responsibilities and that usually works. But often there’s one non graduate student who’s also fulfilling this managerial role so part of the experience is to find any way you can possibly be helpful for your team this doesn’t necessarily have to be the leader role. You cannot be a leader and be a rather shy quiet person and still get an A in project based courses, the way I teach him. Simply because what does an A mean? An A means here an excellent outstanding student and when are you excellent outstanding student? Well, in these cases when you’re an excellent outstanding team member for your team. When are you doing that? Well, when you contribute stuff any way you can to your team such that your team can continue. I’ll give you an example, if you are the kind of person that never volunteers presentations in class, that never contacts me as the instructor with questions, that never has an management important role in the team but manages all the background communication, implements all the code, and does all the right things in the simply couldn’t contribute couldn’t do what they’re supposed to do if it wasn’t for your input; you’re an A student, regardless of whether or not you’re very outspoken and outgoing or not. On the other hand, if you are a student who talks a lot and who is volunteering a lot, and who is putting themselves in the limelight a lot, but at the end of the day your team can’t count on you because you didn’t show up for the team meeting or because you promised something but never delivered or because the stuff that you deliver is of poor quality and your team decides to drop it and not use your work. Then you’re clearly on the other end of the grading spectrum. So I have a rubric, a rubric system where I say oh can a student clearly is the backbone of the team any way possible a B student is delivering useful stuff in regular intervals and C student is well useful when being assigned work, right, and a D student is unfortunately not useful even when prompted and an e student is the kind of student where the team said listen we’ve asked you 15 times you haven’t done a darn thing we’re done with you.

John: We should know that as we go for some reason we use E’s instead of F’s.

Bastian: Oh that’s right. I’m sorry.

Rebecca: Its alphabetical.

John: It doesn’t make sense to any of us but it’s been done here for a long time.

Bastian: It’s true. So a student that is failing the course with an E or other universities with an F usually those students know that they are. Usually before they are even assigned a failing grade I’ve had numerous conversations with them not as the manager, not asked stakeholder, but as the Papa Smurf (laughter) who says listen, if you want to pass this class, and for software engineering students in our university this class is a core requirement, so they have to have a passing grade in this class to graduate. I say listen, right now you’re not. We’re also doing peer evaluations so some people could say well if you were the one that subjectively evaluates the students isn’t that unfair and the answer is yes, of course. So I’ve experimented with this, just evaluations by me, and I had some good experiences with it and also some very bad ones, unfortunately. So within disputes, and it happens occasionally. What I like to do is peer evaluations where students within the same team evaluate other team members on a scale of say 25 points and usually, and remarkably, these peer evaluations match my subjective opinion almost all the time, 100 %. Students when they evaluate others are usually little positively biased and they are reluctant to evaluate people really badly, but if you ignore that, the subjective evaluation students have of each other are matching my observations very well.

John: How often do they get feedback in terms of how well they’re doing?

Bastian: Every day, every day. We meet usually in this class, we are meeting three times a week or the university has allotted three meeting times a week. I like to schedule two meetings where I’m there and they are reporting to me in daily scrums, those of you who are software engineers,yes we’re doing AGILE methodology specifically scrum. We do daily scrum so it’s basically, you stand up when and you say this is what we have done from last time until today, this is what we’re currently working on, this is what we’ll do next, these are the roadblocks, these are possible problems, and these are questions that we have. Five minutes, everyone does it and usually takes the entire class period to figure out problems, to resolve roadblocks, and most of the time it’s minor things but gotta get done because it’s the planning for the rest. So, during that is when I provide feedback by saying hey have you done this yet or have you thought about that yet, or John Doe here, was supposed to deliver this and that, did they? On the other hand, I’ve very often we have experiences that students say well, see our friend Jane Doe here foresaw two weeks ago that this is going to be a problem, so she already did this and that in anticipation. That’s how you know you have a really great student at hand, right, when they can anticipate problems in the future but would usually only experienced engineers are able to do. So they get feedback every time. What I do however, is the third class meeting that we have, I usually reserve for project work. Because that is the one day in the academic schedule for all students in the class, and if you have 30 people in the class, that I know they have time. Especially at the beginning of the semester I often hear things like, oh we don’t have class on Friday. I’m like, no, no, no, no no, you have class. I might not be there and the reality is that of course I’m there, I’m just then the next room letting them duke it out, and when the shouting or the crying gets too loud, I walk in. Or they decide on things and they have a question and needed it answered right then right there, so they walk over to the other room, or wherever, I am and they ask me. Or I just sit quietly in the room and let the students plan the work on their own. So, the idea is that the third meeting of the week is usually when they get to make progress when they need other people to be present. We also usually coordinate using online chat functions, we’ve used Discord.

John: This is used in a lot of gaming.

Bastian: Yes yes I use them gaming a lot right? Plus all my students they’re all familiar with it because they’re usually all gamers. And we even have a little Steam community going because, you’re nerds like that. So they coordinate through Discord and sometimes they say, hey Bastian is a fine if we don’t meet in person because John and Jane are out of town because, whatever, wedding or sick or whatever, is it okay if we do this online? I say sure, I don’t care how you get it done, just get it done. That’s all I care about. I care about you make progress any way you can. Next semester I’m actually preparing for having this class for the first time in a sort of hybrid fashion. Hybrid in how a university means a portion of the course is online the other portion is a physical in class meetings and what I want to experiment with is, moving this course to an entirely online fashion. Basically simulate how offshore development works. Let’s say you have a team working in Atlanta, you have a team that works here in upstate New York, and you have another team in India or Poland or Germany, and they work together they have to coordinate somehow. So we’re gonna do this next semester. I’m excited, really excited for that.

John: Interesting. Will there be a synchronous component where you have everyone report?

John: Absolutely. So the reason why I said hybrid is because we’re gonna meet exactly twice in person. It’s going to be at the first class we’re going to actually physically meet. I tell them that from now on we’re not going to meet anymore. Instead, we’re going to meet online using an online meeting tool. The university has a couple of licenses that we’re friendly enough to allow me to use one. So we’re using this tool, we’re doing online meetings where everyone has to be present and has to do the same things we would otherwise do if we had physical, in-class meetings; the daily scrum, this is what I’ve been working on, this is what I’m gonna do next, this is what we as a team have been doing. So we still have the immediate feedback component, we can still plan ahead and we can still do all of this. The second time we meet will be at the end of the semester when we present the final project and when we show the final implementation to the stakeholder. Basically like a sales pitch. Of course that’s gonna be problematic because specially the usability folks, those part of the team who are going to be conducting actual usability tests with human subjects committee approval and everything, so we do it the actual way that a company does it, they of course have to meet. This is for next semester I’m actually thinking about having them fill out mock travel requests just to get them accustomed to this. So we’ll see how this work. I’m quite excited about this prospect. I looked at the class roster the other day and I think I have a really cool crew of really capable people and as things gonna be great.

Rebecca: What are some challenges that you’ve run across teaching project-based classes and some advice that maybe you could give to a faculty who’s newer to this methodology?

Bastian: I would still consider myself new to this. I’m actually junior faculty so I’m only, in quotation marks, an assistant professor at this university for just about three years. But our department usually have four as project involve classes taught by more senior faculty. One of the most significant challenges that have experienced this when you have disruptive students. Every once in a while you have a student who completely hates the idea of projects and frankly I was one of them when I was in grad school, I was I was one of them because at the end of grad school I was like if I hear the word project one more time I’m going to flip out. These days I have a different opinion of this. I understand that some people are just fed up with it and I understand. Especially when they have to work with other people that they don’t know that don’t have the same work ethic that they do, they get frustrated a lot. So a recurring problem is student frustration with other students. That’s why I joke with them and say well this class is not about skill acquisition, I don’t need you to know how to compile code, at this point I expect you know how to do this. I need you to learn how to be successful despite other people in your group. You need to be successful despite the fact that you’re running out of time. That kind of stuff. So it takes a little bit of convincing sometimes but usually you’ll find the trick is to find an amicable solution. Then if there’s conflict between people then talk to both sides and say listen, I’m not your enemy, I’m not here to point fingers, I’m not here to agree with you or disagree with you, I’m here to help you facilitate a compromise. That is sometimes challenging. It happens every single semester, but it’s challenging. My strategy usually is to listen to both sides and say okay and maybe you just used the word, the wrong words, maybe you use the wrong language, maybe there’s cultural differences, you have students from other countries and they might not have the same work ethic that you do they may work 24/7 it feels like and you will really appreciate your weekends off. That is fine that is a fine, thing to do we just need to be upfront about it we just say, listen Jane, I’m not gonna work Sunday nights because Sunday night’s is when I relax. Or hey, I’m sorry Wayne, tomorrow morning 8 o’clock is the only time we can meet, can you somehow make it happen? So it’s really about compromise and it’s the case-by-case thing but my strategy is listen to them all and if they can’t make a decision on their own, then I make one, and they just have to abide by it. Usually it’s not a problem.

John: Which is also a useful job skill because they’re going to be in these environments.

Bastian: Exactly. In fact, when I say we simulate the way a software company develops software, I’m not joking. We really do it. These conflicts that you have in a class like this are literally the same. Most students really appreciate the experience, they may hate going through it but they usually love it at the end. In fact two years ago, I had a graduate student who was a graduate student of human-computer interaction, of which our University has a master’s program, but her background I believe it was art. She came from an art background.

Rebecca: Probably a graphic design student.

Bastian: Um, I’m not certain about that, but probably. The strength of the HCI graduate program is that it has so many people from so many different backgrounds, which is a great asset, and you can draw from really greatly talented people. Unfortunately, the downside is well these people they may have taken exactly one computer science class ,namely introduction to programming, and they have never done anything software, ever, ever again. But this person she hated going through this class she hated every single second of it but now she is working for a rather renown company here in upstate New York and she says I’m really experiencing this every day of my life, and I’m so thankful we went through this. This is the best worst class you’ll ever take in your entire life. It’s not about making students suffer of course it is about making them experience something in a realistic fashion, and tone it down a little bit. I don’t want to be the evil boss, I don’t want to be the guy who okay’s everything, and the truth is somewhere in the middle and usually that kind of pans out. Another really challenging thing though is when you have the disruptive student. Not just someone who’s fed up with projects or fed up with people in the project but actually tries to sabotage it. Not too long ago I had a student who was let’s say, extremely convinced of their own opinion, and this person, they were very sure of their own abilities. They were very keen on arguing they would argue everything until you’re blue in the face. They would misinterpret people stopping to argue because they just fed up with it, with oh they just conceded, I won the argument. So I had this person actually say, what everyone is praising me for my great ideas. I said well, sure, but you’ve done these three components that you’ve developed for this project, and your team has used none of them. Your team is no longer inviting you to team meetings, on my recommendation, because whenever you were at a team meeting they would not get anything done. So what do you think, what do you think this is, this is not okay, this isn’t an okay behavior. So in the end we found a way to help this person become useful after all, for the team, but it was very very challenging. In this particular semester I would think that unfortunately half of my teaching load was probably just taking care of this one person. Later I found out from other faculty that they were difficult in other classes also, so it wasn’t really me or the class, it was just personal issue. Even though this person took a lot of my time, ordinarily this class is the easiest to teach because, I don’t need to prepare anything, I have no preparation some grading afterwards but no preparation. On the other hand, you also have to be ready to face anything. You walk in a classroom and you don’t know what fresh hell awaits you that morning in terms of conflicts, but as I said, it’s only experienced as conflict while you were in it, afterwards you’re laughing it off and everyone is usually happy that it happened this way. So that’s what I’m saying is like a rewarding class to teach, but it’s kind of tough.

Rebecca: I imagine you probably have busy office hours as well with project based learning.

Bastian: Oh yeah. So much so that my faculty website says, office hours by appointment only. In reality it means, if I’m in, I’ll probably have time for you. Because with classes like these problems emerge right then and there, and I don’t mean interpersonal problems I mean, oh snap, we really need to use this one server but the server just went down. What do we do now? Or, we’re using this Google API and Google did what Google loves to do, namely change their API, what do we do now? Or, not too long ago, we were developing Facebook integration and Facebook from one day to the next took away the ability to post across pages on Facebook. So the project was kind of dead in the water, what do you do now? And that’s the problem that emerges immediately and you have to fix it, the students can’t fix it. When the resources that they need vanish, they can’t help themselves, there’s no way they can recover on their own. So that’s when after a short brief moment of panic, where I panic myself, we have to fix it somehow.

Rebecca: And you become the magic wand. [laughter] That’s what my students think when they’re standing in line for project-based learning. It’s like they come in it’s like, please I can’t move forward.

John: Those are all realistic type problems that they will be facing.

Bastian: It happens all the time happens to companies all the time, if you’re in the reality of the situation is Facebook doesn’t just take this away neither does Google. Google as opposed to, for example Oracle, they don’t really change their Java API all that much and if they do they have support for the things that you use to use,it call it deprecated, Google just switches it off. But they don’t do it from one day to the next there is usually a period where they tell you, oh by the way in a year or so we’re gonna switch over this in that server. So technically as a student you could be prepared if you did enough research but realistically, they have to complete this project, and our semesters are 15 weeks long, they have to complete this in 15 weeks so you have to make some concessions. Then we’ll just redefine the scope we just focus on something else. For example, a little while ago Google took away the opportunity of making your own google map, and when I say that is not a google map of let’s say, I don’t know, Oswego New York. Using the Google map engine, make a map of your bedroom, that’s what I meant. So they took away that opportunity or they took away certain functionalities that we wanted in one of our robot projects. I said well, they can’t do that so what I’m gonna do instead? One student suggested, hey, can we use the Unity engine to model a room that robot moves in? I said sure. Unity is a game engine to make video games. I said okay sure, you can do that, but I don’t know unity very well. Actually, I don’t know it at all. So, we have people here on campus who do know this, but I’m having a feeling to become good enough at unity to make this project work we’ll take another semester of itself. So why don’t you do it the easy way? Take a picture of the room that you want to use, and then “restorize” it and just fake it till you make it. So in the end the project was successful despite Google’s API being on.

John: What are some examples of specific topics that are used in design class?

Bastian: So in the software design process class, the first time I taught it here in Oswego, we did a family tree website, like those find your ancestry websites that you can find on the internet. Mainly because my Dad, he now passed away, but my dad was really into that and he wanted a website just to show our own family tree. We did that which was marginally successful. It was a decent family tree some of the features that we initially shot for were not delivered but, you know, we can safely say it was a family tree. A year after that we did an automated clicker system and I know that John here, is very much a proponent of using clickers and classrooms. If you have seen that millionaire quiz show on TV, they have little devices, and you can basically poll the audience in the classroom or in a question or multiple choice type answers. So we implemented it, and I’m of the firm opinion that no student should have to pay money or anything because tuition is already high enough, so we implemented a free one. That was using students own cell phones and wireless network they could poll.

John: You had some classes actually use it as clients for protocall.

Bastian: That’s right. So I used it in my own introduction to programming class. I used that semester, I used them as guinea pigs. They were excited beyond belief. They kind of liked it. It was very buggy of course mainly because doing it over wireless is really bad protocol. Plus if you have a wireless network in a large lecture hall it is an even worse protocol. So there were some problems with it that we couldn’t just solve, that were just unsolvable to us. But in principle, in a small enough audience, let’s say inside of 20 students, it would work great. Last semester was particularly exciting due to a scheduling error by, I’m not gonna say whom, but say by certain administrative forces, I unfortunately and accidentally had twice as many students in this class as I was supposed to. I like to teach this class with like between 15 and let’s say 25. Because we have a lot of students sometimes we have to unfortunately have 30 students in this class. Last semester I had 50, so yeah.

Rebecca: Oops.

Bastian: That was awful. But I decided after I talked to our department head, Doug Lea, and he says well, what you’re gonna do, pick up people and kick them out? We decided that this is a really evil thing to do to students so we just bit in the sour apple and said okay fine, let’s do a red team blue team approach. Where we had the same project and we split the class in half saying you’re team blue, you’re choosing a different design solution than team red. They both implemented a Scrabble clone. Those of you have played Scrabble board game, and we can use words and play words, and the idea is that people would walk by a kiosk system, which is actually running right now and the entrance of our science building here, is a computer in a display case. It’s running a cloned version of Scrabble. People can walk by with their cell phones connect to a little wireless that is emitted there and then they get a hand dealt on their cell phone, then they can play words. Of course they’d have the usual problems like, the first person that walks by plays an unspeakable word, so we made it Oswego themed and say if you play certain words you would get bonuses and such things. I would just mentioned in the coming semester I’m going to teach this class for the first time mainly online and I’m thinking about doing a Productivity type software. Something like it connects to your email account and looks for what your emails are actually about; how much time do you spend in your emails, how much time do you waste? For me, as faculty I always feel like I’m doing 5 % teaching, 3 % research, and 97 million % of miscellaneous administrative stuff, so mostly probably emails.

Rebecca: Mostly email. [laughter]

Bastian: I want to know if that’s true. I want to see what do my email say I am communicating about the most? On the one hand you have to connect to Google’s IMAP account and download emails and then you’d have to some natural language processing to parts of speech in the email and so on. Of course there gonna be privacy issues with this. These days everyone is really concerned about privacy, as they should, so we’re gonna have a little team that is gonna be specifically concerned with making sure that we abide by ISO 27000 privacy regulations. Unless the students have a better idea of course. [laughter]

John: So our last question is, what are you going to do next?

Bastian: I’m really excited. I had a student, I was successful in obtaining funding for a student project over the summer, and this student built an indoor GPS navigation system for robots. Now when I say that I mean mainly the API. So from this grant money we bought a little ultrasonic location beacons, you could say, which can be distributed around the room and the robot gets another location beacon slapped on top of itself, and then the robot knows in relationship to all the other beacons, where it is. Using this little system he implemented a GPS type API that allows us to say, robot go exactly there, and the robot will drive up to two centimeters precise to that position. The robot has obstacle avoidance, it has pathfinding capabilities, and all that stuff. So one of the things that I want to do next is have a fleet of those robots, we have several of those robots, but only one of them is location aware right now. When I put location awareness on several other robots and then simulate let’s say exoplanet exploration, using those little things. Let’s say you have three or four or five or 20 of those robots roaming around in a large room and one of them finds an obstacle and says, hey guys, here’s an obstacle don’t run into. It tells all the other robots where that obstacle is and then the next time when the next robot comes around, to a similar location, and says oh here’s an obstacle, here’s the question; is it the same obstacle? Because if it is, then we don’t have to put two obstacles on the conceptual map, we have to do just one. So it’s something I want to do it also ties into into my research. Like one of the things that I’m really, really focusing on is to make sure that the students just don’t do boring little projects. Every student in computer science has implemented a library system or an ATM, you know boring, been done before. I’ve worked, as I said earlier, in cyber-physical systems and safety-critical requirements and such things, so I use those ideas in my classes and I want them to solve tiny little projects therein. I just mentioned earlier, we bought these programmable slot cars. What I want to do next is do obstacle avoidance and automatic cruise controls with those slot cars and just automotive type software engineering projects. That’s what’s happening. I’m really excited about that too.

Rebecca: Great. Thanks for joining us today.

Bastian: Thank you for having me, I’ve really enjoyed being here.

John: You’re doing some really interesting things there.

Bastian: I’m not doing any of them. [laughter] The students are doing them. I’m just there for the ride, really. [Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast please subscribe and leave review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes transcripts and other materials on Teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. [Music]

32. The Three Little Pigs

What do the three little pigs, the big bad wolf, and dragons have to do with web design? More than you would think. Rebecca Mushtare discusses how a trip through fairy tales may open up the opportunity to develop empathy skills and conversations about race, disability and identity.

Allison Rank joins us again this week, this time as a guest host.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: What do the three little pigs, the big bad wolf, and dragons have to do with web design? More than you would think. In this episode, we’ll explore how a trip through fairy tales opens up the opportunity to develop empathy skills in conversations about race, disability, and identity.

[Music]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer. Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[Music]

John: Allison Rank, a frequent guest on this podcast, joins us today as guest host. Our guest today is Rebecca Mushtare who, until this episode, had been the co-host of this podcast.

Allison: Nobody panic. She’ll be back in this chair next week.

John: Today our teas are:

Allison: English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: What?!?

Allison: …under duress. I’m highly under caffeinated.

Rebecca: I’m drinking my normal English afternoon tea.

John: …and I’m drinking pineapple ginger green tea.
We invited you here today… because you’re always here… but we’re asking you…

Rebecca: …it’s a matter of convenience….

[LAUGHTER]

John: A year ago your daughter was born… now the three little pigs have invaded your class. Could you tell us a little bit about how the three little pigs made their way into your web design class?

Rebecca: I’ve been looking for ways to help students develop more empathy for their audiences, and it’s been a struggle. Students (or anybody who’s new to anything) will immediately try to make things for themselves, because it’s the audience they know best. So, it’s the easiest way. If you’re working on technical things or other concepts you don’t have to worry about audience too, because you have that part figured out. But, I’ve been really wanting to challenge students to dive into audience and also deal with accessibility issues which doesn’t come intuitively to them. So, the three little pigs actually offers a really great opportunity to have different audience members to think about (and audience members that don’t really exist); it becomes a safe zone. In this scenario, I’m using three titles as ethnographies for the students to read to get to know their audience better. I spent some time reading about ten different versions of the “three little pigs” and I’ve identified the best three. They are: The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by John Scieszka and Lane Smith, and The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, and There’s a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales Retold by Z.B. Alley and R.W. Alley.
They read those books and then we come into class and I ask them to help me understand who all the characters are, what’s important to them, and some of their characteristics or qualities that we need to think about in terms of design… and then (from the perspective of the characters) what’s going on in the community that they live in… and the frame that I’m giving my students is that they’re in this community called Dragon Town. Dragon Town has a mayor named Mayor Melanie McDonald, and she’s human, but there are talking animals and dragons and other creatures that live in this community together and there’s a clear creature divide going on. So, the humans seem to value themselves more than the other critters in town. The poor pigs, they’ve got houses that are falling down. They don’t even up stand the Wolf’s breath. So, we’ve got some issues going on here.
The students read the stories, came to class, brainstormed about these characters, and helped identify some really big issues that were happening in Dragon Town… and then my challenge to them was, in teams of three or four, to identify one of those 10 that we identified as a class…choose one that they were gonna use a web design to help raise awareness of or to start to tackle. Obviously they’re not gonna solve these big problems, but they could make a dent into it.

John: The purpose then is to have students look at a problem from another perspective, from the perspective of the intended audience of the webpage, rather than using their own biases.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly, and it’s something that they really need to practice… and so, yeah, this is a good opportunity to do that. They’re characters that their familiar with, but the books actually challenged a lot of their initial remembrances of some of the stories. So, it’s a nice way to get them to revisit that in a different way.

Allison: How was this different than how you’ve tried to approach the same topic in earlier iterations of the class?

Rebecca: In a previous episode, I think I talked about my simulated client project where I had these big company scenarios with the audience members being Oswego (the community that we live in) and they worked okay… but the students had trouble aligning themselves with older adults or middle-aged individuals who they just don’t seem to find relevant to themselves and even though these are individuals that are readily available in our community that you could interview and get to know, it was a struggle. We did a project in the fall, “The Voices of Oswego Veterans” project that we had a guest (Stephanie Pritchard) on who talked about that project… and we did a web project with that as well… and that was another way to deal with the audience. This time the audience was members of the Oswego community (the SUNY Oswego community), so they had a little bit easier access to that community… but the community that they were representing was different from themselves. These were students, so the population that they were addressing or talking about was student veterans, which was an identity that nobody in the class happened to identify with. That got us closest to solving the problem… but it wasn’t quite where I wanted them to be yet. What’s nice about this is that you don’t have to worry about offending anybody, because they’re not real.

Allison: I can imagine how the fictional characters are really helpful in terms of giving students a lot of space to play and a lot of leverage, but I have to imagine that there are some real challenges associated with giving them that amount of space as well. I guess I sort of have a gut reaction that thinks that they will make up things that cause problems in and of themselves. They’ve got enough rope to get in some dangerous positions. What are some of the challenges that you faced?

Rebecca: That’s a really good question. What I found was, they were willing to talk about things that they were never willing to talk about before. That, first of all, was a good space to be in. That was things like: “oh, there’s species profiling going on…,” “oh, there’s accessibility issues because pigs have hooves so they can’t type and tap on the computer screen…” …the accessibility issues that just bubble up. There was also the concern that critters were eating other neighbors, so we needed to start a campaign to be vegetarian, for example. So, there’s a lot of different things that came up…. a lot of social issues… another one was stranger danger… and then they did these presentations to the mayor, and it was important because we brought someone from outside in and I think that helped prevent some of the issues that you were identifying could bubble up as being a problem, but there was someone that wasn’t me who was the audience but I didn’t tell him who it was gonna be (it was just a grad student I bribed) who came in and just sat and played the part and asked questions and what have you…. and they were taking notes and then we went away and had a meeting and I came back with notes to the students about what the client was concerned about. So, that helped resolve some issues. But, you know, in the presentations there were some crazy things that happened… like the one on stranger danger, for example, the students had still indicated that the stranger, the bad character, was the wolf and the whole point was that all of the animals, and all of the creatures, and all of the humans, also have children and they all need to be concerned about strangers. That we shouldn’t associate one population as the bad actor. We ended up having to have a conversation about that. You can’t perpetuate these stereotypes, but what happened was we could have that conversation safely.

Allison: The familiarity played in the same way that a stereotype would traditionally function in class, but in a much safer space to have the conversation that resolves it.

Rebecca: Exactly. We were having crazy conversations about racial bias, and all these sorts of things, but under this guise of “it’s about the species” and the species problem that’s going on. And now all of a sudden it became safe. When that one group was having issues getting their head around it, I said to them: “You realize that this is the exact same thing as racial bias, right?” and they just looked at me with deer-in-the-headlights look. The next time they came back, the whole project was fixed.

Allison: That was actually gonna be my next question. At what point did you pull out from playing in the sort of allegorical space to say: “Hey, here’s what we actually just did” or did you let the experience and the skill building stand on its own?

Rebecca: I let things unfold organically, and I prodded and probed as necessary. I didn’t want any projects to perpetuate stereotypes or to perpetuate lack of accessibility… those two key issues. I probed and invaded their team time a lot with those particular things to push them on that, but you know they’re not perfect. But, I think they did a lot more growing in that area than they would have otherwise. What I think is missing, that I want to do next time is allow for more of that reflection at the end, so that they could apply it to some other projects. What I’m thinking about doing is have them present the work as if they were in an interview, and so how would you explain this project and what you learned from this project to a potential employer who has no idea what Dragon Town is, so that it becomes something that’s valid and useful… and I think that’s going to take some effort on their part to make that leap. But I think it’s actually a really good project for them to talk about in an interview and most employers would see the value in that.
I already have them do portfolio documentation. I already have them thinking about that, but I need to coach them through that process a little bit more…. and maybe actually make them present that.

John: Yeah, I could see an employer looking at a webpage making a case on avoiding inter-species consumption and being perhaps a little bit puzzled….

Rebecca: The tagline was “don’t eat your neighbor.”

John: Yes.

Rebecca:… which I thought was right on.

Allison: Yeah.

Rebecca: Well, and that group actually was interesting too because they wanted to do something that was: “Don’t eat your neighbor.” They wanted to be vegetarian but I was like, “Well, dragons have a big appetite. What are you gonna do for them?” So they came up with this tree salad or whatever that has just bigger things. They had to adapt the recipes and things like don’t forget there’s small kids. You got to think about these different populations, and they adjusted their content accordingly, to rise to that occasion. I also found this really great article about whether or not pigs are colorblind that I used as a doorway into thinking about accessibility issues. Apparently, I learned, pigs don’t perceive color the same way that humans do. They can’t perceive as many colors, so we have to really be concerned about the spectrum of colors and the kind of contrast that colors have… so that they would be accessible to pigs,,, but that led into conversations about maybe the pigs have to use voice activation because their hooves won’t let them type on their devices… and then we also had to talk about a mobile device for a dragon is pretty large…. so we had certainly some fun playful conversations, but they were really meaningful. We started talking about those issues pretty deeply in a way that I’ve never had in my class before.

John: Were the students more open to addressing these issues when it was in this safe zone or this safe space?

Rebecca: Yeah, even when I called that one group out on being stereotypical and perpetuating bias, they just received… and were like: “Oh, okay” and then you try it again… “is this better?” “My god, could you push it a little bit more?” and gave them some ideas about how they could push it… and our first solution wasn’t great after that…. It was to put in a separate monster that didn’t exist in this world as being the stranger, and then I identified that like when someone the other, we shouldn’t just assume that they’re the bad person or the bad creature. We had to be careful. I tried to call them out on whether or not we were using the word person, because it didn’t apply to dragons. So, it was funny [in] their presentations they were really conscious about things like that and trying to be inclusive in their language. So, yeah we ended up trying to tackle some of those things, and I was pretty impressed with how far they got… but it took some pushing. That one group took four or five tries before they had something that was gonna work.

John: How did students respond when you first gave them the assignment?

Rebecca: Well, I should probably provide a little setup in that my class includes design students, marketing students, and graduate students in HCI. So, it’s a fairly diverse population in and of itself in terms of disciplinary background. So there’s that. There are a number of people in the class who may not be traditionally artsy or creative, so it’s a little risky, right? I think I’m also known for being very serious. Which if you know me personally, that might not be true, but in the classroom students perceive me as being very serious… and the semester just was not going great, to be honest. It’s like something’s got to give, the students were struggling with a lot of the technical things, and so I basically threw the syllabus out or revised it significantly. stopped and did just technical exercises so students get comfortable with some of the things that they were really struggling with… and then one day I just showed up and said this is what we’re doing… and they had a ton of fun…. and were shocked… they’re just like “Is she serious? She lost it?” There was definitely those looks, but then there was a couple of key students who just jumped in and ran with it… and I think that really helped. So, I’m hoping that that will happen again. I think if everyone in the class is a little too serious, I don’t know that it would work.

Allison: Would you plan on sticking with, in the future, the three little pigs as sort of the through line story or it sounds like the story with the five different ways that the wolf is at your door? Does that give you some entree into some other storytelling avenues?

Rebecca: There is some entree into some other avenues and I maybe need to read some more fairy tales to be up on that, but the reason why I stuck with the Three Little Pigs is actually the wolf is the character that carries through all of them. So, that the five stories that are connected are all based on the wolf and different stories. So there’s Little Red Riding Hood, the Boy who Called Wolf, those are some of the stories in that other one. So, maybe there’d be some versions? I also happen to know that there was like the version of the Three Little Pigs told from the wolf’s point of view, so I really like that because it’s in direct conflict with the Three Little Pigs version of the story. I liked that the ethnographies that they were collecting were realistic in that they conflicted with one another, that they had to deal with the fact that there was conflicting information, and that they had to resolve that or deal with the fact that a wolf’s perspective was different than the pigs perspective of what the wolves perspective was… and I think that was a healthy messiness about it that worked pretty well… and the particular version of the Three Little Pigs that I used pigs escaped getting eaten by the wolf because they jump out of the storybook. So, there’s some plot twists in there that the students wouldn’t necessarily expect. It’s not a traditional version of the story… plus, they all have really great illustrations and they’re beautifully designed.

Allison: Are there other classes where you’d be interested in trying the same type of fictional ethnography technique?

Rebecca: I think it could work in some other scenarios, but I like this because it’s in my intro class. It’s a nice doorway in. What I’m really interested in seeing is, when I have a couple of these students in the advanced class next time, if that impacts their ability to do some actual real audience research and use that research in context. I think I want to monitor that first before doing some of this other work. I like it in particular because it’s a beginning class even though it’s at the 300 level.

John: It sounds like a really fun project, and there’s nothing really wrong with making learning fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, I had a good time and we had some moments where you had to really practice the deadpan look, you know, be really serious about what it is that we’re doing… and that part was really fun.

Allison: …and that seems like an amazing turnaround on a class where you have to scrap the syllabus halfway through a semester.

Rebecca: Yeah, it was amazing… the community that was formed around the project… and the way that they were exchanging with one another and coming together was incredible, and I was so thankful.

[LAUGHTER]
There’s nothing worse than an off semester and you just want out. I think everybody wanted out and so I just said “We’re out. We’re gonna try something new” and it worked, so that was good.

John: I guess the next question is: “what are you going to do next?”

Rebecca: That’s a good question… I think that with this project I’m hoping to expand it a little bit… so I’m currently thinking through “are there things that I can eliminate that I was doing before that I could embed in this project or I just allow them to have the time and space to fully build things out?” They have really good ideas and pretty good plans and the execution is almost there and I’d like to be able to have them have that time for the “almost there” to be “there” and then also to do that reflection piece that I kind of half-assed.

John: Okay, well thank you for joining us and I guess we’ll see you again on our next episode… and back as a host.

Rebecca: I mean, that is, if you’ll have me back.

[LAUGHTER]

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

[Music]

25. Service learning

Applied learning at the graduate level generally takes the form of traditional research projects, but other models can be successful. Linley Melhem, the Director of the International Teaching Assistant Program at Texas Tech University, joins us to discuss how service learning can challenge graduate students academically while building the capacity of an organization or department to take on a project or tackle a problem. The particular project discussed in this episode involves small teams of graduate students working with faculty and instructional designers to assist language faculty in transitioning existing face-to-face courses to a hybrid format.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Applied learning at the graduate level generally takes the form of traditional research projects, but other models can be successful. In this episode, we’ll explore how service learning can challenge graduate students academically while building the capacity of an organization or department to take on a project or tackle a problem.

Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Today our guest is Linley Melhem, the Director of the International Teaching Assistant Program at Texas Tech University. Her background is in applied linguistics and teaching English as a second language. Welcome, Linley.

Linley: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Today, our teas are…

Linley: I am drinking a beverage that starts with “T,” but it’s Turkish coffee.

Rebecca: Alright.

John: Okay.

Rebecca: I like how you answered that. I’m with you.

John: That works.

Linley: I know, I know it’s important. I know it’s been an issue on your podcast in the past so I tried to meet you halfway.

Rebecca: We appreciate it.

John: So… your tea, Rebecca.

Rebecca: My tea today is Paris tea.

John: My tea is pomegranate green tea.

Rebecca: Although the Turkish coffee does sound good.

Linley: Well, it’s delicious.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the Masters level applied linguistics course that you co-teach?

Linley: Yes, this semester at Texas Tech, we are offering a course called “Technology in Teaching Second Languages.” We have a group of about 15 masters-level applied linguistics students that are taking this course, and the applied linguistics program focuses on developing pedagogical skills for teaching a second or a foreign language. And this course specifically is looking at how we can integrate technology into that process. The course has been offered for some time, but this is the first semester that we’ve offered it as a service-learning course, and the course has always had some type of applied component and probably would have satisfied the service-learning requirements even beforehand, but we’ve just officially transitioned it into that space. And basically what we have going on in the course is these graduate students working in teams, and each of them have been assigned to a faculty member in our department who teaches a lower-level foreign language course… and they are helping develop some online tools and materials with those faculty members to help them transition those lower-level foreign language courses into a hybrid model. As our graduate students are learning about how to use computer assisted language learning, they’re directly applying that to projects with faculty in our department.

John: Were the faculty originally teaching face-to-face classes or online classes? …the classes that are being converted to the hybrid format.

Linley: Yes, those classes have traditionally been fully face-to-face and in the next year or so, we’re looking at moving them to a hybrid model. Most of those classes are five-hour courses, meeting daily five days a week and we’re looking at transitioning to three hours face-to-face a week, and then two hours online.

John: What prompted the change to a hybrid format?

Linley: Well, I think, like many institutions, the administration is the first to see: “Hey, we think there may be some benefit here not only to making these courses more flexible for students but also there are some other administrative advantages just logistically to that model.” These courses can be really effective and students often have a very positive experience with them. So, in this case, the administration is encouraging all of these basic level language courses to be moved to that format.

John: There was a major study not too long ago that indicated that hybrid classes outperformed both face-to-face and online classes. We can include a link to that in the show notes.

Linley: I’m honestly new to this as well. I’m just learning more and more about the benefits of these types of courses and some of the amazing advantages that they offer especially in the language learning environment and I think that lots of language teachers specifically are resistant to this type of of learning because they feel that while all learning… I think for many teachers… feel deeply relational… language learning especially feels very relational… that you’re creating a culture in your classroom that you’re oftentimes your students’ only connection to the sociolinguistic world that you’re introducing them to… and so there’s a lot of hesitation to remove any of that face-to-face time… and there’s an amazing body of literature that shows that there’s a lot we can do that’s highly effective in an online platform.

John: What are some of the changes that are being implemented in the hybrid format?

Linley: It will look a little bit different for every language in our case, because it depends a little bit on the text that different languages are using. So for instance, in the Spanish classroom, where they have already been using hybrid courses for some time at our institution, there is a wealth of options in terms of materials that publishers make available to instructors, whereas in some other languages like in Arabic, there are not quite so many materials available. So exactly what those changes look like will be slightly different for each language and of course, there’s some choice there for each instructor about exactly what they want to do. But we’re looking at making sure that our instructors are comfortable implementing a flipped model for these hybrid courses so that students are coming into class having already reviewed material that they can use in communicative activities in that face-to-face environment. And I think that’s what’s really exciting about a second language classroom or a foreign language classroom…. that we are always looking to increase the interactivity between students, so when we have the majority of rote-learning that is necessary for vocabulary building and things like that… when that’s taking place outside of the classroom, we can preserve a culture or a feel in the classroom that’s highly interactive from the first minute to the last, every time students show up in that face-to-face environment.

John: What type of assistance are your students providing to those instructors?

Linley: Some of the content in the course that they’re taking is introducing them to specific technology mediums that may be useful for language teaching and language learning. And then they are also working directly with the instructional designers that are available to all faculty in our e-learning program. That’s sort of a unique component… that some of what they’re doing is just introducing faculty to resources that already existed for them but that faculty weren’t sure how to access or maybe they felt they didn’t have time to work with those instructional designers. So, some of what our students are doing in this class… they’re sitting down with faculty, and the lingo that we’re using in this environment is that these teams of students are working with a client. So they’re referring to their community partner who is a faculty member, as a client. So they sit down with their client, and they say, “what are your concerns about moving to a hybrid model? What do you feel like you can do? What do you feel like you can’t do? What would you like to see accomplished by the end of this semester?” And each of those projects look slightly different, which is really exciting and lots of fun, but also certainly challenging because there are lots of different things in the works, but these students are meeting with those instructional designers… and then, in many of the courses, what they’re doing for the faculty is saying, “okay, let me take your existing syllabus and let’s transition this into modules that could be used in a hybrid course and let’s figure out what aspects of your content could be moved to an online format and what needs to stay face-to-face.”

Rebecca: Can you give a couple of examples of some specific things that the students are doing or the specific deliverables for reference?

Linley: Yes, for instance, our students right now, they actually have a case study that’s due on Saturday. So, I’m looking forward to reading those in full, but I’ve just started to look over some of them. So, the chapter that they read and their textbook was about listening comprehension, and some of what they worked on were designing listening comprehension activities using some sort of computer assisted language learning technology. So, for instance I believe students that were working on an Arabic course, they were taking some content that was based around learning terminology related to the weather, and so they took a video that was available online that was a weather forecast in Arabic… and so they developed audio recordings of the instructor who is describing this terminology in Arabic so that the students can get an ear for it in that simplified format before they then went and listened to an authentic weather forecast. So, material created for native Arabic speakers… not necessarily for Arabic learners… and then the students designed a quiz where the language learning students would be asked to identify which of the vocabulary that they had already learned were present in that weather forecast. So this would be a listening activity where they were listening for vocabulary that they had already learned the meaning of in an authentic setting. So that would be an example of an activity that an instructor could have students complete before they come to class where they did something interactive talking about the weather… they would first maybe do a listening activity like that online.

Rebecca: You can see how valuable it is to have these masters level students helping fill some of those gaps for your faculty just because it takes a long time to sift through the materials, find good examples, so that they have those good authentic experiences.

John: Has that eased the transition for some of the faculty who might have been apprehensive about moving to a hybrid format? Does the support that your grad students are providing make it a bit easier for them?

Linley: I think it has. I think also because faculty many times feel “oh, just by the nature of being a little bit older than the graduate students or even the students that I’m teaching. I’m inherently at a disadvantage. I’m not familiar with this type of technology.” But, we we know that actually graduates, and many undergraduate students, even if they’re interacting with technology on a regular basis… they may not be so savvy for using it for educational purposes. So, I think even that… lowering that barrier a little bit to show that actually these graduate students are having to learn how to use this technology as well so it can be done. So just watching someone else learn in front of them makes the whole thing a little bit more approachable and then certainly having some support, even just in someone else saying, “hey, I’m already dedicating some time, so I’ve developed a few activities.” And I think oftentimes instructors see that kind of gets the wheels turning to them and they say well I can do that, that’s not that complicated and I could replicate the same style of activity for number of content areas and so it makes the whole process much more approachable.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really sneaky way to do professional development to me.

Linley: Yes, that’s a really exciting thing… and that is one of the great benefits of service learning in general is that our graduate students are developing some wonderful skills in working with a client. So they are essentially material designers for a client and they are required to communicate with the client, to organize their schedules, and coordinate time. And one of the first things that we did in class was even talk about how to have a meeting with someone and how to deal with faculty that may have a lot of resistance to developing these types of materials or have great concern. And even some professional communication techniques about how to approach those meetings. So there are so many wonderful things happening at the same time.

Rebecca: Sounds really great… it also sounds like there’s a lot of moving parts. Having taught classes where there’s a lot of clients in the past, I know that that can be really complicated to manage and oversee. Do you have some strategies that you’re using to help everyone stay organized and to keep yourself organized. What’s your role in this project?

Linley: Yes, so as I mentioned this is the first time that we’re offering the course in exactly this format. So you’re hearing a very live perspective on how we’re figuring out how to manage this. But one advantage of the course is that I am co-teaching this course with Dr. Stephanie Borst and she has taught this course for years and has had great success with a number of different practical projects that they’ve taken on. I have been working on developing service-learning courses in our department, so that’s how I became involved when we decided to move it to a full service-learning model. And the advantage is that because there are two of us, that we can manage some of these projects. There are a lot of moving parts. We also probably would not have had so many students… we have 15 students in this course… we probably would not have taken on so many if there weren’t two of us. But, in this way we can serve a greater number of faculty members. But I think one thing that has been crucial is helping students develop an action plan at the beginning of this semester that they continually update. And because they’re all using a relatively standard format for an action plan… we provided a template but actually all the groups ended up developing a slightly different format, but because the format is mostly similar, we can sit down in class– and our class is actually a hybrid model as well, so we’re only meeting half-time face-to-face and then the rest of the time online. So when we do sit down face-to-face with our with our students, we can look at their action plans and get a sense of where they’re at and how they’re moving forward. And so having the ability to get a really quick snapshot of how they’re progressing I think has been key to providing feedback to them and helping them manage their relationships with their clients.

Rebecca: Is your action plan format something you’d be willing to share with our listeners?

Linley: Oh yeah, certainly.

John: Okay, we can put that in the show notes.

Rebecca: I think sometimes starting projects like this can be really challenging because you don’t quite have an idea of how to get organized and seeing models of how to stay organized is always really helpful.

John: And that relate back to the teachers making a transition to teaching hybrid, that there’s this big psychological barrier to trying something new but once they get started it’s not so bad… but you have to get through that initial thing. And it sounds like what you’re doing there is making it a little bit easier in the same way that this document perhaps might help other people thinking of doing the same thing.

Linley: Well we certainly hope so.

John: How have the faculty been reacting in terms of the tools they’re seeing. Do they see the usefulness of some of these online tools? And what are some examples of the online tools that might be used? You mentioned the project in terms of the weather reports and so forth, but are there any particular online learning approaches that you’re using that the faculty might not have considered before?

Linley: Yes, we started from a very theoretical standpoint in this course so we’re just now getting into some of the nitty-gritty of the actual tools that can be used in this environment. The faculty are reacting well. I think they are encouraged that they are receiving some support and getting some help and just because these students are kind of helping them get started, and even introducing them to (like I mentioned) some of the tools that already existed for faculty through instructional designers at our university, they’re saying “oh, okay there actually are templates to help me throughout this process, I can even online find something like a course design plan that helps me develop my material into a set of modules.” And it’s not that different from developing a syllabus, which most of them have done in the past. And so then they’re seeing some things like students may be introducing something. Most faculty are familiar with a discussion board for instance in an online course. However, they’re not sure how students will be able to practice maybe speaking in the target language, and then may see something like Flip Grid where students could essentially post a video of themselves and they say “oh, okay… so students can do speaking practice outside of the classroom…” that’s not something that we would lose in using a hybrid model.

Rebecca: VoiceThread would be another really great tool if you haven’t explored that one yet.

Linley: So I recently heard about that on other podcasts but I have yet to check it out myself.

John: FlipGrid is very similar, I believe, to Voicethread.

John: Yeah, I was thinking something like VoiceThread or FlipGrid would be a really good online approach. Have they done any other direct interactions online — with other native speakers, for example?

Linley: Well that’s an interesting idea because that is actually something that many faculty members are already facilitating in their face-to-face courses. They are connecting learners to native speakers in various countries across the world, but that’s typically on a at-choice basis, so maybe for extra credit or just for students that are highly motivated. So I think instructors are seeing that they’re actually already using some techniques that could be more fully integrated into a hybrid course in a way that would be really beneficial for all students. So, there are some really interesting literature about the benefits of that type of approach. Obviously you run into issues especially because we’re talking about at this level, lower-level language courses, so these are students that would really be struggling to communicate at a very basic level. But there are some opportunities for them to connect to native speakers in the countries that speak those languages that are really exciting and that tend to really motivate students to learn and engage in more extensive language learning like study abroad.

John: One of the things we do in SUNY is… we have something called COIL which is Cooperative Online International Learning program. Where courses in the U.S. pair up with courses in other countries. In the U.S. most of the course end up being taught in English because most SUNY students don’t have as much of a background in foreign languages, but many of the partner schools are doing it primarily to help the students acquire English skills. And I was thinking if you were doing some upper-level courses something similar could work in the other direction; where if you had more advanced language students working with students on projects dealing with culture or cross-cultural comparisons… might be an interesting sort of pairing.

Linley: That would be phenomenal.

Rebecca: So it’s really unusual to hear about service learning at the Masters level and you mentioned that this was the first semester that you were doing the service-learning component with this course. Can you talk a little bit about that decision and what motivated you to use this particular methodology?

Linley: Yes, as I mentioned I had the opportunity to participate in a service-learning fellowship about a year ago. And I was initially looking at developing some service-learning courses in our department for undergraduate students. And honestly the idea came about as I was listening to my colleagues discuss some of their concerns about implementing a hybrid model in their courses, and so I knew that this technology in teaching second language course existed and I knew that many actually of the teaching assistants in those foreign language classes were enrolled in the applied linguistics program. And so many of them took that course and I thought well, we have this group of students that’s developing this knowledge… we have these faculty members who are needing some support and this type of knowledge… why couldn’t we just put these together. And so there were obvious gains, like you mentioned Rebecca, in terms of the professional development… for the Master’s level students to get some practical experience, so it seemed like a no-brainer to try and put those together.

Rebecca: Related to that in terms of a professional skill for graduate students… I can imagine that it would be really easy for their clients to want this project to just get bigger and bigger and bigger and have crazy scope creep.How are you making sure that these projects don’t get too big?

Linley: That’s exactly right, and we are facing that issue… and part of the problem is that because the faculty are not familiar with exactly what’s involved in transitioning to a hybrid model, they don’t sometimes know what they’re asking for or how time-consuming certain tasks would be for the graduate students. I think that is one of the great outcomes of the course… that the students are having to learn how to negotiate that with a client. These are our faculty members in our department they are clients but the students are having to say, “Wow, that sounds like a great idea. I think what we could definitely do for you this semester might look a little bit more like this which is a bit more narrow in scope, our goal would be to provide something that’s really helpful to you but we may not be able to accomplish all of that this semester…” which is challenging in terms of professional communication. But I think one of the really important aspects of that is making sure that our students know how much we expect of them in terms of that they are well-informed about how much time they should be spending on this type of task, and that is something that we’re having to continually negotiate. And we have had some students take on too much and they have had to go back and say “okay, we may not be able to do quite that much….” or they’ve met with an e-learning course designer who’s accustomed to working with faculty on a really tight deadline and so they said “okay, why don’t you go work on this piece let’s meet again next week,” and you have this big chunk of work done and the students aren’t only doing the service-learning project, they also have coursework related to this course and so they’ve had to say to the instructional designer: “Actually, could we meet in two weeks instead?” So they’re figuring out some of those professional communication and time management issues in managing the scope of their own projects, which has been highly beneficial. But there has there has been a lot of back-and-forth negotiation and that is something that my co-instructor and I are observing and as we look at those action plans that’s something we’re talking about… are you biting off more than you can chew? And how can we figure out how to integrate what you’re already doing in the course into the deliverables for your client to make sure that we’re not overwhelming our students with too much.

Rebecca: I can imagine that in this situation having a co-teacher could be really helpful to bounce ideas off of each other, but that also is another layer of complexity. I’m wondering how you’re also managing that… to make sure that your collaboration with Stephanie is also running smoothly?

Linley: Yes. So she’s at a disadvantage because she’s not here to see the results so I’ll speak for both of us. But I think it’s going quite smoothly, I wasn’t sure what that would look like initially. We’ve never worked together in this capacity before and I’ve never co-taught a course before, so I had no idea what that would look like. However, because this is a hybrid course and a lot of what we do face-to-face is more in a workshop type setting, I think the co-instructor model works quite well because we’re not really lecturing to the students or there’s not a concern about making sure that we’re on the same page because she and I can have lots of those discussions between the two of us as we prepare content that will be put online… things like that… developing rubrics… those kinds of issues. So I would say, one issue for instance that came up is even ensuring that we’re both interpreting a rubrics that we’re using the same way because we take turns may be grading certain types of assignments, so wanting to be consistent in the implementation of those rubrics. But because a lot of that communication is happening via email or over Blackboard, then we can see how the other person is responding to those types of issues and so anything where it seems like we’re not on the same page, it’s been pretty simple to iron out, outside of that face-to-face environment. But it’s honestly been much smoother than I thought it might be. Stephanie is fantastic to work with but I really thought “I’m not sure what this will look like,” but it’s been easier than I thought it might be it.

Rebecca: Sounds to me like it in some ways you end up learning a lot more about your colleagues and how they grade and what they value by co-teaching with them and then at the same time in this particular situation you’ve got two people to put out fires.

Linley: Exactly, and I think that at first maybe the students weren’t sure what to make of having two instructors… that they weren’t sure whom to go with with concerns and things like that. But as I mentioned, if we’re having these conversations over email then they just copy both of us and whoever responds first then the students I think seem to like that model because they probably tend to get a response a bit quicker than if it were just one of us. And then also I do think we develop our own areas of focus, so I am more leaning towards management of the service-learning project and Stephanie is most familiar with the content of the course. So while we both speak into both of those things we kind of have our areas of expertise.

JONE: How many students are working with each instructor? How big are the groups?

Linley: So the groups are different sizes, our smallest is two people… so, actually we have two groups of two that are working in different environments. I will say one other unique thing about this course of that our group of students is highly diverse. So we have lots of international students in the applied linguistics program, so they speak lots of different languages. That’s a great advantage because as they work on the materials for these different foreign language classes, they may have a great deal of knowledge about that language. That’s also kind of spoken to how we divided those groups up. We do have a couple of groups… for instance, we have two students who are helping develop materials for a German class and neither one of those students speak German, but they’ve had great success in the instructional design component. So, that’s another challenge that has arisen in this particular context. But then we have another group of four students who’s working on a project. And so you asked earlier about scope, the size of the group, and how many people are contributing also influences how great the scope of what they can take on is.

John: What benefits do your students get from this type of class format… the service-learning and the hybrid nature… that they might not have received in a more traditional class setting?

Linley: I think one of the greatest benefits that they are getting out of this setting is in working directly with a faculty member who intends to actually implement these materials with students, is that they are giving a sense of material design that’s not only evidence-based but constrained by the real-world environment. The students are applied linguistics programs tend to get lots of wonderful information and lots of great ideas about best practices for teaching a language, but they may struggle with gaining a sense of how to implement that in only a 50 minute face-to-face class. So, those are some of the real-world constraints that that are ironed out as they work with a faculty member who has tons of experience working with real students in the real classroom. So, if the student designs this activity that’s elaborate and meaningful and evidence-based and wonderful, but it would be way too time-consuming for students to actually accomplish, or maybe it would be too advanced for students at this level, which graduate students may not have a clear sense of exactly what that would look like. Then the faculty member is saying, “ I don’t think my students could do that or this would take way too much time.” So it’s building in an awareness of some real-world constraints that may not be so evident to our graduate students otherwise. And then additionally, as we mentioned earlier, they’re developing some of those professional skills that they would never otherwise be able to develop. They’re working on communicating with a client, they’re working together in a group, they are negotiating roles… all different kinds of things that we tend to face when we enter the workforce in general.

Rebecca: Great.

Linley: One thing that I really love about service-learning is the emphasis on civic engagement and the awareness of diversity and different types of issues that come up in the real world. And I think that it’s interesting to see how our students are becoming more sensitive to the different types of students that we have at Texas Tech University and their different experiences of the college classroom. There are different experiences of technology, there are different aspect of resources, so I am excited to see how in this service learning environment students are becoming more aware of who student populations really are and to some of the diverse challenges that face those two populations. I think that sort of awareness raising is really exciting. And then additionally, I like the idea that students will be graduating and entering the workforce with this idea of cooperation, because they’re working together as a group and they’re working with all of these faculty members as opposed to moving into an educational environment, where we often have a tendency to work in a silo. They’re having some experience bridging those gaps and reaching across the aisle and saying “O kay, what are you doing here? How can we use those strategy” in the areas that we’re trying to operate. So I think they are walking away with a greater sense of cooperation, but I hope they will carry into the institutions where they either continue their graduate work or are working as professionals.

John: One thing we have to ask is about your podcast. What started you on the podcast? I see you’ve got a pretty big audience there in terms of the number of downloads for the podcast. Could you tell us a little about it?

Linley: Yes. I wanted to start a podcast because I love podcasts, I really enjoy listening to them, they are a big part of my personal learning and they’re one of those things that I find the more I listen the more creative I feel…. that I’m just exposed to lots of different ideas. And I started looking around for English content that would be useful to some of my other students. I also teach English as a second language mostly for graduate international students who will be teaching in their various content areas but using English as the mode of instruction. And so, what I realized is that there are obviously tons of podcasts in English but some them are pretty… well they’re definitely designed for native speakers, so there’s no support for language learning or they’re designed for people who are very early language learners… so, just focusing on lots of vocabulary building. So I noticed that there was a bit of a gap there in terms of something that was designed for intermediate or advanced speakers of English, but with just a little support for language learning. So I thought let’s just create it… let’s try it out. So that’s what we did and I think like these projects that we’re describing the exciting thing about something like a podcast is that you really can dive in with not a lot of experience or complicated resources. So most of the episodes that we have on the podcast are recorded on my iPhone, and I’ve had family members on the podcast, we’ve had different individuals from around the university, and the students in my classroom have responded well. I’ve been able to take some of the content that we were developing for that podcast and use it in my classroom, which is always exciting when you can get double use out of any project that you’re working on. And we did have we have seen a positive response internationally where it seems like people all over the globe are excited to have this type of content. So at its height, we had a good number of people listening in Benin, in Africa, and I have no idea how they found out about it, but we had quite a following there for a while. And I’ve taken a bit of a break in producing content as I’ve focused on some other projects, but I have been looking into how I can make use of some other resources on campus in terms of maybe having an intern or developing some type of service-learning course where students could help me, especially on the technical side, because I don’t mind talking, I don’t mind conducting an interview, but the editing is more time-consuming than I would like.

John: We have noticed that too.

Linley: It’s remarkable.

John: Your podcast seems like a great resource for graduate students because you deal with a lot of topics like how to understand slang or Texas accents, for example, or in similar topics. For grad students who’ve learned English formally in their countries… coming to a new institution… coming to a new country… it might be helpful for them to fill in some of the gaps that might not otherwise have been done in their instruction. I was I was really impressed by it.

Linley: Well thank you.

Rebecca: What also seems nice about a podcast is that if it’s a gap in their knowledge, but they don’t want people to know that it’s a gap in their knowledge, you can listen to a podcast without anyone really knowing. So, you can fill those gaps easily.

Linley: Yeah exactly.

John: You could be listening to it at the gym… while driving… while walking…. or when you’re sitting at home.

Linley: That’s exactly right.

John: We normally ask as the last question: what are you going to do next?

Linley: Oh, well, that’s a great question. So I’ve mentioned that on a personal level I’m expecting a baby soon, so that has taken up lots of head space in terms of what I’ll be doing next. I’m not sure how my personal life will be changing but professionally, I am definitely interested in continuing to examine ways that service learning can be used in the classroom. So I would love to see me in my ESL courses (English as a second language courses) see ways that international graduate students can be contributing meaningful service to our community while learning English. And I could see lots of amazing ways that could take place. Our international students on campus are usually here because they are so bright. They have a lot to contribute to scholarship and research… In general. But, oftentimes, as they struggle to communicate in English at the same level as a native speaker they’re often underestimated. So I think if we could look at ways of incorporating service-learning courses where students were learning English and then contributing some of the things they’re really great at doing, it would have a wonderful impact on our university, our community, and international students. So that’s one thing I would like to look at developing and certainly getting back into the podcast game. So as I mentioned, I haven’t produced new content in a while so I would really like to to get back into that, to come up with some new ideas for how we can contribute to English learners all across the globe.

Rebecca: Well sounds like we have two different we have you back to talk about later.

Linley: I would love it.

John: Well thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you

Rebecca: Yeah it’s really great hearing about what you’re up to and and how it’s coming along.

Linley: Well thank you so much for having me and I have really enjoyed listening to your podcast. I found the episode on online teaching especially relevant to things that I’m working on and thinking about these days. So, thank you so much for for all that you’re doing.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

John: Thank you.

Linley: All right, thank you.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

22. Transhumanism

Does teaching a course with a team of three instructors across two continents seem like an impossible task? Now imagine that same course examining how the boundaries between humans and machines are increasingly blurred? In this episode, Damian Schofield joins us to discuss an interdisciplinary intercontinental collaboration in which students from opposite sides of the globe examine what it means to be human.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Does teaching a course with a team of three instructors across two continents seem like an impossible task? Now imagine that same course examining how the boundaries between humans and machines are increasingly blurred? In this episode, we’ll look at one interdisciplinary intercontinental collaboration.

Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Damian Schofield, who is a Professor in the Computer Science department at SUNY Oswego, and he is also the Director of the Master’s Program in Human Computer Interaction here. Welcome, Damian.

Damian: Thank you.

John: Ginger peach white tea.

Damian: I’m drinking Yorkshire Tea (because I’m English) with milk.

Rebecca: Of course. [LAUGHTER] There’s no other way, right? I’m drinking a turmeric ginger green tea.

Damian: See, I would argue that those aren’t teas. They’re warm fruit beverages.

Rebecca: Yeah… Well, you know, that’s sometimes what you need.

John: A few times now, you’ve offered a course in transhumanism, which involved collaboration across departments and across continents. Could you tell us a little bit about that course?

Damian: Well, first what most people ask me is what is transhumanism?

John: …and I suppose that’s a good place to start.

Damian: So, transhumanism is the study of how, in the future, humans will merge with technology. It’s already happening to some degree. We often use the word cyborgs. I would argue that most of us are already cyborgs. Wearing glasses, you’re augmenting one of your senses, and it changes fundamentally who you are as a human being having that augmentation. Having a device in your hand that connects you to all the knowledge in the world, changes who you are. But in this class, we look into the future. With the ever accelerating rate of technology development, how we are going to merge with that technology and each other, and actually change from being human to what we call post-human. Humans are going to evolve into another species through technology eventually, and very few people are talking about this. So, that’s what the course involves.

I’ve been obsessed with this technology for a long time. I even have a computer chip implanted in my hand, so I wanted to do this course and when I tried to set it up I came up with this idea to do something a little bit special by interacting with multiple departments, with other universities, with international collaborators, and to run a course that was probably something different to anything we’ve seen on this campus before. Patrick Murphy, from the English department here at SUNY Oswego, did some lecturing on the course and he mainly dealt with philosophical aspects of transhumanism. We also linked with Lisa Dethridge from RMIT University in Australia, and she mainly dealt a lot with the media aspects of the technology.

John: What was the mix of students in terms of their backgrounds?

Damian: The first year we ran it, there was a mix of students from the English department and from the Computer Science department, and they were predominantly graduate students. Over the years we’ve evolved the program, and last time I ran it, they were predominantly from Computer Science, but we allowed undergraduates to take it as well, as an advanced topics course.

John: …and what were some of the things you did in the course? I seem to remember something about robots?

[LAUGHTER]

Damian: …a lot about robots. It was a fun course to teach because we make the students read science fiction. We watch a lot of science fiction movies. We use episodes from Black Mirror, before it was on Netflix and famous. We do a lot of teaching computer science theory about artificial intelligence and robots, but we also teach a lot about philosophy… media…. So, it’s a truly multidisciplinary course, with different aspects taught by different professors.

John: …and it pulled all the students out of their comfort zones at some of the times.

Damian: Absolutely… way beyond. It receives some of the highest feedback we’ve ever got for any class in the department. The students… the way the response of the class… One of them came up to see me the day after a class, and said: “I left the building and walked straight past my car, and carried on walking. I walked halfway across campus before I realized, because I was too in depth, thinking about what we’ve done in the class.” …and there was another student who was very quiet in the class and I remembered talking to her towards the end of the semester, asking if she was enjoying the course, and she said my mind is blown seven times every class. I just don’t feel I can say anything. I’m thinking too much. So, it really got them. They always told me that after each class they thought: “Well, he can’t beat that one…” [LAUGHTER] …and doing something else in every class… we’d take them somewhere further into this topic.

John: So, it was probably a bit of a stretch for people who were majoring in Computer Science or Human Computer Interaction to study philosophy, and then that reversed a little bit later, from what I remember.

Damian: I love taking students out of their comfort zones. In my introduction to HCI class, when I’m teaching colour, I teach it using art theory… which all the Computer Science students having to study paintings…. It’s a challenge for them. It’s something they’re not used to. It takes them out of that comfort zone, but I like that kind of bringing in these other disciplines. So what surprised me with the philosophy was how much the Computer Science students embraced it, and when Patrick would come in and and talk philosophy, the students would surround him at the end of class full of questions…. and we’d give them extra readings and they would read it all, and then come back with questions every time. A lot of the course ran through a kind of flipped classroom mechanic, where we were handing out readings and then discussing them in class. It runs in a graduate seminar format and it always amazed me that everyone in the class read every reading, and even the undergraduates. I’m used to it with grad students, but undergrads sometimes don’t always do the readings, but in this class they did.

Rebecca: In addition to discussions in class, what else did students do? …with the information? What were their outputs?

Damian: The traditional research paper was part of it, but one of the interesting things we started doing in this class, especially working with Lisa, is working on film scripts. So the students take some of the issues that they’ve been dealing with in the class, and have to write intelligent thoughtful narratives that deal with those issues that can be filmed… and we set different topics every year… and that’s where they work with the Australian students… on generating these scripts. …and then, in a number of years, we’ve actually made the films. Mostly the films involve our robots, and we use the robots as actors. One of the interesting kind of research outputs from this that we’ve published on quite a bit, it’s that if I talk about the play Romeo and Juliet, most people immediately imagine young, white, teenagers… male and female. If we remove the race.. remove the gender… remove the age… remove all of those cultural factors and you’re left with two non gender nonspecific robots, what happens to the play? Does it change? …and we challenge those questions a lot in this course.

John: So, the students had to learn (at least some of them had to learn) how to program the robots, and how to write scripts, and how to produce videos.

Damian: Exactly. Some of the students had to learn how to program the robots. Fortunately, there’s an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface that they can learn rather than a programming language… and we don’t ask them to do too much of that, because this is not a programming course this is a theory… philosophical course… thinking about the nature of humanity and how it’s going to change. But, being able to do something practical as well is always an interesting thing for the students to experience.

Rebecca: You spark some people’s fancy about what transhumanism is, like what would you encourage them to read?

Damian: I’m a little biased because I have my favourites. So, the work of William Gibson, which is old now… but things like Mona Lisa Overdrive, Neuromancer, and were the ones that started everything… and Neal Stephenson Snow Crash. They’re the classic novels in this area. The film The Matrix was completely based on the works of William Gibson. So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, those would be the ones to look up.

John: We’ll include links to these in the show notes, as well as some of those papers that you mentioned. Now, one aspect of this was that international collaboration. How did you manage a collaboration across the globe?

Damian: Well, I used to live in Australia and I used to work with Lisa Dethridge, our collaborator, so we have a good personal relationship. We know each other and trust each other, which always helps when you’re doing these sort of international collaborations. The kind of problems we encounter though, are… the main one being Australia is 16 hours time difference ahead… anywhere between 14 and 16 hours depending on daylight saving. So, it’s very hard to schedule synchronous time for Lisa to talk to my students or for the students to talk to each other. The students here at SUNY Oswego have been great, though. What we normally do is we schedule additional evening classes around 6:00 [or] 7:00 at night, which is early morning in Australia, and the majority of the students turn up to those classes to talk to the Australians. A few obviously can’t due to family commitments, but there’s no real way around this… that’s the only way to do it. Also getting the students to work together is very difficult, because I can’t just add the Australian students on BlackBoard or into some collaborative environment, so I personally use Canvas which means I can control who is within the learning management system. So, we can put the Australian students and the American students together. During each semester we do four or five video conference calls between the students, where the students talk to each other. It’s always worthwhile having two or three options in case some technology doesn’t work. So, we use Skype sometimes… we use the Canvas collaboration tool… and sometimes we use GoToMeeting. It’s always good when the students have that kind of ice breaking session where they meet each other and talk about their respective cultures, and we try and get them to do some… even on the video conferencing… some discussion of their culture as well as the academic activities… and to get to know each other a little bit, which becomes important later on when we run the study abroads.

John: So do the students collaborate in small groups, or individually in addition to the group collaboration or?

Damian: Absolutely, that’s how you the group assignments work. They’re assigned into teams with some Australian students and some US students, and they’re given assignments… and different years we’ve done different assignments. One year was working on film scripts. Actually the last time I run it… was writing robot scripts together to do little robot performances, and collaboratively, which the Australians being media students, really enjoyed that they were working on these robots. …and then, of course, once the robots perform the actions that they created, we had a video conference where they could watch the robots performing the scripts they’d written together.

John: …and, I think you recorded some of those too, didn’t you?

Damian: Yeah, we have a number of little robot films and videos, we also have little documentaries we’ve made about the collaboration, and so there’s a whole set of those we can…

John: So, if it’s okay, we’ll include the links to those in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: Is Lisa’s class the same subject matter? What is her class actually studying?

Damian: Her class is a design class, but it’s focused towards technology and culture, technology and society, and particularly looking at designing for the future. It fits in very well. However, it’s very difficult in these situations to co-teach with an international collaborator for a full semester, because the curriculums have to line up enough for you to do that. With something like this just over two or three weeks, four or five videoconferences, it can be just a small chunk of your semester, where you can still get through all your other curricula during the semester.

John: …and you mentioned some travel…have you generally run travel at the end as an option for students?

Damian: Three times we’ve run this course, and every time at the of that, we run a study abroad to Australia. We usually have a group, between seven and ten students, who go on that. All three trips have been very successful. The students have really enjoyed themselves.

John: I’ve seen some other photos.

Damian: You’ve seen the photos… Yeah, I’ve put all the photos on Facebook. The students generally go for two weeks although some students choose to stay longer and explore other parts of Australia. The way I run it, I’m under no illusions, I mean we call it a study abroad but the students are going because they want to see kangaroos and koalas. So, we do around three four days work with the Australian students, and what’s really important is that the American students get to spend time with the Australian students. The work they do in three or four days is fairly trivial. It’s more important that they have the experience of spending time with the Australian students… and we then give them three or four days of what we call cultural activities, which are the kangaroos and the koalas. We take them on the world’s greatest drive, the Great Ocean Road, and we go and see some Aboriginal sculpture, and things like that. …and they also get around a week of their own time to explore and go around. And what has been really good is the American students make friends with the Australian students and in that week spend time getting to know the Australians and exploring the city and the culture with people who live there… which has been really good. This last time, a group of students went surfing, which the Australians thought was crazy because it was nearly the winter there, but of course these kids are from New York… [LAUGHTER]… they can handle the weather.

John: Didn’t some of the students do some later collaborations with Lisa Dethridge?

Damian: Yeah, we’ve worked on a number of projects with Lisa. Probably one of the most interesting ones was her dark luminance project. She created a set of digital two-dimensional and three-dimensional art works in an art gallery in Melbourne, Australia… in the city itself, in a physical gallery. …and people were going in and these artworks were interactive. You could touch them and they’d change. She then flew to New York City and an art gallery in Manhattan put the same artworks… where you could interact and switch them. …and then, she had an online virtual gallery where you could go in and interact with the artworks and touch them. And the interesting thing was if you were in Australia and touched a painting it changed in New York City and on the virtual world as well. And what my students did was they basically watched what people did in these galleries… and which artworks they interacted with… and why they interacted with some, and not others… and what did they do with the artworks… and how did they experience them in a different way virtually to the physical artworks. And we published a couple of books chapters and two journal articles on that, I think. It was a very successful project for the students who worked on that.

John: …an interesting form of human-computer interaction.

Damian: ….very interesting form…. It was a fascinating project. The actual idea for this project actually came from Lisa and I sitting in a bar in Australia, discussing the dimensionality of vision which then led us into this idea of the dimensionality of interaction with artworks and that’s what most of the papers talked about.

John: So, this course was offered as one of the COIL courses in the SUNY system (and COIL stands for Collaborative Online International Learning).

Damian: Yeah, the SUNY system, through SUNY Global, has this initiative for promoting collaboration with international colleagues in teaching. And we’ve started a number of COIL courses here at SUNY Oswego. I believe this was one of the first ones we did. And the COIL Center has this whole set of resources to help you set these up, and also to meet international partners, and help you get through the mechanics of physically doing something like this. However, I’ll reiterate again that if you are going to do something like a COIL course, you’d need to get to know the person you’re working with. It’s kind of crucial that you have a good relationship with the person overseas for this to work. The other thing I’d recommend by international collaboration, which made things a lot simpler, was separating assessments, so that I don’t assess the Australian students… Lisa doesn’t assess all students. From a administrative point of view, it just keeps everything a lot simpler.

John: When I taught a COIL course a couple of years ago, I did the same sort of thing. It’s much easier if you grade your own students, because each program. each institution, each department has their own grading standards. And it’s much simpler for you to apply those individually . I’d also like to re-emphasize the importance of having that good relationship. When I was working with my partner we were working on this course, we meet online for at least an hour every week to talk about how things were going, what we needed to change, and how to adapt things based on what was happening in the course. It’s really important to have that discussion because I know we’ve had some other COIL courses where those communications broke down and it didn’t go quite as well.

Rebecca: So we usually wrap up with questions about what you might be doing next. So do you have any new plans related to this class or other international collaborations?

Damian: What we’re trying to do at the moment… we run the trip to Australia every second year. It’s not something you can run every year because the same students are still in the system. So, in the year in-between we run different collaborations… couple of years ago, students went to Spain. This year we’re taking students to work with Jolanda Tromp, who used to work here in Computer Science, and we’re taking them to work in her virtual reality lab in Vietnam. So, we’ll be going over there in May with a group of students and we’ll be working on medical VR systems over in Vietnam this summer.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Damian: Yeah, it should be fun.

John: Jolanda is still working with a lot of people, she’s part of a SUNY task group on mixed reality and she’s been very active in that.. despite the time difference.

Damian: Yes, Jolanda’s still very involved in our department. She’s still supervising research students, and even delivering some summer courses for us.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing your experience and hopefully inspiring other faculty to think about international collaborations.

Damian: You’re welcome.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

21. Project-based learning

Big, complex, and messy problems provide rich learning experiences for students, but can be overwhelming if not properly scaffolded. In this episode, Jeff Bradbury joins us to discuss a semester-long sound-replacement project that his students complete in a course on Sound for Television and Film.

Show Notes

  • BRC 308 – Sound for Television and Film – course description
  • BRC 3089 – Sound for Television and Film II – course description

Transcript

Rebecca: Big, complex, and messy problems are rich learning experiences for students but can be overwhelming if not properly scaffolded. In this episode, we’ll focus on how to organize a class around a single big project.

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Jeff Bradbury. Jeff is a Visiting Assistant Professor at SUNY Oswego. He teaches classes in audio production.

Rebecca: Welcome, Jeff.

John: Welcome, Jeff.

Jeff: Well, thank you. Glad to be here.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Ginger peach whole leaf tea.

Jeff: I missed that one, but I got some really delicious black raspberry green tea that I’m really digging..

Rebecca: I’m drinking exotic mango and ginger green tea.

Jeff: That’s impressive.

Rebecca: From Twinings.

John: Oh! Twinings, okay, okay.

Jeff: These people are serious about their tea here. It’s…

John: I forgot that we had that.

Jeff: …impressive.

John: What classes do you normally teach?

Jeff: Well, I teach a number of different audio classes here at SUNY Oswego. The most basic class I teach is a class in radio production, and that I treat more or less like a basic audio production class. Just the real basics of which end of a microphone to speak into… just basic broadcast performance stuff. I’m not an on-air broadcaster myself, but just basic things like how to sit up straight, project your voice… this kind of stuff makes a difference when you’re recording your voice, and then I teach my signature class here at Oswego… a course called BRC 308, and that is Sound for Television and Film. I also teach a successor to that one, which is BRC 309, which is very creatively called Sound for Television and Film II.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, we have similar classes with Graphic Design I and II.

Jeff: Yes, yeah.

John: So when we talked about your work in these classes earlier, one of the things you mentioned is that you have a project where students rescore cartoons. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Jeff: Yeah, definitely. The course I teach… BRC 308… some students do cartoons… more or less these days you have these all the animated films… the 3D animated films that are so popular… and a lot of times those work really good for… basically what the project is, is a sound replacement project. So, they take a scene probably anywhere from a minute and 30 seconds to three minutes, and we dump all of the sound, which includes dialogue, sound effects, music, ambiance, all that kind of stuff… They dump all that, and they recreate everything themselves from scratch… and it isn’t actually just cartoons, or animated stuff — they can do live-action TV shows or films as well. I always tell the students probably one of the biggest things that you’ll take away from this class is how much goes in to the sound side of any…even just dramatic television shows, episodic television, especially films… I mean there’s there’s so much to it… If you can imagine in your mind’s eye, when they mix the sound for a major motion picture, they’re sitting in what looks like a movie theater, and they’re sitting in front of a console that is generally about… probably anywhere from fifteen to thirty feet long… and there are anywhere from two to three to maybe even four people sitting at literally hundreds of faders mixing every single little element… perhaps different instruments from from an orchestra… from a score… or you have… every time somebody sets a coffee cup on a table… and every little sound and dialogue and clothing movement and stuff like that that they have to reproduce. So, when you say a semester project replacing the sound for one minute and 30 second clip from a film sounds like: “Oh, that’s gonna be a snap.” …actually it’s not. When there’s so when their sound is that dense, I have students who who end up with projects with anywhere from 25 or 30 to up to 60 or more tracks of audio that they’re mixing all simultaneously with different processing and all this kind of stuff to make this work. So, there’s there’s a lot to it, and they learn really quickly. They’re like, “Wow” …because I always tell them… I say: “Can you imagine doing this for the full two-hour film?“ …and they just shake their heads. Because they spend about about ten weeks working on their final project.

Rebecca: Is the goal of the project to respond to what they’re seeing, and make the soundtrack? Or is it to replicate what was there before?

Jeff: Since this is their first stab at this, I have them bring into their project the original audio from the film, that’s what I refer to as the reference audio. Usually what they try to do is replicate what they hear and what was done before, but I always try to tell them “That is an interpretation of what the sound should sound like, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be that way.” …and I show them examples… that you can take something …an explosion or something… and you can have two completely different sounds and it’ll still work. The viewer, or the the audience member, will accept what you give them as long as it’s within a certain realm… and you can really, really affect the feel and the outcome of a scene… even just what sound effects you choose. But yeah, I always tell them: “Don’t be afraid to try something different than what you hear.” What’s amazing about major motion pictures and television shows and whatnot is that they don’t always represent everything… so, I tell them: “Look what’s happening there.” …or even better yet… a lot of times there’s things that probably are happening but you don’t see it in the plane of the screen. For example, on a city street… and you see a certain view of a car parked on a city street and there’s dialogue happening or something… there could be a truck backing up behind you and if you put that sound in the scene, it’s completely believable that that’s there. That’s one of the things about sound that I teach them and show them… it’s so awesome… it’s 360 degrees wherever you believe you are in this motion picture there’s also any sound from anywhere even if you can’t see it is acceptable… and a lot of times you need that. When you’re in city in the distance… honking cars and sirens and that kind of stuff. You can’t see them, but hearing those make that seem believable.

Rebecca: That’s a big project, you’re talking about all the layers and the complexity of it. How do you help students scaffold something like that, and guide them through that process? At first it seems like: “Oh, it’s a small project… we have all semester to do it,” but then I’m sure very quickly it becomes very apparent to the students that: “Oh crap, this is a gigantic project and I have no idea how I’m gonna get this done.”

Jeff: There’s perhaps two answers to that question. Oftentimes, students when they pick their projects, they immediately go for the most climactic scene of the movie. And so I tell them… and I hold the veto power and I always jokingly say… and it’s a joke now but I had a student present… wanted to do… I haven’t seen the movie in some time but there’s the movie Gladiator, and I think an opening battle scene of Gladiator… “No… No. You’re not gonna do that… at the end of this class you’ll understand why, but that is way too complex. There’s too many layers of things going on. You can’t do that. I try to tell them so that they don’t bite off more than they can chew. I say: “Okay, if you want to do a scene from your favorite movie or something like that, that’s great. That’s a great place to start.” I tell them: “Try to find those moments in the film that are in between the most climactic parts of it, because you may watch it… and you may listen to it… and you may say: “Well, this is kind of simple.” Trust me, there’s a lot more going on there sonically then you know about… So, that’s one way… I try to coach them so they don’t bite off more than they can chew. Then, from there what we do is I have them fill out what’s called spotting sheets. So, let’s say they choose a two minute piece of a film. I capture that film piece and then give them what’s called a window dub… and the window dub has, and you may have seen this… if you’ve ever seen behind the scenes videos and stuff… it basically has the timecode – hours, minutes, seconds, frames – burned into the actual picture. This gives them a reference. I have a copy of this… they have a copy of this. They work in teams or sometimes even groups of three on these projects. They all have copies of this. They carry them around on their phone. They can communicate with each other and say: “Well, there’s that punch at one minute thirty:two seconds and four frames and I’m not really sure what to do with that.” Everybody else can look at the same video and know exactly what they’re talking about. But what they start off with is… they go through their entire project and they list according to that timecode the sound, then what the timecode is, and then some notes on how they think they need to acquire that asset. Do they need to go out in the real world and record it with a portable field recorder? Do they need to do that in our Foley room – which is a quiet space that we have to record? And a last resort… because I prefer that the students record everything themselves… when they do that, I think it’s something that they’re very, very proud of when they do it that way… but sometimes they have sounds that it’s not feasible for them to acquire themselves, for instance, any sort of firearms. So we have an extensive sound-effects library that they can go in to capture some sound effects. Some people think that’s cheating. It’s not really because the sound effects never fit… just plug and play… There’s always some sort of editing, manipulation, chopping, multiplying, that has to be done to make them fit.

Rebecca: Encouraging students to pick those in-between spaces also seems like a good opportunity for them to be a little more creative than they would be able to otherwise. Those climatic scenes people have specific expectations because they’ve seen the movie, but those in-between spaces are probably ones where they can be a little more experimental and try some different things and feel safe doing so.

Jeff: I think so, yeah. What’s interesting to me is that I’ve found so many cool TV shows and films that I never heard of or seen before when students bring in some of their ideas… and I think you’re right. At first, they want to do something really big… and more is more… but when they do search and find these these moments in between the climactic scenes, I think that… yeah, it does give them a chance to… actually what I think works best is that… because there’s not so much layering going on as when you’re doing a climactic scene… there’s always tons of sound happening all at the same time. You have more individual sounds happening, and so they can focus on this.
One of the best projects that a student has done yet was a student… if you’re familiar with the film The Breakfast Club… there’s a great scene in The Breakfast Club where they’re all at their first day of Saturday detention or whatever it is there… I guess the whole film is one day… and they’re eating their lunch. There’s this great moment where they all sit down and one student brings out all this different stuff… one girl making her lunch… and there and there’s very little dialogue. It’s perfect for this class… it’s like a three-minute thing… and this student who did this… it was an immense amount of work, but it was so great because each sound that happens is… one thing happens… then the next thing… then the next thing… then the next thing. So it really allows them to focus on the individual sounds… how they capture them and stuff like that.

Rebecca: Hmmm.

Jeff: Yeah.

Rebecca: That’s interesting.

John: Do you have the students record the dialogue as well?

Jeff: I do. One thing that a lot of people don’t know about major motion pictures is that a lot of these big-budget major motion pictures, even television shows… most of the dialogue is typically replaced… The principal actor shoots a scene on location and unless it’s an environment where they can get a boom mic or something… or a well-hidden lavalier microphone… unless they can get it recorded really clean on set… they take that same actor and they go in to a quiet studio later on… and that same actor re-does their lines to get them clean. They refer to that as ADR. And ADR stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement.

Rebecca: Doesn’t sound that automated…

Jeff: I know.

[LAUGHTER]

There’s parts of it that can be automated, as far as they the start and stop of when they do it… and a lot of times it’s also referred to as looping, and so what they would do is the actor gets several tapes and I think that’s where they get the automated from, I’m not really sure. So that’s a part of it… replacing dialogue. So, I have them do the dialogue. I also try to coach them to not pick scenes that are really dialogue heavy because that can be a challenge, because you have to find somebody who can say those lines convincingly.

John: When you first started teaching this class, was this something you introduced right away, or did this evolve out of some earlier work?

Jeff: The first time that I taught Sound for Television and Film I did teach it this way… with this project. When I was in graduate school at Syracuse University, I was one of two students who were teaching assistants that helped in the audio classes. My main background with audio is on the music recording side. So I started off recording bands and all that kind of stuff… and I was the the TA for the music recording class. The other class that was also offered was this sound design kind of a class and that’s basically the project that they did… so that’s where I got the ideas. I knew that they did this sound replacement, but I had never taken that class. I just figured well that’s probably the best way to go about it. So, I just kind of started off…I just… “Let’s do this.” It’s been far too many years that I’ve been teaching this…. I’ve taught this class here at Oswego, I have taught the class at Syracuse University, I also taught a version of the same class at Ithaca College. So I’ve been honing, and perfecting, and altering this for many years.

Rebecca: What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve made to the class from this trial and error revision process?

Jeff: I would say the big things are the guidelines that I impose on how they choose a project because when I first started doing it, I had no idea… and then what I noticed was happening is students were choosing the most climactic moments in the films. I think the lightbulb went off for me when a student tried to do the scene from Titanic where the ship hits the iceberg, and unfortunately their project went the way of the Titanic…

[LAUGHTER]

…and I thought to myself “Okay, did this student really fail or did they just bite off more than they could chew?” And so I think that’s probably the big one there. I’m trying to think other things that…

Rebecca: Have you added more check-in points or things like that?

Jeff: Yeah, I have. Because one thing that I’ve found over the years is that if you just give the students an open-ended: “Okay, start now and it’s eight weeks from now or ten weeks from now the project is due…” You know where this is going… they’re gonna wait until a week before it’s due and try to finish it all… And that just will not work with something like this… they’ll die. About four weeks before the end of the of the project… before the end of the semester… I say “Okay, give us a progress report.” That’s worth twenty percent of their grade. The final project is worth forty percent… this is worth twenty percent… and I say these are the following things that you have to show if you want the twenty percent in your progress. There’s a laundry list… so, you have to have all your sound effects at least basically recorded… you have to have all your dialogue done… So, that helps immensely… because it forces them to get started on it rather than just waiting until the end.

John: So if someone were to stop in on one of your classes what would it look like, or what would it sound like?

Jeff: So, that’s really interesting… and it varies every single day. The first six weeks of the class, of the course is really a boot camp… for recording… using Pro Tools… I mean… Pro Tools, the application we use is an extremely deep robust program. I’ve gotten pretty good at sort of boiling it down to the need-to-know basis… like “Look, this will get you started, anything else you need to know, just ask me and I’ll show you on a need-to-know basis.”… and that seems to work pretty good.
So, gosh, what would somebody see if they walked in my class? The first six weeks when we’re just sort of in bootcamp mode, it looks like a regular class… I’m teaching them stuff, I have structured lectures… I have them try things like, “Okay now I’ve showed you” or “I’ve given an example, now you try it” …then I walk around and make sure everybody’s getting the basic set of skills. Once we get to the midterm, the second half of the class is basically class time…. it’s just work time. And so usually students work in pairs on a project. So, you might see one group of students sitting there making notes, looking at the computer, sort of figuring out what their game plan is… another group of students working on headphones across the hall from the classroom… we have our basic production studio where they can go in there where they where they manage recording. Then there’s a quiet space on the other side where they have a screen. It looks very professional… It looks like it’s done in the industry… and they’re in there recording clothing movements… or dialogue… or all this kind of stuff to the moving image… and me, I’m generally just running around answering questions… a lot of times putting out fires. Thank God, my previous existence as far as career-wise, I was a computer consultant, because I’m really adept and knowledgeable of computers… hard drives… when things go wrong… because that’s the space we live in. The students have to buy their own hard drives. They’re constantly having file management issues…

Rebecca: …sounds really familiar.

Jeff: Exactly, right?

[LAUGHTER]

When you work in anything creative these days, you know the more about computers and hardware and especially file management… And honestly, can I just say on a side note, I’ve noticed that it’s so much more difficult nowadays to teach that stuff and I think the main reason is… look at what most technology the students have nowadays. Phones, there’s no file management to them, right? Basic… like what folder… what directory… and if you don’t know that stuff cold… in the world I live, anyway, it’s like you die. I swear to god, that’s one of the hardest things I deal with… is having to teach them that basic stuff and when they screw that up, it screws everything up. They spend a whole day working and they didn’t import something the right way, then they come back the next day… it’s all missing.

John: Smartphones are getting a bit better than that. Android had a file structure from the beginning that was somewhat transparent although not easily accessible, and now there is a files app on iOS 11.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: You can access things but it’s not a very easy-to-use file…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …it’s not very hierarchical.

Rebecca: It’s not like when you were using older operating systems where you were actively getting into directories and out of directories, right?

Jeff: Right, yeah.

Rebecca: So, if you come from that perspective, it’s a lot easier to know how to file manage, right? Whereas a lot of our students I think, rely on searching… Like, “I don’t know where it went, it just went somewhere magically and I don’t remember what I called it… so, can you wave your magic wand and find it for me?”
[LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Right. Right, one of the things that I do out of necessity is I spend a number of classes in the beginning of the semester, and I apologized to all them up front. I say, “Okay, look, I don’t want to treat anybody like a kindergartener, but we’re going to kindergarten for a couple days, okay? Lesson number one: this is a file, this is a folder, this is how you look at your folder and file management in a hierarchy way.” All this kind of stuff …and ‘cause some of the kids know it and they get it, but others have just not. For us too, because we’re working on Macs, there’s a certain number of students who are PC-based in their experience and so they’re trying to wrap their head around using a Mac. But, I wish they could all come in just knowing all that stuff cold and we could just jump right into it. But I’ve found, and that’s another thing perhaps in the question you asked earlier “what have you changed,” is I found, that if I don’t spend a certain amount of time back in kindergarten (I know that’s probably not the best way to talk about it) we all really pay for it later.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: But that’s a realistic learning experience because these are issues they’d face when they’re out there doing this type of job.

Jeff: Absolutely.

John: …and it sounds like they’re getting us some background in all aspects of the job that they might have if they were going to work in this field from recording to mixing.

Jeff: Yeah.

Rebecca: The reality is you got to meet students where they’re at.

Jeff: Absolutely

Rebecca: …and so, if they have no idea how to structure their files, and that’s key to what you’re doing, you got to start there.

Jeff: Yeah well, and I do explain to them too, I say, “This may be very simplistic to you,” but I’d give them sort of the story of like, “okay, let’s say that you’re gonna go and actually break into this field and do this for a living. Generally speaking, the way people start off, if you’re gonna be working in post-production sound, is you start off as an assistant.” …and assistants, basically what they do is they work in 100% file management. They take recordings that were done in the field… they do like a basic chop and an edit… and they’re given what’s usually referred to in the industry as a “Bible,” and they have naming conventions: this is how you name it, this is where you put it, this is the metadata information you’re to put with that. Because on a typical major motion picture, when the sound team is going out and collecting sound effects in the fields like that, they’ll have, a lot of times, a database of over a hundred thousand distinct audio files that the senior audio designers are gonna try to call from to build these scenes and stuff. So, I tell them that, “that’s where you start… so, even though you might look at it as a little bit boring, you’re gonna be doing that for a while before you’re ever gonna become the sound designer guy.

John: I know you got a license for a set of royalty-free sounds some that have been cleared of copyright. Are there any copyright issues with the project?

Jeff: That’s an interesting question. Basically, the students are grabbing a scene from a film or a television show, something that’s copyrighted, but for learning purposes… So, I think it’s really a fair use example. We’re stripping the sound and then they’re doing the best job they can to recreate the sound for that scene. There have been a couple of times the student has tried… they’ve been so proud of their work, they’ve tried to upload their project to YouTube and of course, I think automatic filters that they have… they say, “uh-uh, you can’t put a scene from such-and-such a film” which actually surprises me because I never realized this until the students do it… When I have them look and suggest to see possible scenes that they might want to pick for their project, you can basically just go on YouTube and you can search for like, oh the “dinner scene of Shrek…” it’ll come up. Somebody put it up there… it’s there. It’s kind of interesting that all this stuff is out there. But I’ve never had any issues with copyright and I tell the students, I say, “look, the final product that you’re gonna end up with here is a portfolio piece… and so in other words, it’s not something that you’re going to be trying to sell or trying to put out into any sort of public domain in any way… any shape, anyway. If you want to get a job in this field, you’re gonna show this to somebody in an intimate setting.” Say, “I did the sound replacement for this” and they’re hopefully gonna be impressed and so it’s not going to be a copyright issue I think per se.

Rebecca: So, it might be like a demo reel or a demo behind a password or something like that anyways.

Jeff: Yeah, exactly.

John: So, how have students responded to this type of project?

Jeff: Students absolutely love doing this. I mean, it’s the one thing that gets me out of bed and keeps me doing this kind of stuff. Because I witness a transformation. Now I sort of enjoy the fact that there’s a bit of a reputation that the class is cool and it’s fun and maybe even a little bit that the professor is kind of cool, I don’t know. It’s a difficult class to get into… it fills up really really quickly. But I see so many times like students I think, were kind of interested in the topic… But by the end of the semester, I think every semester, every section I teach, I have at least one student is who’s like, “this is what I want to do with my life.” …and I think that’s really cool… when they get into it. When you go out… a lot of times, what they have to do is they have to get like one of the portable recorders… I see that you have a zoom recorded on the table. We have something similar to that. We have some Tascam recorders… and then, of course, they have to go out in the field and… a lot of times… record sounds in the real world that they’re gonna bring in and edit and then put in. I cannot explain to you how rewarding it is when you go out and you spend a lot of time getting just the right sound that you capture… you bring it in… and you spot the sound …which basically means you just put the sound on the timeline and you line it up in the right timing and you play it and it works. It is so satisfying, it is so satisfying… and I see them the first time they’ve done that, the first time they’ve recorded their own sound and they put it into the project… they’re giddy… For a lot of students, once they do it once, they’re hooked and so they can’t wait to go grab the recorder, go record some more sounds, and put them back in. …and yeah, it’s one of those things where it is a lot of work, but the pride they feel in the finished product… I don’t know if it’s maybe because students are just getting better… or I’d like to think that I’m getting better teaching the class but I think semester after semester after semester and the projects keep getting better and better and better.

I actually had a student who did a scene from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and I initially told this particular student: “I don’t know, that’s some dense sound.” It wasn’t the most climactic scene, but it was there was a lot happening. He said, “no, I can do it” and I always tried to defer to their judgment when that happens. I’m like, “if you really think you can do it, I’ll let you do it.” He did such an exceptional job. This was the my favorite story and I always tell this to the students. He took the project home after the end of the semester and he said he played it for his older brother. He said, “hey, check this out, I want to play something.” So he did the right thing, he didn’t tell him what it was, he just played the scene with his sound replacement and it was the ultimate compliment when he said, “yeah so it’s the scene from… that scene from Pirates of the Caribbean.” He’s like, “you liked it?” He’s like, “well yeah, I mean I like the movie” and he’s like, “I dumped all the sound and replaced everything” and he’s like, “No way.” He couldn’t distinguish it from the original film and I thought that’s an accomplishment because there was some complex sounds that were going on in there and this student just really busted their you-know-what to do this. One of the things that a lot of students want to do is… if I had a nickel for every time they want to change the little girl in a scene’s voice to a big burly man, right? Isn’t that funny? The big burly man sounds like a little girl and I tell them “no, I’m not gonna…” because they think it would be funny… I say, “well here’s the deal, ultimately I want you to try to make something that will not fool, but just like that last example I played, you want to play this for somebody, you don’t want them to to know about it.” As soon as you do something in the scene that doesn’t fit, it immediately calls the listener or the viewer to the fact that something’s been done with the sound so you break the…

Rebecca: The smoke and mirrors, right?

Jeff: Right. Right, you ruin it for them. So I tell them, “I absolutely forbid that from happening. If you can’t find a little girl to replace that dialogue with, don’t do the scene.” Just a little side note.

Rebecca: So, you’ve talked about revising how you teach, so what are you gonna do next?

Jeff: One of the things that, in the successor to this class, it’s Sound for Television and Film II… Basically, that course is… students take what they’ve learned from doing it the first time… choose another scene… and do it again. But this time, they choose a little bit longer scene, and they get to start right out from the beginning and have a lot more time to work on it. I’ve had, a few times… students actually were able to pick actual short animations from real creators and have a chance to do it for real. I’d like to be able to find ways to do more of that, but it’s really challenging to try to find original work that needs this level of work… that’s not too much… it’s really kind of a hard space to grab.
What’s next for me is to really try to figure out how to get students to do it for real. I’ve got one of my students from years ago who is now working out in Los Angeles and doing this for real… and I keep threatening him that I’m gonna send him a student or two too as an intern… and where he works, they actually they have a formalized internship process… but it’s funny, it’s hard to get students who are willing to go out there… be able to live…and be able to start at the bottom. Because basically you have to start as an unpaid intern at a place like this… and start from the bottom… and move their way up.

John: Okay, well thank you, this was fascinating.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for sharing your story.

Jeff: Yeah, thank you for having me.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

19. Common Problem Pedagogy

Most colleges are organized as a collection of academic silos. Many challenging problems facing society, though, are multifaceted. In this episode, Leigh Allison Wilson joins us to discuss the use of common problem pedagogy, an approach that allows students to address a problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Leigh is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Program and Activities Center at SUNY-Oswego. She is also the author of two collections of stories, one of which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, Grand Street, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Leigh teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego. In addition to the Flannery O’Connor award, she has received the Saltonstall Award for Creative Nonfiction, and a Pulitzer nomination by William Morrow for her collection Wind. Leigh is a Michener Fellow of the Copernicus Society and is a Henry Hoyns fellow of the University of Virginia.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Most colleges are organized as a collection of academic silos. Many challenging problems facing society, though, are multifaceted. In this episode, we explore common problem pedagogy, an approach that allows students to address a problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Leigh Allison Wilson. She is the author of two collections of stories, one of which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, Grand Street, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego. In addition to the Flannery O’Connor award, she has received the Saltonstall Award for Creative Nonfiction, and a Pulitzer nomination by William Morrow for her collection Wind. She is a Michener Fellow of the Copernicus Society and is a Henry Hoyns fellow of the University of Virginia.

Rebecca: Welcome, Leigh.

John: Welcome, Leigh.

Leigh: Thank you, John. It’s very nice of you to have me

Rebecca: Today, our teas are:

John: Ginger peach green tea.

Leigh: Mine is Constant Comment, a southern favorite.

Rebecca: …which Leigh brought for me to try, so that’s what I’m drinking, too.

So, Leigh you helped organize a number of community-based projects that bring faculty together across campus. What got you involved in this kind of work in the first place?

Leigh: Well, you know what? If I went back to the roots of it all, I have to say Amy Bartell in the art department. I have a flash fiction class that is my advanced writing class, and one semester she just suddenly said: “Why don’t your students write a very short piece? My students can illustrate it, and we’ll frame both things and put them side-by-side… and then we’ll have a show.” …which was so much fun, but it wasn’t just fun, it was my first taste of having a collaborative common problem project. Because, it turned out to be a common problem. We didn’t know it… we thought we were just writing our fiction… or, I thought they were just gonna be writing their fiction. But we’ve discovered that if there was going to be an illustrator paying attention to it… all of a sudden, it got more serious. The game got more serious. There was an audience who was really going to be checking it out, and there was also an audience that was going to be looking at the illustration and looking at their work at the same time, and all of a sudden the students were much more professional about their attitudes to their work. So, that’s the beginning of it. That was called Graphic Flash… and we’re still doing it, but now it’s expanded into a film class that’s taking the stories and making short films out of it… and a music class that’s taking the short films and scoring them… and ‘cause now I like working with local partners… local high schools have been making movie posters.

Rebecca: Great.

Leigh: …for the stories. So, that expanded… and because of that expansion, I started getting interested in – not just common projects that involved a common problem – but also collaborative projects in general… and the ease with which they could be expanded… which I think is one big factor in project-based learning.

Rebecca: The first big project was the Smart Neighbors project which is still ongoing.

Leigh: What happened was… I was doing Smart Neighbors and there was a notice from the Provost office and there was a call for participants in a SUNY wide grant. They wanted four SUNY schools to be involved in a common problem pedagogy grant… and at the time they were trying to get a Teagle grant which is an ExxonMobil grant. But the point of the Teagle grant was to get humanities to work with another discipline, usually a professional discipline, so that’s why it began in that way. I wrote in and SUNY Cortland and Oneonta and Plattsburgh were all involved in it. We all have different projects going on but ours became the Smart Neighbors project.

Rebecca: Please describe what that is for those that don’t know?

Leigh: Basically I have always….Well, I love Oswego as a town, and I’ve loved living here and I’ve always wanted to do something that could give back. But, I’m a creative writer and, short of putting it as a setting in a lot of short stories… which I have done… that’s not really giving back… I have always worried since I’ve been here about the economic difficulties facing any new business. This is a stat from a few years ago, but one statistic is that a new business in Oswego has a lifespan of about 13 months… and that’s a terrible statistic. I don’t think it’s true anymore… I think there are great changes going on in town now… but, I wanted to do something with the town. My concept for Smart Neighbors was to have a lot of different disciplines collaborate in the promotion of a downtown independent business. It was a simple concept, because I didn’t have elaborate blueprints for what they should be doing or what we should be doing. I had no elaborate plans for what each individual discipline should be doing. It should be promoting the business. Period. ….and that’s sort of continued to be how it is. People take it as they can imagine it… and so a lot of very imaginative things have come out of that… the things that are not traditionally considered promotional materials… which, in fact, really are promotional materials.

John: What are some examples?

Leigh: A literary citizenship class that Donna Steiner is working with, because they’re mostly creative writers, they tend to do digital essays… but they’re digital essays that often have a fanciful story involved in them. So, if it’s a bookstore… one digital essay took a book that the bookstore was selling… talked about the author ….did graphics about the plot of it… and then ended up back at the bookstore… and so you basically you were interested in the book… and then it began to talk about how the imagination could be served by the bookstore. Another one in the same class followed someone who bought a book to their home, took film clips and photographs of the person sitting where they liked to read with all of their books around them… and just talking about what it meant to be able to walk downtown and buy a book and take it home and start reading it. So, that was a nice little piece too. …but not things that you necessarily are expecting, or what an advertising agency would have put out.

John: …and how have the businesses responded to this? Have they been using these materials in their marketing?

Leigh: They have. One of the things that is a centerpiece is the banner… and the art students… the photography students have been at the heart of that… and all of the businesses end up displaying it. There are huge banners… they fill a whole wall… but all of the businesses have been using the banners. They love those… Also, every business nowadays… and this is one thing that we’ve been working with the businesses on… having an online presence… but that’s one of the reasons there’s so many digital projects involved. Because we want the businesses to be able to use them online. So, the digital essays do get used online as part of their presentation to the public.

John: …and how have the students reacted to doing something where their work is going to be more public? They’re not just submitting something read by their instructor and their peers, but it actually may have an impact on some business in the community.

Leigh: The impacts on our students are the impacts that I think they’ve found across the country when dealing with applied learning, civic engagement, volunteerism… well, basically best practices in general…. but, number one (this is the thing that I’m most proud of) is that the students leave that program, even though it’s one assignment in one course (for most of them… it’s not the whole course) but they leave having experienced that assignment with a sort of sense of social responsibility that I don’t think they had before… or a notion of philanthropy. One of the things I tell them…. All of the classes (this year we had 11 classes from different disciplines) and we all meet at the beginning of the semester in Marano Auditorium… and one thing I told them this year is that we think of social responsibility as as one thing and philanthropy as another thing… but really, I think, what we should be doing in these places we love (like I love Oswego) is actually contributing our talents… not just our money… but we should be spending our money locally too – but but also contributing our talents – to these businesses… even if we’re a business owner contributing to another person’s business is something that I think we’re obliged to do too – because the local success really is our own success… and we tend to think of businesses as competitive, but I think that’s a mistake. I think smarter neighbors…

John: …hence the name…

Leigh: …work together in these collaborative ways.

Rebecca: What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned from doing some of these projects?

Leigh: Well, I should tell more of what the students got out of it, but…

Rebecca: Yes.

Leigh: I think, other than just that sense of social responsibility and what notions of philanthropy, they leave knowing much more clearly what they know and have learned in their disciplines… meta-knowledge of what they’re capable of… which is huge for our creative writers. Because, I don’t think they’re clear on the fact that… they know they’re probably not going to immediately get the Pulitzer, but what can they do with this? …and it’s important for them to to learn that…. that they can write for multiple audiences in multiple ways. But, they also learn what other disciplines know and can do… which they haven’t thought about that deeply. It’s a mystery to them what, for instance, the marketing students do. They market things… maybe it’s advertising… something like that… but then they see them come in and actually take the business that they’ve been working with and figure out a plan for them… and how the college itself can be moved into that plan… and suddenly: “Oh, I can work with that…” and they start thinking of digital essays they could work with… and imaginary stories that take that marketing plan and actually enact it with characters (which they’re good at imagining)… And professional skills… just getting somewhere on time… being late or on time to a class seems less important, but if the interview that you needed to have… and you’re late for and you can’t now have it… that makes an impact forever. You tend to be on time for an interview… and they do have to interview the local partners. Preparations… They get there. Nobody’s going to be telling them what to do. They have to figure out what they need to know, and they need to find it out. So, they need to plan before they get there. I personally am very happy with my students learning what it means to write for a particular audience, as opposed to whoever they want to. It’s very good for them to try to please a certain person with a certain product.

Rebecca: Because it’s usually an audience that they wouldn’t have picked or imagined on their own.

Leigh: That’s right… that’s right. …and my point would be that, even when they’re writing their Great American Novel, they should be expanding their notion of what audiences they’re hitting, instead of just “this is what I want to read.” They need to think about what their vision of the world is and how to can pull as many people into it as possible. I just think it’s memorable to them. I think it’s life-changing to them to work, however briefly, donating their time to a place at least for a while they’re calling home.

John: Excellent.

Leigh: But, I think they’re things that the faculty learned too… not just the students, there are faculty outcomes, I think, as well. My whole idea in Smart Neighbors was to just get faculty’s feet wet with one assignment in one class… and if you can do that… once they see the effect on students… because, that’s one thing I really do believe about the faculty here… they really are committed teachers. Now sometimes you worry about how time-consuming is it going to be to work with another class as other disciplines… how time-consuming is this or that? Because we’re already putting a huge amount of time into our teaching. So, it seemed smart to get faculty accustomed, or introduced to, collaborative, or civic engagement, or applied learning kinds of pedagogy in the easiest possible way. So, one assignment… and not an assignment that necessarily requires interactions with a lot of other faculty to figure out how to do it. Now, I will say, for Smart Neighbors anyway, the faculty do have to connect with the local partners. But, they don’t necessarily have to figure out what everybody’s doing in all of the classes to make it work. They have their piece of the puzzle and they’re contributing it.

John: How many classes work with a particular business? Are there multiple businesses that they’re working with? or is it just one business each year?

Leigh: Well, it’s grown. The first year, we had four classes and they were working on the bookstore. The River’s End Bookstore.

Leigh: Tell me your question again.

Rebecca: Really asking whether or not there is more than one community partner at any given time.

John: Yes.

Leigh: Yes. I think what you’re asking is a good question because, once you get to a certain number of people… of courses… not people, but courses… you’re overwhelming a local partner and we got to that quickly last year. We worked with a candy store (and I think there were seven different classes involved) and an unbelievable generosity of time from that owner… but it was clear that we were gonna have to figure out other ways of doing this. So, last year we did the Farmers Market, which worked out, We had eleven courses involved too – and that worked out much better because there are multiple farmers bringing their goods to the Farmers Market and there are they’re in different groups with different farms. So that worked out a little bit better. Also, because the Chamber of Commerce is ultimately responsible for the Farmers Market, we were able to do some projects just for the Chamber. For instance, they needed a new logo and we sort of pulled that into the Smart Neighbors project as well. So, I’m trying to define what we’re doing a little wider. …and you’re right, have more local partners…. if we’re gonna have this many continue.

John: It sounds like it’s grown really quickly.

Leigh: It really has… and I will just say again I think the faculty discovered that there’s a certain ease of practice in getting used to this… and once you see the students and the effect on the students, then I think you’re hooked. And the reason it’s grown is that the courses who have done it in the past continue to do it; they want to keep doing it. And that is how I got the idea for Grand Challenges.

Rebecca: That seems like a nice segue right into it, right?

John: Yeah.

Rebecca: So, we’re launching the Grand Challenges. Can you talk a little bit about what the Grand Challenges are and what the goals are?

Leigh: There’s a line in our strategic plan that that’s my favorite line…. and I think it’s the most memorable line… and it talks about how we, as a community, are going to tackle the Grand Challenges…. find solutions to the Grand Challenges of our time… and I love it… because it’s aspirational for one thing. I really do want to believe that our students and our faculty can tackle the Grand Challenges of our time, and I think we can, frankly… but it’s also that notion of “tackling a challenge” is very project oriented. You get your hands dirty. You figure out something, and then you try to come up with solutions because of it… and, so it appealed to me just in terms of having a common problem. But, those Grand Challenges have to be tackled together. I mean, I don’t think there’s any challenge of any size in the complexity of our world today that can be done by a single person just sitting in their garage thinking. I think almost everything we do in the future is going to have to be collaborative and probably cross-disciplinary in some way. So, it just seemed to me a natural segue from Smart Neighbors to getting the whole campus to work on a single… it’s not really a single issue either…. it’s more… we were talking about this, Rebecca, I imagine the topics for Grand Challenges to be very concrete things, because I think, as academics, we tend toward a more abstract way of looking at things…

Rebecca: …which is particularly hard for our students to get their heads around. They need something tangible.

Leigh: Right, I think so too… and to come up with projects… actual projects that are going to take place in the world with local partners… or involving civic engagement or volunteerism… require a certain concreteness. So, at any rate, the Grand Challenges project was just something I began to think. The notion of having multiple disciplines work on the same thing… it’s just a short step to getting the entire campus to work as much as much together as possible on the same topic… One of the things I didn’t say about Smart Neighbors is that Oswego is already a very collaborative culture… and that we’re very far along in terms of faculty tipping into these kinds of projects very easily…. and I’ve found just talking across campus, the way for instance when I spoke to Faculty Assembly, and the reception there was so astonishing. People aren’t resisting it out of hand. It’s just such a pleasure to work with people who are willing to take on these new things without immediate misgiving. At any rate, as you know, the topic that we’ve that we’re working with this year is fresh water which is concrete, but also can involve a lot of sustainability.

John: …but fluid, too.

[LAUGHTER]

Leigh: Very funny, John…
But, one of the things that I like about that particular topic is that you can look out any window on campus and fresh water is exactly what you’re looking at… and that it should matter to us makes sense to me. But, to go back to the teaching culture here, I have found when I talk about this to any group of faculty, immediately ideas are popping. They’re thinking about it. They’re talking about it. They clearly already thought about it. The Grand Challenge doesn’t really even begin until the fall of this year… and I’ve got a list …I brought with me a whole list of like couple of dozen projects that people are already doing right now…. this semester…

John: In preparation?

Leigh: Just because they can. Not only in preparation, just… let’s begin… Why wait till the fall? I’ve spent the last week finalizing touches to a micro grant the Provost office has, thank goodness, very gallantly is going to put some money in a pot to give some grants to people to do these collaborative works. Well, let’s just put it this way… even if you’re just doing an assignment in your class, you can put in for one of these grants. But, I think we’re going to privilege, probably, the collaborative civic engagement projects… or they’ll get the higher money amounts, just because there are more people involved. The administration on campus has just been so supportive. The provost office is doing the micro grants. The Student Affairs has, I can’t talk about it because the contracts haven’t been signed, but they’ve got people who are well-known coming to speak on campus.

John: So, there’s going to be some other programming throughout the college.

Leigh: That’s right. Artswego has a special category for its grants this year that are going to privilege some Grand Challenge proposals.

Rebecca: What I like about that concept is that the learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom on a college campus. It’s happening from multiple perspectives and it’s happening in and out. It’s happening formally and informally.

Leigh: That’s right.

Rebecca: That’s nice that there’s a lot of systems in place to help support that and that idea because, if students are experiencing the topic of water, in a lot of different disciplines on and outside of class right then they’re gonna start seeing how all these things connect together…

Leigh: That’s right.

Rebecca: …and we have general education as a part of our curriculum, as many colleges do, and the students tend to not have any idea how that is relevant or important or what that does for them. and I think this might be a really great way for them to start seeing that all these things are actually connected and it’s important to know different points of view and the different disciplinary perspectives on things… so that there is that idea that we can’t tackle these really big problems…

Leigh: …by ourselves.

Rebecca: …without looking from multiple perspectives.

Leigh: Yeah.

John: …and faculty are often in their own silos and students see the classes as separate islands that are not connected in any way… and showing that we can look at the same issues broadly from a number of different perspectives might help them form better connections and deepen their learning.

Rebecca: …and even continue to update the curriculum to reflect this change in practice. It’s a move away from silos to things being a little more messy, and so how do you allow for your curriculum to embrace that messiness.

Leigh: I think you’re exactly right, Rebecca. …and I, for one, think the future (it might not be in our generation) but the future really will be a future that doesn’t necessarily have departments… doesn’t necessarily have disciplines separated in this way…. that in fact encourages cross-disciplinary activity. I think the School of Communications, Media and the Arts [SCMA] is already sort of moving toward that. They’re a very collaborative school and work very well… that just in my experience doing these projects, they work very well across campus with any discipline.

Rebecca: Go SCMA.

[LAUGHTER]

Leigh: I am on the board. It’s because of that that I asked to be on their advisory board, frankly.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Leigh: But, yeah. I think the beauty of the grant, of Grand Challenges, is that we’re already a collaborative school and this just puts the name on it. It puts a focus for that and it’s something I think we really ought to be celebrating here. …and to get back to the administration being supportive, the President from the beginning has been behind this and I think that, really more than anything, has been one reason for this to be a successful rollout.

Rebecca: Are there plans to research or study the outcomes of the initiative to measure what impact doing something like this has on our learning community and/or on the community at large?

Leigh: Well, one of the things that I hope from these micro grants is, because they have to give the proposal at the project proposal… and give what they hope the outcomes will be… and then when they do their final reports, what they think the outcomes really were. I’m hoping that that will be the first step toward being able to assess some of the things going on. It’s more difficult in the general population, One of the things I’m reluctant to do is add a layer that makes people hesitant to get their feet wet with these pedagogies. But, I think, just once this gets going… I think it will become easier and easier to get people to assess for what the outcomes are. To be honest, I think it’s so night and day what the students get out of these best practices that the faculty will want to start assessing and seeing what these outcomes are and what it means in their classroom.

John: In an earlier discussion, you mentioned that your work with the Digital Oz project grew out of your work with the Smart Neighbors project. Could you tell us a little bit about the Digital Oz project and how it relates to your work with Smart Neighbors.

Leigh: Digital Oz is a presentation… online presentation site… for SUNY Oswego students’ digital work.One of the things that occurred to me after doing Smart Neighbors is that these collaborative efforts on campus are here and gone tomorrow …because there’s no place to archive or curate the materials that the students produce… and so Digital Oz has become a space where the collaborative work can actually be presented. The students are doing such amazing work. It’s great that Digital Oz exists so that the students can have some sort of public presentation.

John: Could you describe Digital Oz a little bit for listeners who may not be familiar with it?

Leigh: One of the things that I’ve always liked about Oswego students is that they have authenticity that is almost indescribable… but once you see them tell a story, you feel it instantly… and so I think because our students all have these stories it’d be nice if we had a site that had them tell them. So, we created Digital Oz and it has different categories. One category… the students talk about how they ended up being passionate about what they’re passionate about here (whether it’s their discipline or some sort of co-curricular activity that they do) and what’s the story behind that. How do they become passionate about it? …and there’s some amazing stories there. Students who, for instance, work as EMTs on the ambulance service on campus have some unbelievably touching stories about why they care… about being able to go to somebody and help them. But, there’s another category that’s called “moments that change their lives” …the students lives, and they talk about them in very moving ways as well. But one of the categories, as I said is “Collaborate” and students who have worked together on projects put artifacts that they’ve created for those projects online… and those two are… I guess you don’t realize the range and creativity and professionalism of our student work until you start seeing it put together in the same place…. And Digital Oz, since we’re talking about it… I’ll just say it’s… digitaloz.oswego.edu is the website if you want to look at it. But, it’s a place, I think, high school students look at and find feel like they can have a home here.

John: Excellent, and we will share that link in the show notes.

Leigh: Thank you.

Rebecca: So usually we like to end with, “What are you going to do next?” So, you’ve got this big giant project.

John: It’s still under way…

Rebecca: You’ve got this big giant project. What’s down the road a little bit for you?

Leigh: Well, I really do think that the Grand Challenges is as grand as I’ll probably get.

[LAUGHTER]

Because I don’t know how I can get grander.

John: The very Grand Challenge.

Rebecca: Super Grand Challenges.

[LAUGHTER]

Leigh: I know… it will be like Mario. But, one of the things… I’m talking to the woman who’s in charge of applied learning at SUNY Central, and I’m gonna talk up the Grand Challenges just because I think it really is a harbinger of what the future is going to be, not only in terms of what you do in collaborative ways, or best practices but also in what it’s going to ultimately mean for what the shape of the university is. So, I guess I’m not going to become a traveling advocate across the campuses across SUNY, but I do think I really do think this is where the future is headed for higher ed. I hope so anyway. I do.

Rebecca: Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing what you’ve been working on, Leigh. I think everyone will continue to be inspired.

John:Thank you. It’s a great series of project.

Leigh: Thanks, you guys.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

15. Civic Engagement

Real-world learning experiences come in a variety of flavors. In this episode, Allison Rank, a political scientist at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how she has built a course in which students organize and run a non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign. This project combines many of the best features of service learning and simulation.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Real-world learning experiences come in a variety of flavors. In this episode, we’ll explore ways to combine the best features of simulation and service learning to increase learning in a campus-wide voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign.

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist,

John: and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Today, our guest is Dr. Allison Rank, an assistant professor of political science at SUNY Oswego. Allison is an expert in the role American youth play in the electorate and the founder of voter registration initiative called Vote Oswego. Welcome, Allison.

John: Welcome.

Allison: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Yorkshire gold.

Allison: I don’t drink tea.

Rebecca: It’s an epidemic…. like… this is the third one, John.

John: I know, three in a row

Rebecca: Three strikes you’re out. No more non-tea drinkers… All right… I’m drinking English Afternoon despite the fact that it’s still morning… because I need it.

John: Just barely morning, though.

Rebecca: Good, okay.

John: So, what is Vote Oswego?

Allison: Vote Oswego is a student-run, nonpartisan voter registration and voter mobilization drive on the SUNY Oswego campus in the Fall of 2016.

Rebecca: What led you to start Vote Oswego?

Allison: So, prior to earning my PhD in Political Science, I actually spent three years working as a political organizer. I’d worked for a presidential campaign in the state of Ohio and then had spent a couple of years working with college students on a variety of non-partisan campaigns. One of the things I learned from doing that work on college campuses, is that when students have an interest in doing political work, there’s a lot of skills that they can get out of doing that work but that they don’t necessarily think about. And so once I was here…. I was here first in the Fall of 2014… and saw what the voter registration drive looked like, it was clear that students were doing some volunteering for it, and some students were really excited about it, but I didn’t think they were really getting any organizing skills out of doing it. They were sort of more just sitting at tables and sitting out with voter registration forms the same way they would sit out with cupcakes at a bake sale… it wasn’t really about organizing skills. And so I wanted to start a course or something here where the voter registration drive would become more about students learning to organize rather than just being treated as widgets to be organized by other people.

John: Did you do this as part of a class or was it a set of classes or a separate activity?

Allison: I actually was able to get permission to run it as a special topics class in Political Science. I’ve since gotten it approved as an official course, but initially I actually just pitched it as a practical political skills class where the students would come in and learn about grassroots organizing techniques and then get to implement those techniques through a voter registration drive.

Rebecca: I would imagine that a course like that would be particularly helpful to campuses that are more rural than urban.

Allison: Yeah… for me, after a couple of years here, I had a lot of students that wanted to get involved in politics but I’d end up in conversations with them about how hard it was to figure out transportation to Syracuse, figuring out logistics or the cost of doing it– we have so many students not only in terms of being a rural campus, but also in terms of the student population that’s also trying to juggle working and paid work that they need in order to be here. And so then, taking time out to do a political internship, especially with the schedule around an election, can be really challenging. And so being able to offer that opportunity on campus, and also around something that can give them course credit or internship credit without leaving the campus, and for something that the campus is already gonna put energy and attention towards, I think, is really helpful.

Rebecca: Is running something like this as a class common on other campuses?

Allison: I don’t know of other places where a full grassroots campaign has been run out of a class. It’s fairly common in Political Science to have some type of activity based around voter registration, right? So, for us in Political Science, coming up with civic engagement projects where you can avoid partisanship and partisan issues, is a really big deal. And so non-partisan voter registration drives around elections are a great place to do that, but often it’s asking students to go out and volunteer as poll workers, or do exit polls, or maybe helping set up a campus debate with a couple of candidates rather than really digging into an on-campus, full-fledged grassroots mobilization campaign.

John: Was it easy to keep it non-partisan in the classroom?

Allison: Oddly, it really was. The very first day of class, I ran an non-partisanship training with the students. So what does it mean to behave in a non-partisan fashion? What does it mean to keep your social media non-partisan through this event? What are the conditions under which you need to be non-partisan, right? Students signed up for this class because they’re people who care about politics, right? So many of them, I am certain, had very deep feelings about what they wanted to happen in this election. They weren’t allowed to talk about them if they were at a Vote Oswego event. I think there was a guideline around however many Vote Oswego students were hanging out together, that they could be recognized as a group of Vote Oswego students. If they were wearing their Vote Oswego t-shirt, they could not both talk about something partisan and have any reference to Vote Oswego in, for instance, a online social media “about themselves” section. And I would actually, essentially, run pop quizzes with them where I would try to get them to do something partisan, right? I would come up to them and say some incredibly partisan statement and they would actually have to practice what the non-partisan response would be.

John: That’s a useful skill, today.

Allison: Yeah!

Rebecca: Probably one th at a lot of faculty could use some training on, too, because politics come up a lot in classes. Can you give us an example of something that you would do?

Allison: Sure. So one of the things that is often defined as partisanship is if you endorse an issue that is so clearly identified with one political party over another…

John: …like science….

Allison: …even if you don’t, we would use things like building the wall, right? If you say something like “you should register to vote because it’s really important that we build the wall,” that would be considered a partisan statement from the last election, regardless of not mentioning a candidate or a political party. And you would get individuals coming up to the table who wanted to register that would say things like, “it’s really important to me that I register because I really care about maintaining woman’s right to choose” or “I really care about building the wall…” something that you could clearly align. And so I would do that to students, and they essentially had a set of responses they were allowed to give. So things like, “I’m happy to hear that you’re excited about what’s happening in this election, it’s really important that you get registered to vote” or they’re allowed to not and say, “I acknowledge that that’s something that you’re really passionate about.” Vote Oswego is non-partisan, we just care that you’re able to express whatever you care about, right? It’s sort of acknowledging that that individual has something that they really care about, but not endorsing it yourself.

John: How did they do in those pop quizzes?

Allison: They generally did really well. The first day, they would get really awkward and nervous and not know what to do, but after sort of half an hour of drills, they got incredibly good at it. It also helped that it was in the syllabus and they signed a contract with me that if I caught you violating the non-partisan mandate after one warning, you automatically got fired from the campaign, which meant you failed the course. So they took it seriously.

John: So it was somewhat high-stakes.

Allison: Yes.

Rebecca: A little arm-twisting there?

Allison: Yes. But they did really well, and actually after the election, a student made a comment in class where he basically said it’s really weird to me…. I feel like I know people in this class so well and we’re really good friends and we’ve worked so hard and I have no idea how anyone in here voted and I said, “that’s great, that’s exactly what should have happened, please don’t talk about it.”

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the other results that you saw in your class?

Allison: Sure. There’s sort of two different sets of results, right? We talked about the students as having two identities in this class. They were both students and they were staffers and they needed to be concerned about themselves in both of those roles. So as staffers, they had fantastic success. The campaign registered over a thousand students on the SUNY Oswego campus, they helped over 1500 students request absentee ballots, they came up with some really great campaign strategies in terms of helping students with absentee ballots… get those mailed in… get those stamped… helping students get to the polls… building a great coalition with other folks on campus. As students, I think what was great is that because the students were out in the field and they were known as Vote Oswego students on campus. Their friends all knew that they were doing it, they were in those t-shirts all the time, they were visible. They took a real ownership over this project, in a way that I have a hard time envisioning getting students to do about short-term volunteer work, or sort of asking them to go volunteer with another campaign, or even the type of simulations that political science professors can get really good results with, in terms of learning outcomes, the type of ownership that these students felt and how seriously they took it, I’d be hard-pressed to get that result in another way. Because they took it so seriously, and because they took such ownership of it, I think their critical thinking and analytical skills really, really improved. You could sort of watch as we went through the campaign, students go from looking to me and looking to the couple of interns that we had in leadership roles of the campaign, to figure out sort of like “all this thing happened and what am I supposed to do” and “please answer this question for me,” to like, “well, this thing happened while I was standing at a table and here’s what I did,” and I would hear about it three or four days later as opposed to getting a sort of frantic, “help me figure it out.”

John: they started taking more responsibility–

Allison: Exactly.

John: –and making more of the decisions then just reporting back.

Allison: Exactly. And then also being able to constructively critique each other’s decisions once we– we called classroom meetings campaign meetings, right? So in campaign meetings, being able to say, “Hey, I know this is what happened last week, actually I think we need to fix it in X, Y, & Z ways.” Which, for those of us who have tried to get students to give critical constructive feedback on each other’s papers, it’s really hard to get them to engage each other that way, and the students really took to that sort of analytical and critical work with each other in really constructive ways by the end of the campaign.

Rebecca: So in addition to students finding that kind of personal ownership over the experience, what are some of the other factors that you think made this particular project, in this particular situation, really successful?

Allison: I think there are a couple of things that made this project work really well. I think that, one, is that a non-partisan voter registration drive is something that students can get excited about, even if they’re really uncomfortable with the idea of the conflict around politics. So students that are interested in politics, but don’t really want to be in the debates around politics, can latch on to this as a project that they can get excited about. So, for instance, we had a number of students from PR who took this class because they saw it as that they didn’t really want to get into politics, but they want to know how to run something big, and so this provides that type of opportunity. The second thing is that the calendar just works. So I think it can be really hard to get students excited on a project if they can’t actually take it through the finish line. And what works about a non-partisan voter registration and voter mobilization drive is that in most states, the voter registration deadline is around four to six weeks after school starts, and then you get about another four to six weeks before the election itself, and then you’ve still got another four to six weeks before the end of the semester. And so it perfectly stages itself, provided that the faculty or some other set of students have done some of the set-up, for students to come in learn a set of skills, build skills, execute, get a couple of do-overs, and then still have time to reflect on the project before the semester is out.

Rebecca: I think that’s one thing that’s really unique about the timeline, is that a lot of kind of activity-based learning or community based learning projects, they go straight to the end of this semester and it really is hard to build in that reflection piece, so it’s nice to have substantial time to do that, and really think through that, and do post mortems and plan for the next time around so that the next set of students can learn from the previous set.

Allison: Yeah, it worked really well. I think that space allowed for a couple of assignments, both in terms of a post-mortem and having them really think critically about what they would have done differently in what advice they want to give the next group, but also for those students who want to go into this type of work, a lot of it is contract consulting work. So you’d run a campaign, and then that campaigns over, and then, what do you do next? And so one of the assignments for the class was actually to apply… mock apply for many of them. Though, a few students who are graduating did really apply for different types of political jobs. And so actually learning how to translate this real experience into a cover letter, and into a resume, and being able to pitch that what they had done was not just work for a class, but was actually work for a campaign.

John: Excellent. Did any of them end up working on campaigns?

Allison: A number of them have had internships. Someone received an internship, I believe, in Senator Schumer’s office off of the experience in her application, for that was actually what she submitted for the final project in that class.

John: Excellent. How did students, in general, respond to it? What sort of feedback have you had from students?

Allison: From the student population on campus or from…?

John: Or… well, actually from both within the class and also more broadly.

Allison: So students within the class thought that it was an immense amount of work, but also seemed very satisfied with the experience themselves. The sort of anonymous feedback sheets that I did with students over the course of the semester, students repeatedly talked about how much they were getting out of the experience in terms of learning what went on, quote unquote, behind the scenes of campaigns and how much harder it is then it looks like it is on television, comments like that. For this student population more broadly, it’s been interesting. There were definitely a set of students for whom having the voter registration and voter mobilization drive become something bigger on campus. I think it felt a little bit intrusive, though I’d argue that that’s what grassroots campaigning look like, you’re just gonna get asked if you’re registered to vote four times a day, in the days leading up to the voter registration deadline, and not for… even the students in my class who said, “I think we’re bothering people.” I said, “you are bothering people, you want them to register to vote.” So there was a little bit of that. On the other hand, students were really excited and I’ve actually had a number of students ask me if I’m running the class again, when the class is running again. Sort of having seen it happen, are really interested in getting that experience.

John: Very good. If someone were to stop in on your classroom, what would it look like?

Allison: I suspect it would initially look like chaos. [laughter]
The campaign classroom, I think, is a very different feel than a lot of other classrooms. After the first couple of weeks, I basically demoted myself to note-taker. I was technically the campaign manager, but I was really there to act as a check if I thought they were straying into something that potentially– this never happened, but I essentially was there to see do we stray into something that potentially smacks of a real problem, right? …in terms of their regularly… like election law regulations or guidelines for the campus, keeping track of the money that we still had, and what we could spend money on in the overall campaign calendar. But I would most frequently in that classroom, whoever was in charge of running a particular campaign team that was working on a strategy, would be running the meeting and I’d be at the front of the room essentially taking notes on the giant whiteboard in order to track the conversation and basically remind people of what decisions needed to be made before we left that campaign meeting. There’d also be a number of classes where you would have come to the classroom and no one would have been in it because there were either students out phone-banking, students were running a voter education program in one of our dorms, students were out running a training for other volunteers… sort of really being out in the field as much as possible and I was just running around trying to see what was happening in all of those locations and troubleshooting when it was needed.

John: So how many volunteers did they bring in from outside their class?

Allison: We ended up having over 250 unique volunteers from outside of the class that did work with Vote Oswego.

John: That’s impressive.

Rebecca: So you mentioned money and finances and so I think, I think that’s usually a big question for any sort of community project, campus project, etc. So how did you work the money side of things?

Allison: I think, one of the real benefits of the voter registration drive, is not only does it match the calendar, but it matches a place where campuses are already inclined to spend some money. So, I was able to put together money from a couple different places. One was actually from our Student Association. The student government here at SUNY Oswego put in it, ended up being close to $2,000, ultimately, that helped cover– it initially helped cover a bulk of the t-shirts actually, in visibility materials. I also put together money from our Community Services office, which is who had been coordinating the voter registration drive before. So instead of the money that they had spent running their own project, they were willing to put it towards this project. Which again, giving students access over how those dollars are spent I think was really important. I also was able to get resources from a couple different places as a faculty member, so I pitched Vote Oswego originally at a faculty academic affairs retreat at the start of a year and received $1000. The idea was voted as a best new innovation for teaching and learning at SUNY Oswego’s campus. And then I also received a Curriculum Innovation Grant here at SUNY Oswego that helped cover for me traveling to grassroots organizing training with the new voters project, to essentially get a refresher. It had been… let’s just say I was not text messaging…. that did not exist when I was last organizing… so getting a nice refresher on what sort of the the modern techniques were and best practices was really helpful.

Rebecca: How can others get involved like this particular project on this campus or run similar projects?

Allison: Yeah, so on this campus, faculty or students or staff that are interested should just shoot me an email. Definitely trying as soon as possible to start ramping up the plans for the 2018 midterm version and really starting to lay the groundwork for something big in 2020. Folks on other campuses that are interested in figuring out how this project worked, I actually just had a co-authored piece come out in the Journal of Political Science Education, it’s available as of yesterday online entitled “Vote Oswego: Developing and Assessing the Campaign-as-Course Model” that does quite a bit to outline how this project can run, where it fits pedagogically in sort of that space of taking some of the best parts of both simulations and service-learning. That article actually includes quite a bit from the course calendar, assessment strategies, as well as some student outcomes. And I want to point out that that piece was co-authored with Angela Tylock, who was one of the lead interns for the project. She graduated from SUNY Oswego in Spring of 2017.

John: Very good. We’ll include a link to that reference in the show notes.
What specific guidance might you give to other campuses trying to do similar projects?

Allison: I would just really encourage faculty and campuses generally, even if you don’t want to run it as a credit bearing course, to figure out how students can take the lead as organizers. I think, too often, students become the volunteers, right? There’s sort of a whole apparatus with lots of different nonprofits that are doing really good work to get students to vote and that’s really important, but I think on campuses, we’re missing really big opportunities if we treat elections as an opportunity to get students to vote, but not as an opportunity to get students the skills that they are gonna want and need for a whole variety of things. If you want to go work in a non-profit, you’ve got to know how to build a coalition. If you want to work for your kids’ PTA and make sure that they’re getting the resources they need, the ability to run a meeting and get petition signatures, is actually really important. And all of those types of civic skills are things that students can and, I think, should be getting by volunteering or helping to run one of these drives.

John: So it’s very much an active learning exercise…

Allison: Absolutely, absolutely.

John: …where students played an important role in building it.

Rebecca: How did you get students to take that active role? I mean, it’s easy to assign tasks and be the leader, but how did that feel?

Allison: There was… definitely, I had to be fine with a level of loss of control that I am often not fine with in my classes. What I did is actually work to set up the first two weeks of the semester, I had the calendar planned out, so I had worked ahead of time to set up tables and events that were happening for orientation, had coordinated with faculty around campus to have individuals come in and give announcements and register students in that first 10 minutes that really, the first week of school, you can almost always, the first day of class, give up 10 minutes, after you review the syllabus, to get some students registered to vote. After that first two weeks, the students who were enrolled in the course, had had an opportunity to be trained in those skills, to get their feet wet in the skills, to get feedback on the skills and then I didn’t plan anything else. I basically said, “now it’s up to you, what are we gonna do?” And goals have been set for the campaign so the students knew, “here’s where we want to get, here are what we think our rates are gonna be. So if we want to register 500 people from tabling, here’s how many table hours we need scheduled, how are we gonna make that happen?” And I think two things then happened. One, I stepped back and basically told students, “you’re the expert on where students on this campus are.” I come here, I go to work, sometimes I go to events, and then I go home. I don’t actually know what dining halls are packed on what days. Turns out chicken sandwiches, big deal, chicken sandwich day at late night, right? There are all of these things that happen on campus that, as a faculty member, I don’t know about. So students basically learned that I wasn’t gonna tell them not to register students at 11 p.m. at night if that’s where they thought students were, they ran with it. The other thing that happened is they realized that I would let things fail. If students scheduled events and those events went poorly, they went poorly. And I wasn’t gonna fix those events for them– with the exception of confirming that registration forms were filled out correctly. We had an entire process for making sure that voter registration forms were correctly done. But in terms of the grassroots apparatus around that, if students didn’t plan well, they didn’t plan well, and they were the ones that had to stand there while the event went poorly. And I think between those two things, the students really became engaged around sort of their responsibility and taking ownership over the campaign.

Rebecca: Was most of the learning then taking place by “let’s try this, let’s fail, let’s try again,” an iteration rather than like doing readings or other kinds of … ?

Allison: Yes, there were minimal readings while the campaign was actually happening. There was quite a bit of reading and reflecting once election day happened, but prior to that, it was much more “these are the tried-and-true tactics, what do you want to get out and do? How do you think these tactics will best adjust to the environment that you’re in and the student population were working with?”

John: And students learn a lot more by making mistakes and recovering from them, and it sounds like you set up a mechanism where there was lots of feedback from each other.

Allison: Yes.

John: That’s excellent.

Rebecca: So, usually we wrap up these conversations by asking what are you gonna do next?

Allison: Next for Vote Oswego is an effort to improve the connections between the voter registration drive as a grassroots campaign to the voter registration drive as an overall campaign that involves lots of different components. So actually, Rebecca, had a class that worked on the website for Vote Oswego, it was a project for one of her classes we’re hoping to do, I think, much more of that for the 2016 campaign as well as trying to figure out what other faculty or other classes could also use a voter registration drive… benefit from that timing… benefit from the fact that it can be student driven and student owned in a lot of ways, to really get their classes involved with this as a project.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: Thanks for taking the time out and sharing your project. I think it probably has encouraged a lot of people to start thinking about those midterm elections and how they might be able to get students tapped into it.

John: And will you be doing this every other year now?

Allison: The goal is to do it every other year. I haven’t done it for a midterm yet, I think that will be different. I think there will be more actual campaign literature there just because it will be difficult to get it sort of as ramped up as a presidential election, but the goal is to do it every other year.

John: Very good. Okay, well thank you.

Allison: Thank you.

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.