68. Mobile Music instruction

There are apps for just about everything but choosing when to embrace them for instruction needs to be a careful decision. In this episode, Trevor Jorgensen joins us to discuss how the decision to use mobile apps in music instruction is affected by where students are developmentally, convenience, cost, and other factors. Trevor is an Assistant Professor of Music and the Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Coordinator at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Additional Resources

Transcript

John: There are apps for just about everything but choosing when to embrace them for instruction needs to be a careful decision. In this episode we consider where students are developmentally in a discipline, convenience, cost, and other factors on the choice of supporting music instruction using mobile applications.

[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.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Trevor Jorgensen, an Assistant Professor of Music and Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Coordinator at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Trevor.

John: Welcome.

Trevor: Hey.

John: Our teas today are:

Trevor: Pure Leaf Peach Flavor tea.

John: Iced tea.

Trevor: Iced tea. Sorry. Thank you.

John: …and Rebecca.

Rebecca: I have Chai today…

John:…and I have black raspberry green tea. We’ve invited you here to talk about how you’ve been using mobile technology in applied music instruction, specifically related to performance. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Trevor: Yeah, I think one of the most important things is to decide when to use technology where it benefits as opposed to be either a substitute for something you should learn in a different way, or whether you should implement it because it’s just convenient. Sometimes when it’s convenient, though, it takes away some of the learning behind it, and I’ll get into some of that later. So I think that’s the first thing. I have to make that decision on every app that I use, or every device that I employ. So, one of the main things that I do is decide what’s best for the student and what’s best for me. And a lot of it does substitute for other things, but in the end, it can’t. For instance, if I do a collaborative piano thing with my colleague, there’s a lot of tools that we’ll talk about today that will substitute for that collaboration. Except for, I cannot phrase with the app in the the same way that I can. We can’t make decisions on a moment’s notice, like I can with another musician. We can’t have talks… at least I shouldn’t be talking to my apps… about what the best way to do something is and then make that interpretation or change colors of stuff. But what it allows me to do is, instead of having a more rehearsals with somebody that’s really busy, it allows me to rehearse by myself. And then therefore, save some time when we’re actually in the rehearsal to talk about those musical decisions as opposed to just to try to learn notes or trying to learn one anothers parts.

John: What are some of the apps that you use with instruction or performance?

Trevor: One of my favorite ones is Amazing Slow Downer, and I use this for both jazz and classical, being a saxophonist, and also a multi-reed player…I play clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. I like to use it in every circumstance I can. And it’s really a great app because even though there’s things like YouTube where you can now click over the three little dots in the corner, and you can slow down to 25%, 50% and 75% and speed it up if you so desire. This tool is just something that I always have with me and I can always use. And I’m also more familiar with it, it allows me to do multiple things. So let me give you example if I can play musical selection here. The first two are not going to be on the music slower downer, it’s going to be on Amazon Music. But I want you to listen. These are Brahms’ Clarinet Trio. I performed this with a colleague and somebody from Symphoria recently. And one of the things you’re doing as a musician is you have to interpret the history of music, and that includes listening. So if I listened to multiple recordings of something, you know, we always ask “Why are there a thousand recordings—might be overstated—but of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” That’s because the composer had a certain thing in mind. And then the conductor who prepares the music, and the individuals in that group have different ways of interpreting that music and every one is different. But for a lot of younger students, and sometimes myself when it’s really advanced players, I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing, either articulation wise or what they’re doing phrasing wise. And the slower downer allows me to think about what they’re doing and compare all these great artists together. So I’ll do multiple recordings on something like this Brahms’ clarinet trio in A minor and have my students listen to it. I’m going to play one of them for you, and then I’ll play another one, and then I’ll play the third one. And then the third one I’ll slow down to show you how we can listen for different articulations. You may or may not tell the difference between the three, some of them are obvious, like there’s a tempo difference between them. But as far as the phrasing and the articulation used by the cellist, and by that clarinetist, and by the pianist, is something to think about. What do I want to sound like? It’s great to imitate people, but it’s also great to make decisions between all these different things you’re, in a way, sourcing and decide what you want to do and why you’re doing those musical decisions.

Rebecca: Before we jump into listening, for our audience who maybe is not as familiar with the music terms that you’re using? Can you clarify the difference between phrasing and articulation?

Trevor: Sure. Great. So articulation is the front of the note, and thank you for your much for that. So as a saxophonist, it’s how I tongue the note, if I put an emphasis through air or through my tongue. Another word for that is “attack,” how it attacks into it. For a string player, it might be the direction—up bow or down bow—how fast they’re moving the bow. For the pianist, how they voice the chords and are there some fingers stronger than the others. A third comes out of the chord and the fifth comes out of the chord. For a chord you have multiple, you know 1-3-5s, or the seventh of the chord. And each one of those, as a pianist, when they’re putting down multiple fingers, they can decide which ones are the most important. Whether it be the melody, whether it be the bass part, whether it be the inner harmony. So, from a pianist’s point-of-view, they can listen for that, or how the touches on the piano, how much they pressurize it, or if they use pedal in this area that’s not dictated by the score exactly. So phrasing, the best way to describe it is like minute dynamics. Or just using what we normally do. We, as human beings phrase, if you like somebody you change your voice, or if you get excited like, “I have go to the bathroom,” you don’t think, “Hey, I should elevate the dynamic of my voice. I should make it sound strained, so that I show the excitement of me having to go to the bathroom.” But in music, we have to think about that. We have to think about where, based on the harmony that’s below the music, how much am I going to emphasize that note or more importantly, maybe even growth of that note, or that musical phrase. So phrasing’s how people interpret the music beyond playing the right notes in the right place, and doing the pianoforte dynamics; it’s how they’re going to go to a note and resolve a note. And not only that, they think about overall structure of a piece for phrasing and how everything fits together, if they’re amazing musicians. When we listen to amazing musicians—like the ones who found in these recordings, then what we’re going to do is interpret what they did. And then maybe in our own minds figure out why you think they did that, if that’s a choice that you like to do based on the harmony or just a different tone color they do. And that’s obviously easier to figure out when you slow down to 70% than it is when you’re listening to it at 100%. So before I play the examples, the actual artists will be in the show notes below in the description. First one is, I’m just going to name the clarinetist, Karl Leister, and this is them playing the Brahms’ Trio. And I’ll do the first 30 seconds or so, so you can hear how it sounds.

[KARL LEISTER PLAYING BRAHMS’ TRIO]

Trevor: The next example will be by the clarinetist David Shifrin, that trio that he’s in. I’ll play about the same amount of time for it.

[DAVID SHIFRIN PLAYING BRAHMS’ TRIO]

Trevor: The last one I’ll do on Amazing Slower Downer, the app. And we’ll actually play it in tempo first, since its Martin Frost as the clarinetist, playing the same piece.

[MARTIN FROST PLAYING BRAHMS’ TRIO]

Trevor: So what we’ll do now is we’ll actually slow it down to like 70% so we can actually hear a little bit better the articulations, the dynamics—as the artist gets louder, you’ll be able to hear it more individual. And we can even slow it down after that into something ridiculous like 25%, where you can actually hear the front of each note. It’s almost painstaking how slow it is, but interpreting different things, it’s interesting to see if they use a breath attack or a tongue attack, and some of them are so subtle, I’d have to listen to it 25 times without slowing it down where I can actually hear it at 25% right away. So let’s go back and do it about 70%.

[BRAHMS’ TRIO PLAYED AT 70% SPEED]

Trevor: Here’s 25%.

[BRAHMS’ TRIO PLAYED AT 25% SPEED]

Trevor: I’m just going to jump ahead a little bit so we get into the clarinetist and stuff. I’m just going to scroll ahead.

[BRAHMS’ TRIO PLAYED AT 25% SPEED]

Trevor: First of all it’s very unfair because I would never want to be heard at 25%—it’s just impossible to keep a phrase sometimes or keep a note perfectly that way—but what it does is for us is we can actually hear them the front of the note… we can hear the shape of that note even if it’s a quarter note if he—in this case it’s a he—de-crescendos or crescendos into it and we can look at the overall structure of the dynamics too. You can see if he’s actually growing on that note, if you’re taping the note as I said before… the overall picture or phrase too. I think 25% might be a little excessive, you have to find the happy medium based on the tempo of the piece. I think initially 25% for this one might have been a little painstaking at the beginning.

John: But for students, perhaps having the ability to slow it down to that level would be much more helpful than for someone with more experience?

Trevor: Right, there’s definitely that and then we’re looking into transcription later on too. There’s this great book called School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity by Eitan Wilf and I hope I’m pronouncing his name right. He wrote it in 2014 and he basically went to Berklee School of Music and then The New School in Manhattan. And he noticed that students were using this application even back then—and when I say back then is only five years ago, or four years ago, or three, because in the time of technology, that’s way back then—and they were actually interpreting, transcribing not only John Coltrane and getting his notes like I would have done when I was in grad school or undergrad, but also then listening to his articulation at the front of the note. So trying to make their tongue sound exactly like that slow, and then they’d be speeding it up. Also, in a real fast passage we use a fake fingering. What fake fingering is, is there’s a normal way of fingering D on saxophone which is like 123-123 fingers down and then there’s a way of playing the high D but not using the octave key so it comes out in kind of a muffled way, I could probably demonstrate it for you if you’d like.

[TREVOR PLAYS D NOTE 3 DIFFERENT WAYS]

Trevor: So you use three different fingerings for the same note, which I’d probably not do in classical, but for jazz, it adds a different color. A lot of people know certain people will play that way so that you can actually determine those notes when it’s really fast it’s hard to tell. Just that nuanced playing that you can actually interpret when you’re listening to John Coltrane, that I didn’t when I was that age of the students that he was, you know, surveying. But, slowing it down, it’s not something new. There’s another great book too, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation by Paul Berliner who was published in 1994. He talks about how the old school players would get a vinyl record and they’d put their thumb on it and slow it down to like a third of the speed and then obviously transpose. Now they would be in the wrong key and way too low, and then they just transpose it up. So this technology, or using this technology, has been available as far as transcription. But if you did put your thumb on a record, it would probably distort the sound and the way that you can figure out articulation and you couldn’t figure out phrasing.

John: And the advantage of this is that students can preserve the pitch because all these apps maintain the pitch and you can hear the attack… just more slowly.

Trevor: This one is specifically and I’m sure a lot of things you can probably do this on YouTube. Also, a lot of my students have to in order to avoid buying a $15 app like this one is—at least when I bought it it was—they’ll find other sources, which I think is great. It doesn’t matter to me what they use as long as it does the same thing. I think on YouTube, you can do the same thing where you can loop it, and there is these three seconds or 10 seconds or whatever, and just loop it and here you can loop it. You can also save the file, save the section of the piece, call it what you want, and the next time you open up the app, it’s there. And you can also share your ideas with people. You can download stuff from things you buy on iTunes or you can use Spotify and there are other ways of importing into this app that’s really beneficial too. The nice part about this app is it can be used for classical and jazz. Most people use it mainly for jazz and transcription but I use it for everything and additionally you can actually slow your own self down which is always painful and hear that you weren’t phrasing that well or that your end of notes aren’t as tapered as they could be. And once you listen to amazing players you realize that they have control over everything. I’ve slowed myself down. I always know the differences between me and like the best person in the world, although I knew already but but it’s so evident when you slow it down to 50% and you hear the attack of your note is not as clear and not as shaped as the people that are just geniuses.

John: And you can also use that with students, though, to show them what they’re doing, right?

Trevor: Exactly. I mean, it’s a very revealing tool. So as far as students are concerned, I think it’s great tool for them but also can be somewhat depressing to hear yourself. It has to be a good balance and the student has to be at the point where we’re finding things not initially at the beginning, or maybe they’re even in their freshman or sophomore year, but at the end when they’re preparing for grad school or something like that, and it depends on the student as it does with every situation… what you can push them on and what you can’t. But, it’s just a great tool for that. So I also use the Amazing Slower Downer when I have a piece that I don’t have a—we’ll talk about Smart Music later where it is an intuitive accompaniment tool that takes away the saxophone or takes away or whatever it is you’re working on—but when it’s in pieces not in there or I don’t know the piece, I’ll find a recording of it and then I’ll play along with it. And this I can adjust a little bit of pitch if I need to and more importantly speed if I needed to get slower or I decided to take the piece at the end faster. Maybe now’s the time to talk about what the disadvantage of some technology is. I’ve got colleagues that don’t like using slower downers, not just colleagues but I’ve read articles and everything else, because you don’t have to go through the work and the persistence of doing so, and you should be able to hear it in the moment in the spot. And I think there’s something to be said for that. But I look at myself as one of the things where I get discouraged. I always think about one of my favorite reads, which is a psychologist by the name of Csikszentmihalyi and he’s got the flow theory, which is a book he published in 1990, which a lot of people are aware of. And number three of his flow theory is that there has to be a balance between the challenge and skills. For me, there wasn’t, my skills were low and my patience were also maybe lower when I was younger. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think that’s true for most starting students. And a lot of people get discouraged when they don’t see that immediate progress.

Trevor: Yeah, that’s exactly it. So for me, I was able to use the tools that helped me a lot more. I painstakingly did it when I was my students’ age that was also because of the slower downers were $400 and I didn’t have the money. Now most students have phones but they use them for social media or actually using them as phones, or texting more likely. But now you can just download an app instead of buying a $400 machine for about $15, or you can go to YouTube and use that function or other tools that come with any kind of PC nowadays. Microsoft has their recording software and you can slow it down too. Not in such a certain way, but any of those tools are great too. Anyways I’ll slow my own recordings down of me playing along with other things. But the problem is trying to figure out that balance where I should be taking it to the tempo there I just took it or slowing it down. You just have to progress and move it forward so that you take it faster, faster each time. The thing about anything is once we do it more often, it becomes easier.

John: And the more they practice with this at a slow pace, the better they’ll be able to do it in real time as well.

Trevor: Right, and their ears develop immediately, faster and faster, and then therefore they can get to that point. I commend my colleagues and all the articles that I’ve read where you know, it’s better to do it that way. But for me, it was a wall, as it is for some of my students.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s good to recognize when you are a beginner and that sometimes you need those training wheels just to feel like you got a little success.

Trevor: Right. That success as we all know it from pedagogy is that wields more success and it gets better and better every time. Let’s go on to a different app. Some of the obvious apps are metronome apps, every student can get a free metronome. I was excited in the mid 2000s when they dropped down to $20 as opposed to like $200, or the tuner is the same way, and then balancing that out. For me it’s I could buy a $20 tuner and put one on every one of my instruments but I always have my cell phone on me that’s what I love about it. I always have a tuner, I always have a metronome and I have no excuse, nor do my students. You know it’s a free app; you already own the phone. But there are some tuners and some metronomes that are better than others and I am not an authority, I don’t know every app that’s out there because there’s thousands. The ones that I know are the ones that I like… people have introduced to me and I’ll switch apps all the time if I find one that’s better. As far as the tuner or metronome it doesn’t really matter what my student brings in… whether she brings in the one that I prefer, like Cleartune for everyday apps, or if she brings in like TonalEnergy Tuner, but I’m going to talk about that one because it’s one that I found really interesting and it has a lot of functions on it. And it’s not only a tuner but a metronome. I use Tempo app for metronome primarily when I’m practicing but I’m getting into the TonalEnergy app for inside of it has also a metronome that I’m trying to investigate. So the app has so many different features to it, and I’ll show you and then maybe both of you can also chime in on what you think they look like, but…

John: I use the Cleartune app myself.

Trevor: Yeah, I loved that app until I saw this app. To give you a total side story, this one does analysis by waveform as it does it by another analysis and note names, too. This weekend, I judged a competition for high school students to get into all-county bands. And one of the other judges in the brass room said one of the students—and I don’t know the name of the student nor the judge—but the performance was really not great at all, where he actually pulled out his TonalEnergy Tuner to figure out what note the student was on to see if he could find out where he or she was was in the piece. That being the extreme of what the app is used for… nor do you want to use it for transcription because there are transcription apps where you plug it in and it’ll transcribe it for you. For playing our transcriptions—there’s worth to all those things—as far as actual transcriptions… a tool that you should have so that it ingrains in your memory and you have those phrases for jazz specifically. So this one here you can choose from waveform, you can do spectral harmonic analysis and note analysis. As you can see right now as we’re talking, sometimes I’m talking in tune and he gives me a happy face—it could be a she—gives me a smiley face, or if I’m really badly out of tune, there’s this little question mark with the thumb and finger or very sadness as you get way out of tune. But more importantly, as I do the waveform thing, it will record what I do.

Rebecca: I was also noticing that the color was changing as well. So, there was a lot of different identifiers to the user so if you had a certain kind of disability it’s actually providing that information in multiple ways.

Trevor: Yeah, and that’s great. And then over on the side it tells you pluses and minuses, I’m 13 cents sharp or whatever, 13.6 or flat. So, I can show the pitch, I can show the wave, and I can record it. Let’s go ahead and record it. You’ll see as we’re talking the spectrum, and then if I do with the notes, it’ll show me the notes, which ones they are, and how badly out of tune they are and we’re just talking. I could play my saxophone. But it would give you the same thing.

Rebecca: Right.

Trevor: So as far as I’m concerned, if I turn this away, and I can record it, and then go back and look at it, I’ll know that if I do nothing, or how much I need to do on the D. The D that I played for you before, nd gave you three different examples is the worse out-of-tune note on saxophone. So, I probably was sharp but this will tell me every note that I need to. You can even slow it down and stuff. You can also record your student visually and with audio. The visual thing is interesting because a lot of movement in the face will affect tuning. When I came to college, I chewed a lot, I had movements in my throat and my face and my teacher would just tell me what they were. But now I can like hold the video against them, show what their movements are, and how it’s affecting tuning and it’s, you know, just another another tool to get you there beyond just recording their facial features and hearing it.

Rebecca: It’s an interesting way to note take because it’s a visual note-taking method that you’re not just having to remember the conversation that you had with your faculty member or mentor, but that you can go back to and see again, if you’re able to record it and save it for later.

Trevor: Right. Yeah, I know, it’s great. It’s a neat tool. So, I’m starting to love this tuner and this metronome as much as the others. It does a lot of specific things where if I’m just pulling out a tuner like Cleartune, as we talked about, or Tempo, that’s more my functional as opposed to how badly I’m out of tune when I’m playing this passage. And the same thing I notice whether I’m using this app, TonalEnergy Tuner, or I’m using Amazing Slower Downer, or I’m using what we’ll talk about later, Smart Music, is that when I’m playing along with the pitch, in the case of Amazing Slower Downer, I know I can hear I’m out of tune, and then I can check it against this or if I’m playing along with Smart Music and you check it against here and see where I’m out. And I play multiple instruments so I’d like to tell you I’m perfectly in tune on every instrument but sometimes I’ll be playing A clarinet and I haven’t played that for a while where I normally do B-flat clarinet and I’m like, “Oh, that’s right. This B-flat is flat on the A but sharp on the…” you know, you have to adjust and unlearn and it allows me to do that prior to getting in there with my collaborative pianist and realizing that I’m out of tune. It’s a great tool. It’s got so many more features that I’m going to start looking into but there are funny features like… not really funny… but the band director or the the judge using it to try to figure out where they were, which hopefully we won’t have to use it very often for.

Rebecca: I wonder for a beginning student who has very little experience… maybe someone who’s not in the music program, but is learning an instrument. Have you worked with students using these kinds of apps with that population of students… like total beginners?

Trevor: Prior to teaching here at SUNY Oswego, I was teaching beginning students… so, seven to eighth in junior high program and then had fifth and sixth grade students. I haven’t used it and mainly because of physicality. Until you develop your armature, until you learn how to use the air, it’s almost impossible to use this effectively because if you don’t have the proper air you can’t make those minute adjustments. That being said, to get the initial tuning for every instrument, whether you’re in fifth grade or fourth grade, you do want to make sure the violin is in tune so students will start using that, you do want to make sure that your concert B-flat’s in tune, which only means after that all the other 11 notes are out of tune, but it’s a good reference point. And then students start to use tuners that way, and amazingly some of them like apps and stuff, and they get into and they show me different things they’re using for that I never thought. But initially, I try not… until those physical things are employed properly. It’s almost futile to actually do it all the time.

John: They need the fundamentals before you can work on tweaking.

Trevor: Right, yeah, especially for you know, with piano you don’t have to worry about tuning. Guitar, that’s got frets so it’s good to know how to tune it. You know that more…

John: You’ve never seen my piano, but… [LAUGHTER]

Trevor: Yeah, but yeah, no… We’ll talk about the next thing, Smart Music, and how it’s used more, or at least, I think more band directors in the public schools use it at elementary all the way through high school, then maybe as far as band music and material is than college professors. I use it for the solo literature, like clarinet concertos and sonatas ….but in the public schools they’re using this technology we’ll get into to not only evaluate their students—how they’re doing, to keep track of their practicing—but as a preparation tool, it’s great. And it can also be not as great for certain specific things and we’ll talk about that when we get there. The next tool—and we’re kind of focusing on my phone right now—the only app that is not available on a phone, a mobile platform that way, but is only on an iPad—is the Smart Music. As I said, we’ll get into that later. The next app I like a lot and I just got an email right before this, there’s a physics professor on campus who’s named Shashi and he’s a saxophone player. And he does exceptionally well, he’s way better of a saxophone player than I am in physics by any means. [LAUGHTER] He loves it. But he gave me an update “I used iReal Pro yesterday at an open jam session. I played these tunes” and went “Great, I’m excited.” It’s great to see that it can be used by by anyone. And as I said, he’s come miles and he loves this because for a physics professor he probably jams with people and he’s been doing a lot more of that. But initially, he’s like, “Who do I get to play with?” and if you don’t play music with somebody—it’s a social thing too… or people hear it—then you kind of like “Why am I doing this?” Even myself as a professional musician, my colleagues and I will prepare harder and more for either recordings or performances coming up then we will during the summer when there’s nothing to do. That being said, we’re preparing always for the next semester, but it’s always great to have that motivation. If I never played with anybody I probably wouldn’t continue playing, especially being a saxophone. A pianist is different, a guitarist is different, perhaps. Drummer is probably different too. I can’t imagine one person only being a drummer and doing that for the rest of life without collaborating with someone.

John: Did you tell us what iReal Pro is?

Trevor: In jazz, there’s these things called real books or fake books. Now, they’re legal. Back about 20, 30 years ago you can only buy them through illegal sources, and they were the melodies of famous popular music standards and jazz compositions, with chord changes behind them. And then you would get together with musicians and you’d play. Now back in the 70s, a guy by the name of Jamey Aebersold used professional musicians who recorded them on CDs—or back then I guess vinyl—and then gave a play along book with it. So he’s got the Jamey Aebersold play along. And what this is done is taking non-live musicians and put it into an app where you can play along with. You can see the chord changes. There are no melodies because you’d have to pay money and royalties for the melodies. But there is no royalties needed for chord changes, and so of the title of the tune and then the chord changes. It comes with no actual pieces on it until you go to the forum and then you can download thousands of pieces that are already programmed in that you can play along with. So I’m just going to pick up right now blues “Straight, No Chaser” by Thelonious Monk. Although it could be any blues until you hear the head and I’m just going to play you a little bit of how it sounds and then I’ll give you a visual description later about it.

[“Straight, No Chaser” PLAYS]

As you notice, when the music goes by, or the chord changes goes by, there’s a highlighted measure so that you know where you are, which is handy for students that are learning to improvise. Later on it’s not necessary, you could just look off a real book lead sheet and play along with it. There’s many features, one I can make the transposing instrument like I’m playing saxophone in the key of B-flat instead of C. I can see the chords transposed in front of me even though it’s playing the key of C. I can do that for any instrument. There’s like a balancing… if I’m a pianist, I can take the piano out or if I’m a drummer, I can take the drummer out. I’m not sure why a drummer would want to do that. And I can control the reverb… I can change the tempo… I can change the style—this is a jazz medium up swing—I can change it to almost anything—Latin, Gypsy jazz, trio guitar, slow swing, traditional jazz—and there’s pop and Latin stuff so I can change the beat behind. I don’t do that as much unless you’re working in the Latin situation but it’s nice to have and as I said, you can also program pieces in. So we just did a concert with this great alto saxophone player by the name of Dick Oatts down in the Village Vanguard Band—that’s where he is primarily and teaches at Temple University—a world renowned musician. And he sent us his charts which are really hard and don’t follow normal progressions. They’re really kind of tricky so I actually programmed them, or one of them, into here just so I could play along with it a little bit… hear the changes a little bit better. I mean I’ll voice them out on my saxophone like normal but it’s a really handy tool to have. And speed it up too like I can’t take it to the tempo he wants it so I’m gonna slow it down and feel good about myself and they’re not really that odd but they’re more unusual chord changes. They made sense but just needed more time to practice and I just programmed in it by…you kind of scroll up and type in F major and put a seven and you can do all the different things. It’s really interesting and you can save them and if you want and you can share them on the forum so other people can look at tunes. So this is an amazing tool. I love it for that because I can speed it up and slow it down, but there are other options. I think Aebersold things are still available online unfortunately for Aebersold ‘cause you know, he’s losing royalties and stuff on that. But then on YouTube, there’s “Learn to Play Jazz” I think if you type that in and whatever tune you want to do there’s that for the people that actually have iReal Pro copies on YouTube. You can’t slow it down, you can’t transpose it. You can adjust the balance and blend and stuff but it’s there. So my students will find those things too and use them. And I’m totally fine with that. You know, financially it makes sense. One of my favorite features is…and John, you have this app you said?

John: Yeah, I do.

Trevor: So you use this app, and have you have you looked at the tablature part of the app?

John: I haven’t been using it recently. Since we started the podcast I haven’t been playing so much music.

[LAUGHTER]

Trevor: Got ya. Give me a second here. So I’m going to show you…and do you play an instrument at all?

Rebecca: No. That’s why I was asking all those music questions.

Trevor: And please continue to do so. [LAUGHTER] In the corner of the app there’s this little thing that looks like a tablature and you can choose from multiple things. One is for guitar so you can select guitar chords. You can do piano, and the piano you can do one hand or two hands. You can do ukulele, which is a new feature and more importantly for me is the chord scale library which I use all the time. So let’s go back and add the chord scale library. So if I press play and then I pause it right away it’ll give me chords down at the bottom. So for that C7 chord I can do either dominant mixolydian chord if I scroll over. Actually for this one, there’s only one, but for a lot of times when it’s a different chord like flat 5 or something like that it’ll give you multiple options of what scaless you can use over top of it. Once you talk to a pianist—they’re not really fond of this app, because it’s not exactly like you would teach jazz piano—but if you have no skills, and you want to learn from an app, it can give you some things. It’s a really nice tool for myself and all of my students too. And as I said, our physics professor on campus uses it a lot and as do you prior to doing the podcast.

John: I used to use it more before we started this podcast.

[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Trevor, we found that students were using these tools—or when you’re using these as part of your teaching—that the students abilities have improved or that they’re playing has improved. Have you noticed a difference in the integration or?

Trevor: In some regards more about how they practice and how long they practice. But yeah, I’ve noticed an improvement. By having no one to play along with it’s difficult to improvise—you improvise in different ways—it’s a very valuable skill to be able to cut the changes… and me as a saxophone player, if I play and my colleague walks in the room they say, “Oh, you’re playing this tune” based on the solo I’m doing then I know I’m really cutting the changes. But when I don’t know a tune as well, it’s nice to have the harmonic progression so I can use my ear a little bit more than I can my mind and eventually, it’s a combination of both, I’d hope. But my students will then play along with the blues a lot more than they would if they were just doing it by themselves.

John: And much of the benefit is students can work and get up to a point where they’re ready to play with other students so that everyone can use their time more effectively when they actually do collaborate and meet at once. Rather than each person struggling just to do their own parts, they get to work out playing it together.

Trevor: Exactly, it saves so much time. In addition to that, when we think about rural areas. A lot of times you’ll be able to find a great collaborative pianist for doing your solo so it might be okay to use Smart Music—I hate to say that—or you might not have a chance to prepare so you play along with records—or you play along with, in the old days—and now you can play along with this. You know, even getting out and playing along with it at open mic night it’s just totally acceptable because it’s expensive to find musicians and especially in different places. Where in New York City I think would never see anybody using iReal Pro to play along with at a club, you know, just because…

John: …There’s a few musicians there, yeah.

Trevor: But I’ve heard of people pulling it out and it does irritate people. There is the idea that once you graduate from a jazz program—specifically, if you focus on jazz. I myself, did music education. I play jazz a lot and I also did classical clarinet, classical saxophone—but if you’re only a jazz major, or if you’re good jazz player, you’ll have like 150 to 200 tunes memorized. So you’ll call a tune, you’ll have the head, and you’ll know the chord progressions. But nowadays, a lot of the younger players are… from what I hear and what I hear from complaints from older generation people is that they’ll pull out the iReal Pro if they don’t know a tune and play along with it. And there’s pluses and minuses. Now you can actually play that tune. The minus is it’s not as ingrained as if you had to learn it and memorize it and ingrain in yourself, and that you won’t be able to interact with the high level players you’re playing with in the same way as if you did that work. So there’s, you know, again, pluses and minuses. It never should be a substitute for the ideal, but it should be a tool like you just said to get you there. Or in the cases of where there’s not a bass player to play with, at least it gives you a way to proceed until you can find one.

Rebecca: How do students respond to using these tools?

Trevor: They like them. They enjoy them. They think they’re really neat. This freshman student that came in—he was using YouTube, one of the play alongs he warmed up to it—but yet again, the disadvantage of this is all electronic and they sound electronic. So at least some of the “Learn to Play Jazz” are actually real jazz musicians. But you can alter the tempo—or you can’t—I guess you can with the 75%, 50%. I’ve never tried it, now that I think of it, on YouTube…but you know, it just it takes adjustment. You know, there’s nothing to substitute live musicians. The drummer can’t react to what phrase you just played. Nor can the keyboard voice omething different if you’re going there harmonically. But it is a tool. And yet again, a tool that’s not a substitute, but a tool that’s effective in preparing. The next tool we’ll talk about is actually on my iPad, and it’s Smart Music. Smart Music is an app which originally was on a computer and way back in the 90s when it came out it looked like the old Atari cartridges you’d buy with the machine for $2,000 and each cartridge would be like $80 or something and have one piece—Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. But nowadays it comes on an iPad and you can also get it on your computer. The computer has more features on it but obviously is not as portable as the iPad. And what it does and what it’s being used for is amazing, but also can be negative and we’ll talk about that after we talk about the positives. It has all the band music that you’ll want to play in public school and what the band director can do—including myself as a band director—is that I can say, “I want you to play Holst’s ‘First Suite,’” is which we picked here, and gives you the saxophone part but I can also push the button as you can see, and I can pick whatever instrument I’m playing. So I’m playing bassoon, it gives you the bassoon part. It has the music in front of you and then once I play along with the rest of the band without that bassoon part or that saxophone part, it has little X’s and O’s and tells me what percentage of the music I got right rhythmically and everything else. So band directors will use this to say, “I want you to record this and get it to me and then that’s your percentage on it.” Now it does have some flaws. I’ve listened to students play and myself play and it’s no way that I’m getting 60% I’m getting closer to 85 or something like that. So some advantages and it’s gotten better over the years.

Rebecca: So just to clarify, it’s like Guitar Hero video game?

Trevor: To clarify, Guitar Hero has nothing to do with guitar.

Rebecca: Right. Yeah.

Trevor: It’s more of a rhythmic pushing buttons…

John: Pattern matching, yeah.

Trevor: Pattern matching and it has something to do with the music because it’s actually, you’re hitting it rhythmically along with the song, that’s about it. But you’re right, it’s like a play along, it’s like karaoke without the part you’re on. But this karaoke, in this case, records where your notes are wrong with red and green, where you’re behind, and it tells you where you’ve missed things, and then that goes back to the band director and they can grade you accordingly. So it saves them time.

Rebecca: The visual cues are similar is really what I’m…

Trevor: Oh I see what you’re saying. Yeah, I haven’t I haven’t played a lot of Guitar Hero and I apologize. Most of my knowledge of Guitar Hero’s from South Park and we won’t talk about that. So it allows you to do all those different things and then record them. As far as soloists are concerned, that’s where I use it more. I use it more to play along with a collaborative pianist that’s not there. And it follows you. So for instance, I’m going to pick the clarinet Copland concerto that I’ve prepared for, and it’s got a piano reduction to it. It’s a very difficult piece to put together when you’re a clarinetists like me, who’s a saxophone player that also plays clarinet well. So I use it a lot of time to prepare before I meet with my collaborative pianist. And I’m going to pick an arbitrary section in the middle so you can hear the piano part. And the piano part will play and then once I play along with it—and I’m not actually going to play—it will record it, and I can play it back so I hear all my mistakes which is really nice, and also my pitch errors and stuff. And then if I am unsure of myself, I can actually set it so that it will play with the clarinet part along with me so that I can hear that part to make sure I’m rhythmically accurate with it. That comes to one of the problems with being able to play along with something that has 100% rhythmic accuracy, but you don’t. You know, our ear can pick up on things so quickly that… let me give you the example. When I was in high school, there’s this lady named Amanda and she was the first-chair alto saxophone. And Amanda would have the rhythm perfectly the first time and then me, who would after listening to her having it perfect the fifth or sixth time, so I didn’t really learn how to count properly. And by playing along with the Smart Music, where the piano is actually playing your saxophone part or clarinet part, and you’ve been listening to that. Then when it comes to actual real performances, if you play along with it all the time, then you’re relying on it so much and your rhythm goes out the window. So that’s where some technology can get in your way, specifically with rhythmic attributes, but also with other things too. But yet again, it’s a tool and if you recognize that, you know, I prepare it rhythmically with the students first, I don’t let them use Smart Music until they’re at almost the performance level. So we’re going to play a little bit of the Copland Clarinet Concerto somewhere, but 140 measures into it. I’m going to play it initially with the accompaniment but with nobody playing, and then I’m going to set it and you can hear the difference now with the clarinet part being played by a different sounding piano.

[COPLAND’S CLARINET CONCERTO PLAYS ON PIANO]

So that was just the piano alone. Now I will do it with the clarinet part being played by a secondary piano, and you’ll hear how it fits in and that’d be what I’d be playing along with if I needed the rhythmic help or I wanted to check my pitch.

[COPLAND’S CLARINET CONCERTO PLAYS ON PIANO WITH SECONDARY PIANO]

That wasn’t as obvious an example but if you knew the part you’d be able to hear there’s extra additional things added to that which should be the clarinetist. So this tool is just remarkable for that and as I said, for band directors in public school and at the university level too, it seems like an appealing thing. I just haven’t figured out a way to automate it or include it in my, you know, as part of the practicing routine for my students. And if they don’t come from it from the schools, it’s a little bit more difficult to implement. I’m not sure at the university level it’s ideal for me to implement. I’m still wrestling with that as I am with implementing any technology.

John: So how have your colleagues responded?

Trevor: One of my colleagues, Rob Auler, he uses it as much or more than I do, we always check out, “Hey man, check this app out. Do you think it works really well?” So we check out different apps and sometimes those apps apply—or in the case of Rob, a tuning app wouldn’t apply for him because, you know, somebody else tunes his piano for him—but he really loves Amazing Slower Downer. He uses the iReal Pro probably less than I do, because he could collaborate with himself in his left hand while he’s playing solo lines in his right hand. And he doesn’t use it as a tool like Smart Music because, you know, pianists are not usually playing along with other pianists, they’re the collaborators. And we’ve talked about that, too. He knows it’s not a tool that can replace a pianist. But when we work together, Rob is a consummate musician and so he learns things way faster than I do. His mother would feel the TV to see if he was practicing five hours a day when he was younger, where I was probably you know, playing out in the backyard with dirt or something. He learns things so much faster and he doesn’t want to spend time rehearsing. So for me I’ll prepare on Smart Music and I’ll prepare on these other apps and get to that point where now I don’t have to spend so much time rehearsing with him. We’ll just do it once or twice like professional musicians do and he’s always been that way. For me, it’s upped my ante and I’ve really enjoyed that. So we’ll talk about all kinds of technologies, he’s huge into it. Other colleagues, for vocal people, they prefer having a pianist collaborate with them—which makes total sense—so it’s not as prevalent and I understand that. But most of them are not against, they just don’t understand how to tie things into doing it because what they’re doing already is fine. And that’s one of my philosophies too: If something is working, and it’s not going to be any better by adding the technology, there’s no need to add it. But if it can be an efficiency, the fact that usually in history—and as I got older, I realized this—that convenience wins out. And if I look at audio recording, you know, tapes. Small tapes were horrible audio quality compared to vinyl and CD had finally came up to a very good audio quality, probably not as good as vinyl, but most people can’t hear that spectrum anyways for those people that believe it.

John: And usually it’s better the first couple times you play the vinyl. After, the needles have worn down the grooves, unless you’re reading it with a laser, the quality of vinyl degrades really quickly.

Trevor: It does. And then MP3’s everybody thought, “Oh that won’t stick,” you know, everybody kept to analog, and really, the quality doesn’t sound nearly as good. But most people are listening through cheap headsets and on phones and using it for different background thing. Most people are not audiophiles and most musicians are and they think that technology is not going to last. So unless there’s a technology that other than convenience as a musician that I think benefits my students, I don’t really buy into it too much. A lot of people have embraced it and for different reasons. I think everybody owns a tuner on their phone. Everybody has a metronome on their phone. My colleague Juan La Manna uses the digital recordings and visual recordings of Zooms and stuff like that for his conducting students to record them and give them feedback on it and he uses it to record himself on concerts and a lot of technology being used, but not the Smart Music so much outside of wind players, I think. And it’s also ingrained in the band world. Jazz musicians have always used technology as far as like play along recordings with Jamey Aebersold and later on so it’s only a natural progression to use something like iReal Pro, I think. But you know, most of my faculty enjoy technology when it’s beneficial if it doesn’t help them out, there’s no need to learn it.

Rebecca: So I always wrap up our podcast by asking, what’s next?

Trevor: One of the things I’ve held off on and my colleague Rob Auler has not is reading off of tablets for music instead of bringing paper along with them. So for him it made a lot more sense, because he can use the AirTurn Duo Bluetooth pedal, and he doesn’t have to rely on anyone to turn his page. It’ll take them a little time to practice it. You can actually write and notate things in there if you’re in the middle of rehearsal, you know, we want more piano here, or we listen to the cello or whatever. But for me as a single line instrument, it didn’t make that much more sense other than the convenience of it, which we’ve talked about, which is to not have a lot of music in your backpack. But then a few things have changed over the course of the last few weeks that made me think I need to do it for my students and myself. They should know this technology. So I went to a rock gig—I hadn’t played a rock gig for 20 years at a wedding one of my friends asked me to do—The bread, the money was pretty good so I decided to do it for the first time in a while. And most of the people were playing on that, I had this like four inch binder that the guy gave me. He wouldn’t give me his iPad, and I played there and then I did a soloist with the Syracuse Symphoria and I was there just watching the orchestra play in one of the pieces and the harpist… and harpists are one of the people that are not known for…you know, they play an antiquated instrument…. It’s a gorgeous instrument… But she was using an iPad. Ironically she was reading a hard copy book while she was waiting for her turn to play in different pieces [LAUGHTER] so I thought that was ironic but she was using an iPad and I thought, “Oh, maybe I should do this.” And also the advent of the iPad Pro, where it’s large enough. You know I tried it when Vornhagen came here when I was doing some pieces, and I wrote it and sketched it and put it on the iPad, it just wasn’t conducive to reading with low light. And then Rob mentioned something to me that I thought would be the ultimate reason why to get one. He goes, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody played off the score?” By that I mean piano score that has a cello and the clarinet part there and we could all take a look to see vertically what’s going on as opposed to what we normally play off, the cellist has a single line as do I. Obviously the problem behind that would…we have to like learn how to read music differently. Instead of going from one line to the other, I’d have to skip them things, but I’m a conductor so that’s not a problem. But it would actually save a lot of time in rehearsal if we got off, or more importantly, if we want to phrase something together or we’re talking about something like, “What happens there?” I’d have to go over and look over Rob’s shoulder. So that to me, outside of the convenience of it, and that I probably should get back into the 21st century and actually get playing off them so our students know how to do it. I think it’s something that my next step is going to be starting to do that. And yet again, you can edit it. You can draw on it. You can put in repeats. It just seems so much more logical to do. I put in for grant for this and at the end, they’re evaluating it and they asked me specifically, “What would you do if you didn’t get this?” and I said, “Probably use paper” other than than what Rob just mentioned to me right after that session where it’d be great to read off the score ourselves. The advantage of it is more mobility and portability. These fake books are two and a half to three inches thick and there’s three or four of them and he has them all on his iPad and I have to slug them around with me, so I have nothing against paper.

John: But it’s a whole lot easier carrying around an iPad where you can have tens of thousands of scores with you.

Trevor: It is. And a battery pack too. That’s the other thing, if you don’t have a way to charge it and stuff like that, but that nowadays that doesn’t seem like it’s a concern at all.

John: And iPads generally got 10 or 12 hours at least of battery life.

Trevor: Right.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Trevor. It’s been really interesting to hear you talk about your practice with mobile technology. And I know for me as a visual artist, it was making me think about the kinds of tools that we use as a visual artist and kind of translating the kinds of activities that you’re thinking about with students to different kinds of activities that I could do with my students and also thinking about how to use those to kind of push students just a little bit further.

Trevor: Nice. That’s great.

John: Thank you.

Trevor: Thank you, appreciate 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. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandla, and Jacob Alverson.

64. How Humans Learn

Small children are innately curious about the world around them. This curiosity, though, is often stifled in traditional educational pathways. Dr. Josh Eyler joins us in this episode to discuss how research on how humans learn can help us build a more productive learning environment for all our students. Josh is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Rice University.

Show Notes

  • Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Peters, R. A. (1978). Effects of anxiety, curiosity, and perceived instructor threat on student verbal behavior in the college classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70(3), 388.
  • Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1(6), 589.
  • Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575.
  • Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 601.
  • Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes. Handbook of socialization theory and research, 213, 262.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1987). Zone of proximal development. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 5291, 157.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
  • Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Reacting to the Past – This site describes the Reacting to the Past methodology.
  • Yue, C. L., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Reducing verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: An undesired desirable difficulty?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 266.
  • Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. William Morrow & Co.
  • Eagleman, D., & Brandt, A. (2017). The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world. Catapult.

Transcript

John: Small children are innately curious about the world around them. This curiosity, though, is often stifled in traditional educational pathways. In this episode, we examine how research on how humans learn can help us build a more productive learning environment for all our students.

[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.

John: Today our guest is Josh Eyler, the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Rice University. Welcome, Josh.

Josh: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: We’re really glad to have you. Today’s teas are:

Josh: [LAUGHTER] I’m not drinking tea. I’m afraid I’m more of a coffee person. But I have water today.

Rebecca: We still have to stay hydrated. So waters good.

John: I’m drinking bing cherry tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Christmas tea mixed with Prince of Wales tea because I just kind of re-upped with a different tea bag.

Rebecca: On campus, we have a reading group that we have in the fall. So a lot of our faculty have read Minds Online, Make it Stick and Small Teaching. And I was hoping you could address how your book is a bit different in approach to those. I know that you know those authors and have worked with some of them. So can you talk a little bit about how How Humans Learn, which is your new book that just came out is a bit different?

Josh: Sure. Well, I think I’ll start with a similarity. And I think that the one similarity that connects all of them is that we all try to weave in practical suggestions for the classroom as well, taking the research and heading in that direction with it. I do think the one of the things that separates my book from the others is that I look at science very broadly. So the great thing about Make it Stick is that it engages cognitive psychology, the testing effect, desirable difficulties, ways to remember and to encode things in memory more deeply. And I think that’s very important and fascinating. But my book goes in a different direction to look at the evolutionary history of learning, developmental psychology, other biological views on learning. So it takes a different track on science and I think with Small Teaching and Minds Online, they also touch on cognitive science as well, which I do too. But I’m very interested in placing our students into a much larger conversation about the development of learning over time.

John: And you mentioned that your daughter played a role in influencing your decision to write this and investigate this. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: I did. Sure. So right around the time that I began moving into the world of teaching and learning centers, and was doing a lot of research and wondering about why certain teaching practices work, and others don’t. I also became a dad and got to experience the wonder of seeing my daughter explore the world for the first time, a baby trying to figure out and explore. …this curiosity in the flesh… and everything is driven by curiosity. And it just really started to make me wonder about these fundamental ways of experiencing the world and learning about the world. And really, two big questions emerged. Number one, it was pretty clear that some of these were consistent over time, this natural curiosity about the world… we continue to have that and continue to learn from it. The other thing was this what happens to some of these learning strategies that are so prominent when we’re at our youngest ages and It’s clear are so important for learning about the world. How do those shift? Where do they go? How can we utilize them and tap back into them as college instructors. So she was a really important part of this book.

Rebecca: It’s funny that the first thing that I commented to John, after having read some of your book was “Man, this is so fascinating,” because I also have a small child. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I had two. It was a few decades ago, but I remember seeing the things that you talk about there.

Josh: Right.

John: You mentioned though, this evolutionary perspective, and you use the term Evo Devo to capture that which I think you made a reference to a bad alt-rock band. Can you tell us a little bit about what Evo Devo represents?

Josh: Sure. Evo Devo isn’t my term; it’s one that I, to my great delight, discovered as I was looking at the research on this. And so as a preface to this, in the humanities and exploring fields that I never engaged in before. And so it took me five years to write this book, because I was teaching myself how to read these papers, the methods, etc. It was really important to me that what I said would be credible with scientists. They didn’t have to believe me or agree with me, but they had to find it credible. And so part of the research then led me into this, I don’t want to say is brand new, because it’s been around for a few decades, but in terms of scientific sub disciplines, is pretty new, evolutionary developmental biology. And the practitioners of this call it Evo Devo, for short. And it just struck me as the name of a bad band that you might have heard of in the 90s. But at the core of that research is the study of how developmental processes evolved over time. And so if we think about young children again, why do they do what they do? What evolutionary advantage did it have? What kind of adaptation? Which parts of the brain develop first? And why is that important for understanding cognition? …things like that. So they tackle big questions both in humans and in other animal species. But yeah, it was the name that really kind of jumped out at me.

Rebecca: One of the things I really love about your book is the interdisciplinary nature of it. And that you are tackling all these scientific principles, but really putting it into plain language that faculty from any discipline (and other people who are not faculty) can easily understand. So I immediately got sucked into the language that you were using, because I understand it, I could put it into practice. And so I think other faculty will really enjoy that as well.

Josh: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. I really was trying hard to take what I saw as really important concepts and make them accessible to all.

John: So you take a number of broad themes and you investigate that and talk about ways in which faculty can use these principles to help improve learning, and the first one you start with is curiosity, which is certainly apparent in small children. Could you talk a little bit about the role of curiosity in learning?

Josh: Definitely, I start with this one for two reasons. The first is that as individual learners, it becomes clear that curiosity is a prime driver for the way we learn new things the way we experience the world. The other reason, though, is that when you begin to look in these various corners of scientific research, it’s also clear that curiosity has been explored in great detail in many different disciplines. And so it’s one of those that I think is a great example of why I wanted to write the book in the first place. Lots of fields are talking about it. And if we just kind of brought those conversations together, we might be able to utilize that information. So curiosity was a fundamental element in the evolution of some of our cognitive processes. It defines us as a species, that we are a curious species, if nothing else; that the way we approach the world and try to figure out the world is driven by needing to know something and seeking out the answer. And then as we see that play out in our own lives, we’ve already talked about children but some of the most famous developmental psychologists (Piaget and others, actually), began a long time ago, studying curiosity by looking at children’s questions like the kinds of questions that they asked. And early on, they were particularly interested in how many questions they asked. So you can see large catalogues of quantitative data on the number of questions kids ask. But more recently, people have really been looking at the kinds of questions and what that might say about different developmental stages. And so what I took from all this, I took several things, but I think the most important thing for college teachers is that the question itself is the unit of curiosity. To what degree can we utilize questions and inquiry to tap back into this natural curiosity that has faded over time as students have learned what they needed to do in educational systems in order to succeed. …and sad to say that curiosity is in some ways a prime casualty of those educational systems… and so, how can we tap back into questions become a really important way for us to do that.

John: In terms of questions, you suggest that when we give students questions to address, that we try to use open-ended questions to allow students perhaps more direction in that. Could you talk about that just a little bit?

Josh: Sure. And open ended questions that can really fascinate them and engage them as well… some of which might come from them. But the distinction I made primarily is between open-ended versus closed-ended questions in designing discussions and closed-ended questions… questions to which there is one distinct answer can shut down discussions pretty quickly. They’re okay for warming up discussions. I think they do have some value. If we really want to get to a place where we’re using questions and discussion to help students collectively generate knowledge, they have to be questions that are open enough to prioritize multiple interpretations or multiple approaches, and in some cases, they can be questions to which we don’t know the answer… that we’re all just sort of exploring possibilities together. And so one of the things I recommend both in the book and in my work with faculty here at Rice, look into questions that you generally ask or have designed for a discussion and see if there are ways to take some of those close-ended questions and push them into more open-ended questions. Not “What is the name of this thing?” but “Why is this thing so important for our understanding?” …approaches like that.

John: You also discussed in this chapter, the trade off between novelty and anxiety. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Josh: Sure. And there’s some researchers who have built their career looking at this curve, the novelty-anxiety curve. Some novelty, because of our curiosity, is very important. But when we get the curve up to the point where it becomes so new and unfamiliar that it kicks in some anxiety, the learning process begins to shut down… so you start to move back down on the other side of that curve. So anxiety has been shown in a variety of learning settings to shut down the cognitive processes. It’s at an emotional level and the psychological level that if we’re anxious or fearful, we can’t really focus on the subject at hand. It’s adding a cognitive load that just becomes insurmountable in terms of learning. There’s the study that I cite in that chapter from 1978. I still think it’s really fascinating. I’d love to see people try to replicate it. A researcher named Ruth Peters was looking at evidence of curiosity in classes where students had rated their instructors based on how intimidating they found those instructors and even those students who had rated themselves as being relatively high on the curiosity scale, asked fewer questions and engaged in fewer incidence of curiosity in those situations where they were intimidated or felt that the instructor was intimidating. Now an important caveat that I don’t, I think, do as well as I could have done in the book in making is that the issue of intimidation and how students feel about faculty members can differ greatly depending on who the students are and who the instructors are, and how that dynamic plays out could be very gendered. And there are lots of dynamics, I think, that complicate the notion of intimidation that I didn’t dive into that chapter. But they’re very important, I think, to think about. On the whole, though, the point remains, and there’s a lot of consensus on it I would say, that anxiety shuts down curiosity.

John: And one of the points you used to emphasize that is a recommendation to not be scary.

Josh: Right.

John: …which is not a bad suggestion for faculty. Because I think sometimes we can be and making sure that students see us as more open to them could be useful.

Rebecca: …or even as human.

John: …even as humans… [LAUGHTER] … that we could appear human to them. They don’t always see it that way. But it would be nice to encourage that more personal connection.

Rebecca: One of the other topics that you tackle as a theme in your book is tied to failure and risk taking, and I often think about curiosity and failure and risk taking together as someone from the arts. So I often see curiosity feeds risk taking. And if you don’t have failures, you don’t continue to learn and get excited about what you’re doing.

Josh: Right.

Rebecca: But I also know that students often (and all of us often), if we fail, can feel really bad about that and then not continue to propel forward. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between curiosity and…

John: …the fear of failure.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Josh: Yes, definitely. And I completely agree with you that there’s a link there between those two, because curiosity often takes us into places where we don’t know the answers. This is how great research happens, right? We want to know the answer to a question. So we pursue it but there’s a lot of failure along the way. And so it has the potential to open great doors, but those kinds of intellectual risks that follow curiosity, we haven’t necessarily developed educational systems that value taking those intellectual risks. In fact, as researchers and scholars and artists know, there’s so much trial and error along the way, but we’ve set up the opposite system for our students where they have these high stakes assessments, they get one shot. And that is the kind of environment that will cultivate a fear of any kind of failure or mistake. And so the linkage then, in order to try and help them take those intellectual risks, is to build opportunities in our courses for students to be able to utilize that natural learning process: to make mistakes, to learn from them to get feedback, and to move on. So there’s a variety of ways that we can do it, but it runs counter to traditional modes of teaching and course design.

Rebecca: If we think about being in an institutional structure that imposes certain kinds of systems on us like grades that can cause anxiety, and maybe shut some of this down, what can we do within that system to still foster risk taking?

Josh: Right. That’s in some ways the hardest question to answer and it’s the hardest thing to wrestle with if you’re suggesting to faculty that we can, within our own courses, create opportunities for students to do that. So I have two answers. And the first is that one thing that we can do that will pay students dividends down the line is to help them divest learning from grades. This is the absolute foundation for our work in this area. And one way to do that is to have more assignments with lower stakes. So if you have five assignments each worth 20% of the final grade, breaking that up a little bit more and including smaller assignments in there. The other is to have assignments where you give feedback, but no grades. And this takes some conditioning over time. But eventually students can begin to see learning as an opportunity for feedback, not evaluation. The other thing that I would say that I recommend in the book… The people who are experimenting with alternative grading models, I think, are leading the charge on this question. And so things like contract grading or specifications grading, portfolio grading. There are even some well known folks are experimenting with student self grading, self assessment, peer assessment. And so those are models that shift the value and the meaning of what is a grade. And those systems a grade is not necessarily an evaluation, but it is a culmination of feedback, a culmination of learning over time. The emphasis becomes, in those systems, much more on feedback and development and on evaluation of selected attempts at a task.

John: You also emphasize the roles we have as social creatures in the chapter on sociality and in particular, one of the things you talked about there is imitative learning. Could you talk a little bit about that and how that can be implemented in the classroom?

Josh: Sure, yes. The book began with curiosity because that’s individually how I think we’re driven to learn but sociality, I think it’s one of the most important topics that we can think about with education. We are deeply social beings at heart. And in fact, humans are among the most social creatures in the world. And so that greatly influenced how we developed over time and how we’ve learned. And so a lot of the evolutionary biologists who study, for example, language point back to our imitative gestures. They either preceded language or they co evolved with language. There’s a lot of disagreement about that. But there are fundamental aspects of the way we communicate with people and ultimately teach and learn from each other. And so, the extension of that to our work as teachers? It can be as basic as the gestures that we make and how we communicate the importance of a particular topics. I’m making gestures right now… maybe you can’t see… but that underscores… to hit the emphasis to underscore the importance or to communicate to the students in ways other than verbally, and I was blown away by some of the fascinating research on gestures to prove how important they are to learning. There was one study, for example, of foreign language learning where students were watching videos of a speaker speaking and fully making the normal gestures that you would have in teaching. And then other students were watching videos with no gestures, the speaker was taught to eliminate all gestures as much as possible. And on the assessments afterwards, the students in the gesture condition scored far better than those in the non gesture. So that’s a fundamental level, but there is a social psychologist in the mid 20th century, Albert Bandura, who talks about modeling. And so imitative learning can really connect in an essential way to our modeling for students. They imitate us, even sometimes our manners of speech, but really what I’m most interested in is the way we engage with them. They will often use that as a model for engaging with each other… the way we engage with our subject matter… relative enthusiasm or lack thereof,… they will use us as models for that. And so imitative learning, I’m not going to say that necessarily enhances the content to a large degree, but it does influence the learning processes that are underneath the mastery of the content.

Rebecca: How does sociality relate to group learning and group work that we might do in our classes? So it’s peer instruction, but also other collaborative work that we might do.

Josh: This is a topic that I think is really important to many who teach in college and so it’s one that I wanted to spend some time covering and if we are going to utilize our social natures to maximize learning, we have to design collaborative assignments that, out of necessity, students must work together in order to generate the knowledge in order to fulfill the goals of that assignment. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, group assignments are designed in such a way that students can “divide and conquer.” And so they say “I’ll take this part, you take this part and you take that part and we’ll come together right before the presentation and we’ll debrief each other.” Certainly they can learn some things individually from that if they’re well designed; that is not making use of our social natures to enhance learning, that is just creating an avenue where they’re talking to each other and making a plan for presentation. The assignments where they have to actually work together to develop the new knowledge, to construct it, those are the kinds of assignments that are taking advantage of our social natures to really enhance it.

Rebecca: Why is it then that students, even in a situation where it might be that they need to collaborate to come up with that new knowledge or information, there’s still this tendency to try to figure out how to divide and conquer even if it doesn’t match up? [LAUGHTER}

Josh: Right.

Rebecca: How do we help students understand the differences in those different scenarios or even how we help faculty understand the differences that happens in committee work and stuff as well?

Josh: Right. Yes, it does. Well, I think some of that is that they’re simply trying to employ strategies that have worked for them in the past. And so even if the assignment isn’t designed for divide and conquer, they’ll try it because that’s what they’ve done in the past. There’s also some reticence often to working together initially. So faculty need to communicate the value of the nature of the assignment as a group assignment: What will you gain from working with each other? I do think there are some examples here in my home campus, and many campuses across the country, have faculty who do a lot of work up front on the team and group dynamics in order to make those assignments and activities more productive. And so bring experts on team dynamics into the classroom to talk to groups and to maximize the way they’ll work together… assessment systems where people are evaluating themselves and each other… warm-up activities or shorter, very small activities over time to help students in the group learn to trust each other before we give them the big assignment… trying to clear some of those social hurdles in order to really use those social elements for their gain.

Rebecca: I think that’s an important piece there… that we put them in groups, or they even put themselves into groups and we just assume that like, “Oh, now they’re a happy little group.” [LAUGHTER] But unless they get to know each other and develop that trust that you just emphasize, really, things can fall flat really quickly.

Josh: Right.

John: But there’s other types of assignments where you can do that such as you mentioned in your book: the Reacting to the Past methodology and many forms or peer instruction where that sort of collaborative work is inherent in the process. When they’re not presenting something they can divide, but when they all have to debate something or present something from different perspectives, it naturally brings them together. So I think you do provide some suggestions on ways to do it, but it doesn’t work with all projects. If they’re writing a paper or presentation, you have to cultivate that. And it may not always work.

Rebecca: …especially if it’s something long term. There’s a difference between peer instruction and class that might happen over a short moment or two versus something that might take weeks.

Josh: Yes, definitely.

John: You also have a chapter on emotion. Could you talk a little bit about how emotion influences learning?

Josh: Yes, in some ways, this is the heart of the book from the start… thinking about our interactions with students at this level. For a long time, psychologists believed that emotion and cognition were entirely separate. And then they thought that they were connected, but one was dominant. But now biologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, they have really shown us that emotion and thinking are completely interlinked. I described them as dance partners in the book and really, that’s what they are. When everything’s going well, the two are working hand in hand, the primed emotions enhance the learning and the learning imbues the emotion with different levels. So, when everything’s working really well, they go hand in hand. And that can look at the span of what we’re talking about, the spectrum of utilizing emotion in our teaching is very broad. And so it can be everything from being enthusiastic about what we’re teaching to using humor, helping students see the joy of the subject matter; it can be that. But it can be also finding the emotion at the heart of the content that we’re teaching. So I’ve used an example a lot of two biology classes both teaching about cancer; one is teaching it entirely about the cellular level and another’s doing that but also showing videos of survivors and talking about the disease at the human level. That kind of scenario primes the students’ emotions which helps them in turn remember that material more effectively… develop better conceptual understanding: “Oh, here’s the long term resonance of this disease and there’s the human impact of this.” And so finding the emotional aspect of our content… And then simply, I think if I had to get one message out about that chapter, and maybe even about the book. is students will learn more if they think we care about them as learners. And that doesn’t mean that we have to tear down professional boundaries that might be important, but it does mean that students have to see us as being actively involved with their learning, as actually caring about their success in the classroom. And if that were the only thing that we did, we’d be making a lot of headway.

John: You mentioned just learning their names could be effective in helping to show that.

Josh: Yes, in fact, often I say that probably the easiest thing we could do to initially show students that we’re invested in them. And often people say rightly that teaching huge classes, it’s really hard to remember names, things like that. …an easy suggestion about that (and I got this from my friend Bethany Usher, George Mason University), hand everyone a table tent… a name card… at the beginning of the semester… have them write their names on it. So even if you can’t memorize all 200 names in your class, you can refer to people by name, which accomplishes in many ways, the same purpose.

Rebecca: Sneaky… It sounds very sneaky. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s not a bad idea. Actually, when I teach small classes at Duke in the summer, I do that for the first couple of days until I get to know their names. In the class of three to four hundred, it may be a little tougher, at least to get them to come back and do it. I can imagine my students swapping the names just to mess with me a bit. Mybw… I’m not so sure. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Bethany uses it… and others do for attendance purposes as well. So everyone has to put their name card back on the table when they leave and the date on the inside that they were there. So it’s a way to take attendance too.

John: You also talk about the importance of authenticity, of creating assignments and tasks that are authentic for the students. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Josh: Yeah, and authentic and authenticity have a wide range of meanings in higher ed these days. But what I was particularly looking at is the research on what folks have called cognitive authenticity or situated cognition, and that’s the degree to which our brains pick up on a learning environment as either being artificial or real – authentic. So the degree to which we can help students to engage in work that mirrors the work of scholars in the discipline or has relevance to their lives or application to their careers or application to the world writ large, we’re moving closer to authenticity and the kinds of learning environments that the brain responds to really well. It’s a ruthlessly pragmatic organ that will quickly turn this attention elsewhere if it doesn’t think what is happening is necessary for it. So I talked a lot about undergraduate research or projects or even shorter projects that we do in the classroom where students are doing what actual historians or sociologists or artists or biologists really do. The difference between memorizing the names of a hundreds insects and going out in the field and combining that information with finding them. I think that’s an authentic activity, an authentic learning environment.

John: In your book you Bjork and Bjork’s “desirable difficulties,” which suggest that students learn the most when they’re faced with this feasible challenge… where if something’s really easy, they get bored; If something’s too difficult, you have anxiety and things that interfere with learning.

Josh: Right.

John: One of the problems that people have in implementing that, is the range of backgrounds and skills of students. Can you suggest any ways of trying to reach that zone for all students when students come in with very different prior knowledge and skills.

Josh: Yes, that’s a really great question. It get really happy when I talk about Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development… maybe others don’t, but I think it’s fascinating and deeply important and it ties to desirable difficulties, I think. Simply because what Vygotsky was saying was that each of us for… pick a topic… but for any type of each of us has a zone in which we can learn as individuals, but eventually we will hit a point… the end of that when we need what he called a “knowledgeable other” to help us develop mastery beyond that… and so that’s going to differ depending on topic and depending on individual… and as faculty, if we were in our best position… if we know our students well enough to understand where each of them are within those zones… The “desirable difficulty” by the Bjork’s… things like spaced practice or interleaving… which means don’t study in blocks… study a little bit of topic “A” a little bit of topic “B,” a little bit of topic “C” et cetera… then go back. It’s really hard, but in it’s being hard, the brain encodes ot more effectively… and that matches up well with the zone of proximal development because it is a way for us to design activities where: number one we can see a little bit better where students individually are; number two. though. it helps push past those ending points or the sticking points that students can encounter when they hit the wall with a particular topic.

Rebecca: After writing this book, and spending five years deep into all this material, what have you found most useful as a teacher?

Josh: This has been such an amazing process for me. I’ve learned so much. The chapter on failure, though, has been the most eye opening for me. I’ve certainly redesigned discussions based on curiosity. And I tried to build more stories into my teaching to draw on those emotional social connections. But partly because we’re not taught in graduate school to privilege failure and errors and mistakes… and it’s not necessarily a fundamental element of any pedagogical training that we get even as faculty… I found that research to be extremely important for me as a teacher. And so it has changed the way I designed courses, I have more assignments and more opportunities to just give them feedback in order to manage the load that that brings with it. I have more face-to-face conversations, quicker sessions to give targeted feedback. I have activities like reading responses where all they have to do is complete the set number that I have for them. If you do 12 reading responses over the course of the semester you get the “A” for this activity… really to engage them in the thinking process in ways that will contribute to their work, but without the necessity: “I have to get it right.” I can just think and explore some ideas. In my undergraduate courses. I’ve switched entirely to portfolio grading for all of them. It does take time I have found to help students see that this isn’t a trick or you’re not trying to pull the carpet out from underneath them. But it has really transformed the way I work with students. More of them come see me in office hours because there are no grades. So they just want to talk about the feedback that I’m giving and ways to revise and improve. And I would say that the grad courses that I teach… we team-teach those courses on pedagogy… and those are all contract grading. And so we want the emphasis to be on mentorship for them as new teachers and not evaluation. So that chapter has really made the most difference to me as an individual teacher.

Rebecca: Can you elaborate a little bit more on what it means to portfolio grade.

Josh: Sure.

Rebecca: I think people have a general idea of what that means in like a writing class, something that might not have a clear idea of what it might mean in a different kind of course.

Josh: Right. Sure. And actually, I know that there are very specific models of portfolio grading too… some of which come out of writing studies. I take a very broad look at… actually my wife, teachers art as well… and so I borrow some of the notion of a portfolio from what artists do and how they grade student work over time. And so my own definition of portfolio grading is a developmental approach where all assignments are turned in but only given feedback on… multiple opportunities for revision… and the only thing that gets a grade is the final submission of all the revised work. Even quizzes and exams, you can think about in a portfolio model as adapting and revising answers over time within certain constraints, and then giving a grade on the final product that also includes a reflective introduction. How did I learn over time? How did I improve over time? What areas do I still have left to explore?

Rebecca: Thanks. That’s helpful. I have a question about when you’re writing the book, as someone who’s not a scientist and you’re digging into all this science stuff, it seems interesting that you’re writing about learning where you were probably also actively engaging in all of these things. I’m wondering if that writing process influenced and that experience influenced how you wrote this book?

Josh: It did. Yes. I think part of the process was being in uncomfortable territory, novel territory for myself. In many ways. I was in the same situation as an introductory student in a lot of these disciplines and certainly having patience with myself. As I was writing what I was doing my work with faculty and then with students was understanding (because I was going through it myself) a little bit better how someone from a different discipline might be hearing and responding to another disciplinary approach with an unfamiliarity… not a resistance to… but an unfamiliarity that we need to kind of break down and have a common language for. And so that was a part of it. The other thing, though, was being in that position, kind of like a student myself, I reached out to colleagues here at Rice. So when I had questions about evolutionary biology, I would call up my friend Scott Solomon and say: “Here’s what I’m thinking, am I on the right track?” And he would say: “Well, not really. But why don’t you look at this and this…” and eventually, through those interactions with him, I can get to something that I thought that folks would find credible and that process also helps you to see that students, especially those who are new to a subject, there’s the vulnerability and having to say, “Am I right about this? Do I know what I’m talking about.” And I think that’s worth taking very seriously. And I haven’t been in that role for a very long time. And so it was really helpful, I think, to be in that situation again for my own teaching, and to be able to talk about that with faculty. It was fun to write it. One of the reasons I wanted to move into working at a teaching and learning center was the opportunity to work with faculty from all disciplines. And this really helped me in that role, and that I was learning the contours of a lot of different disciplines. And I learned different kinds of questions to ask and different kind of perspective.

Rebecca: Cool.

John: Yeah, we enjoy that for much too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Are there any aspects of your book that some readers might find controversial? The argument that I make in the book that as adults, we still learn in the same ways that we did when we were children. And I wouldn’t say that that probably will be one the biggest points of argument or discussion over time. Certainly not everyone agrees with that. But what I simply mean by that is that our processes for learning really don’t change that much from the time when we’re very little as we grow older. Our brains certainly mature. We have different life experiences that we’re bringing. Our ability to regulate our emotions is not the same as the three year old that’s very, very different.

John: Usually.

Josh: …at least hopefully. [LAUGHTER] But, the way we learn remains relatively the same. And I draw on the work of a fabulous psychologist named Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and she’s done a lot of papers on this. But she wrote a pretty popular book with two others, Andrew Meltzoff and someone else (his name is escaping me). And that book’s called The Scientist in the Crib. They make the case very clearly. They say something almost to the effect that scientists can develop the knowledge that they can and experiment the way they can, because they’re utilizing processes and structures that were designed for children. So we are still learning in the same way that we did when we were very young. We’re just approaching it a little bit differently and we’ve matured along the way. So I really hope we can use that information in our work in the classroom to say, “There are things about learning that we know will work and have always worked because this is who we are.” And so if we can use that, if we can build pedagogies that tap into those things that we know that never change about learning, then we will always be serving our students well.

Rebecca: I think that’s a good point.

John: It makes sense. We evolved to learn in a certain way. We take things in from our senses, we encode it, and we’re still using the same processes ultimately.

Josh: Yes, I agree.

John: We always end the podcast with the question, “What are you doing next?”

Josh: I recently gave a talk called “Teaching as a Creative Endeavor.” So kind of the other side of the coin… the creativity that goes into teaching… teaching as an art and some of the things that actually can’t be measured, but that we hope we might be achieving. And so I think that I’ll probably continue down that road… a bigger project on the creative art of teaching… what that means… and the research on creativity and how that can apply. I’m not sure if it’ll be a book yet, but I’m definitely really interested in that aspect of teaching as well.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s something that faculty here have expressed some interest in, as well… of creativity and what that looks like. So I thank you might have an audience

Josh: Well, that would be great.

John: In our past reading groups,that is one of the questions that came up the most: “How can we encourage the development of creativity?” And I don’t think there’s a lot out there on it that we’ve seen at least

Josh: No, I don’t think that there is. I think that there are faculty in the arts who are thinking a lot about it. A number of books, not related to education, but that have come out in the last 10 years on what is creativity. And in fact, one of my colleagues here, Tony Brandt wrote a book with David Eagleman on creativity and the creative brain and humans as the creative species. So I think there’s a lot of room to really use that information to think about our work as teachers.

Rebecca: Excellent. Look forward to finding out what you end up doing with that information and how you explore it.

Josh: Thank you.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. This was a fascinating conversation and I really loved your book.

Josh: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Both those kind of comments and also the opportunity to talk with you today.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for taking time.

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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.

58. Role-play

Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, Jill Peterfeso joins us discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time. Jill is an Assistant Professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, we’ll discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time.

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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.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Jill Peterfeso, assistant professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College. Welcome, Jill.

John: Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Hi, nice to be here.

John: Our teas today are…

Jill: I am drinking candy cane tea; it’s a black tea. If you like peppermint tea, this takes it up a notch with even more sweetness. It’s really delicious.

John: What brand is that?

Jill: Adagio.

Rebecca: That sounds right up John’s alley, actually.

Jill: Oh really? For Christmas a couple years ago I asked for some and my parents are like, “Oh, what size?” And I was like, “You know what? I don’t know. A pound.” Well, you know how much a pound of tea is? [LAUGHTER] So I have enough to last me like a decade.

John: I had a mix of tea where it was peppermint, spearmint and tarragon and I got a pound of peppermint, a pound of spearmint and a pound of tarragon.

Jill: My gosh. [LAUGHTER] Yeah.

Rebecca: Speaking of lifetime supplies. I have English afternoon.

John: Again?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: And I have blueberry green tea. We invited you here to talk a bit about how you’ve been using role-play in your classes. Could you give us some examples of what you’ve been doing with this and in what context?

Jill: Yeah, absolutely. This idea of working with role-play comes from my own interest as a theatre person in high school and college and even into my adult years and also just this memory I have of doing theatre where stepping into the role of another person opens up your mind in really different ways. I’ve devised a number of different things that I do in the class, sometimes borrowing from others, sometimes doing completely experimental assignments. So, I think that it’s sort of three different levels of immersion into role-play. A level one thing, for instance, might be I use dialog tests where I have students imagine dialogues. For instance, historical figures John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson are having a conversation about conversion… what do they say to one another? And so instead of writing an essay on the thesis of conversion in Puritan New England, I have students imagine a conversation between these two historical actors. So, that would be an example of something that’s level one. Something that’s more level two… I often invite students to take on the voices and the ideas of authors, theologians and theorists that we’re studying. For instance, I teach an upper-level Holocaust class where we often read a lot of excerpts from very dense critical theory, for instance. I will assign students to different authors we’ve read… someone will get Habermas, someone will get Adorno, et cetera, et cetera, and then we come together in a colloquium setting and they need to speak in the discussion as that “author” or that character… and then sort of the deeper level of immersion would be something like reacting to the past, which is a very well established pedagogical role-play method in historical game that comes out of Barnard College and about 20 years old now—is developed by history professor named Mark Carnes—and in that students literally are assigned historical characters and then they play out some event from the past. Games that I have used in my classes include the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, Anne Hutchinson (who I mentioned earlier), the Council of Nicaea; I’ve done those in my classes, but they have them for all sorts of disciplines in all different time periods. So, that one, it’s several days. Students give speeches and form teams and do some politicking behind the scenes to come together and play their characters in order to see, like, literally playing with history.

John: In that second level of role-play, when they’re in the role of characters do you have students discuss contemporary issues or issues of the historical period?

Jill: When they are speaking as theorists or authors then I have them sort of in the secondary source mode so that they are speaking as contemporaries, even if it’s an Adorno or Habermas —who weren’t so much contemporary for us anymore—they’re still able to speak about contemporary issues. If we’re talking about Holocaust Studies, for instance, they are able to bring some of that to bear on whatever is happening here and now. I do something similar in a feminist theologies class where we read various feminist theologians over the course of the semester and one student is assigned a theologian each semester, one student per one theologian, and when we discuss that theologian the student speaks not as a student but as the theologian. So, it’s this extra meta-level that they that one student wears in this one moment or I should say in this one class period and what that lets them do is have this dexterity where they are connecting the text that they have a certain intimacy with as the “author” but then they’re also able to connect with their classmates who might be bringing up some of these different issues, like how this reading in feminist theology might connect to some of the reproductive issues that are going on now in politics or issues around concern for the planet, et cetera, et cetera. Really to your question, John, the way I see it, especially in that second level, is a hinging where they’re able to sort of pivot between the creation of the text and the application of the text and that’s one of the nice things about it because it keeps them again hinged where they’re connected to both parts and they’re aware of the fact that they’re swiveling, if that makes some sense.

John: It does. It sounds like they’re making some really deep connections.

Jill: Hopefully.

John: It’s a form in a sense of peer instruction.

Jill: Absolutely, yeah, thank you. That’s one of the things that I try to get them to do with role-play… with other activities I do in the class… but the role-play specifically… is to get students to realize that they can be instructors of their peers and just as successfully as I could be in some instances. It lets them feel that they are experts in what they are speaking on. That is ideally very empowering, but it also gives them—and I found this constantly with role-play, and this is something your audience might find interesting—is that when students are wearing a “mask” of someone else’s ideas or someone else’s character, they are much more willing to be directive with their peers and sort of challenge their peers if their peers are not thinking very critically or very clearly… and I’ve heard this from my students for the theologian activity in feminist theology… they get more annoyed if their classmates are not really stepping up and not really engaging “their ideas.” So, they’re able to say, “Well, wait a second, that’s not what I wrote. Look at the bottom of page 36…” and yet it works because no one really feels attacked by someone playing the persona of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. So, it works really nicely because that framing… that mask… however you want to think about it… creates the opportunity to step into a liminal space where it’s a little safer to push those boundaries, and students tend to do that and that allows them to do that peer instruction even more so than they would otherwise. I don’t think they think of it that way until after when I have them reflect, then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I felt more defensive of these ideas and I also felt like I knew where they were coming from.” There was a material, historical context that gave rise to the need for me to write this theology or me to write this theory and they felt that attachment to it. To hear them say that I’m like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I would hope would happen.” As somebody who’s done acting and done theater, that’s the best part for me, immersing yourself empathetically in another experience and so it seems to work for students intellectually in a scholarly way.

Rebecca: …seems really powerful, but I can imagine that telling your students that they’re gonna role-play could be really intimidating. So, how do you prepare students for that experience?

Jill: Yeah, this is one of these things that I’m constantly trying to get better about. I tell them early and often. Whoever signs up for early on—so, again, right now I’m thinking about the feminist theology class where they have to step into and embody these ideas one at a time over the course of the semester—what I do is try to get some of my stronger students who might know me or have done this before in other classes to go first and I make sure to give them a special amount of direction and leeway and then after one or two students will go I will do a reflection like a stop, okay, what’s working. Students who are not doing this but were in the classroom discussion with the theologian, what are you noticing? And students who did this, what advice do you have for others? So, then again, the peers become the instructor. When it comes to other things, I mentioned earlier in my Holocaust class, and we do this sometimes in feminist theology, we do this in my Jesus in Film and Pop Culture class, where we really will be in a circle discussion and I mostly teach seminar. Disclaimer: most of my classes are 10 to 25 students, so this works really nicely. We’ll be in a circle and we’ll be looking at each other and channeling historians and scholars of the historical Jesus or Holocaust theory around memory studies. We might get into it and I’ll need to stop and say, “Okay, I want to pause. I noticed some of you are not speaking in the first person. Remember, I want you to be speaking as you’re scholar. Some of you are doing a really nice job with this, but I don’t hear you using quotes from the text, so remember the text is your foundation. The text is what gives you a platform. You don’t have to make up everything. You are using the text as a springboard to merge with your own ideas.” Constantly of doing that, modeling some of it for students as well and then affirming them. I think this all ultimately plays to where the majority of students get it at some point. But, Rebecca, I will tell you, I mean, you’re right. Some students never really get into this. They think it’s too strange or it’s too uncomfortable, or they’re really good students in the traditional way of doing things and they don’t think that this is something that they need or is helpful. That’s fine; not everything is going to work for everybody. What I love about some of these different liminal activities is that they will reach students who otherwise would feel that they can’t step into discussion in the traditional way because they don’t think they’re good at it, but giving them this additional costume of intellectual ideas to wear is liberating for some students, and that’s enough for me to do it once or twice a semester in some classes because it’s gonna invite in people who might not feel invited another way.

John: How long do these activities run? Is it a one day thing or multiple days?

Jill: It all depends again on which activities. When I do the symposia type models where we’re all together that’s usually at the lowest… it would be our 75 minute classes; sometimes I do it in our three hour classes, then it’s more about two and a half hours with a break in between. I’m getting ready to do one of these symposia in my Catholicism course and we’re gonna do it over two 75-minute classes, totaled about two and a half hours. What that does… and this ties to your question, John… what that does is it allows me to not be anxious that, “Oh my gosh, we have so much to cover and we’re not doing it,” and it really pushes me to the side, which is another key issue with this role-play is I as the professor in an ideal world create the settings, create the condition, give the instruction and then get the heck out of their way and let them stumble a little bit, let them struggle with some silence, let them look awkwardly at each other, let them look pleadingly at me but then turn to each other and realize, “okay, this has got to be us.” I encourage folks who want to try these sorts of things to give time because just investing in time means you’re gonna let the silence happen. Some things are much longer, so reacting to the past, for instance, which I’ve been playing with for the past year or more, that’s several weeks. We did the Anne Hutchinson game in my Religion in the U.S. class just last month and that was five 75-minute days and we’re gearing up for the Frederick Douglass game that starts next week. That’s gonna be six days. So, six days of game playing and then prep on the beginning and prep at the end. Doing that role-play meant completely redoing my syllabus for that course. There were reasons that that made sense given my teaching condition for that class, which I can get into if you’re interested, but that was a real total revamping. Everything from little bits to larger bits, depending on what you’re willing to invest in and what you’re looking to do with your students, what kinds of skills you’re trying to emphasize.

Rebecca: Jill, for someone who doesn’t have a background in theater, but…

Jill: Yeah.

Rebecca: …might find this to be a really interesting idea, what would you advise them to look at or how to start or an activity that they might do the first time out to just get their feet wet?

Jill: Reacting to the Past is a premade pedagogy. There are so many games I would recommend anyone who’s listening to this and thinking that sounds interesting to go to their website ‘cause those folks who run the Reacting Consortium will help you and there are so many games. I go to Reacting as a theater person who’s like, “Oh, won’t it be great if we all just sort of immerse ourselves in these characters of this historical moment and then give speeches as these characters,” this is like Jill in high school who did murder mystery weekends with her friend, like it’s getting these characters in and improving dialogue and a relationship and it’s just so fun, but that’s what gets me stuck on Reacting. A lot of folks who do Reacting are more gamers, they like that there are victory conditions and points for winning, or they’re historians who like this different way of doing history. That’s just my hook, but that’s not everybody’s hook. There are plenty of people I’ve met in the Reacting world who would never have thought of themselves as “a theater person.” So, I think that’s a safe one. Reacting has games as short as a day, as long as ten days. It’s good because it’s pre-made and you can go to conferences where you get to play some of the games, so that’s a good place to start. As far as some of the smaller ones, I think a safe and fun place to begin if you’re intrigued by this idea would be the dialogue assignments or the dialogue tests, sort of like I alluded to earlier, inviting students to put authors in conversation with each other… maybe across historical moments… maybe across religious traditions, in my case… maybe inserting themselves as a student into the conversation. And why is this valuable? Well, because when we want academic writing to happen, ideally students are putting different ideas “in conversation with one another”—juxtaposing different ideas—and so with these dialogue tests they were like literally doing that in a dialogue format as opposed to just writing a traditional paper where they may not be so aware that that’s what they’re doing. So… something very meta about all of this role-play stuff where they are with me—with the professor—the students are aware that they are trying on a different voice and that often for students makes something click. This is a different way of engaging. By the end of going through the process they’re like, “Oh, yeah, like I’ve made these discoveries that I didn’t think I would have permission to make otherwise.” Again, it gives them a permission to see and do something differently.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the two reacting to the past scenarios that you’re running… in terms of what the main issues are that the students will be addressing?

Jill: The first one is the Anne Hutchinson game, which Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan woman… 1630s… Massachusetts Bay Colony… shows up… John Winthrop is the governor and they’re there to be the city on a hill to show the world this is what a true God-dedicated colony should look like; they’re gonna turn the eyes of the world to them and everything’s going to flow smoothly, and yet things start happening and people start getting religious ideas that aren’t quite in line with the orthodox and Anne Hutchinson is one of them… and she’s this woman… she’s a midwife… she starts having prayer meetings in her own home and, come to find out, that she’s having these visions and hearing these voices coming from the Bible and she believes God is speaking to her. And so doing she’s shifting the theology of the colony and people are starting to listen to her—that makes her dangerous. So this whole trial happened in the 1630s in Puritan, New England, and she is ultimately kicked out of the colony. The game scenario that we play in Reacting to the Past—again, I did not write this; I borrow it, I adapt it—much credit to the authors of the game. This game’s been running for many years. What happens is it’s this counterfactual where we imagine that there’s a second trial; she’s been banished but we’re gonna give her another try. What happens is you have the faction that is against Anne Hutchinson and then you have the faction that is Pro-Anne Hutchinson and then you have these indeterminate—this is a pretty standard format for reacting: you get one side, another side, and these indeterminates. The indeterminates are the ones you need to persuade; basically we have about three or four days of debate among these different groups trying to figure out what did she do wrong and do we want to let her back in, and the indeterminates are these immigrants who are arriving from England who want to get in the church. Before they can vote on Anne Hutchinson, they have to get into the church. So, they have their own objective of getting in but once they’re in both sides want these new immigrants to vote with them. It becomes this very fun game and what happens—this happened in my class just last month—a lot of students find themselves making arguments that they don’t agree with. They will step outside of class and say to me like, “I do not agree with what I’m saying; I can’t believe I’m arguing that Anne Hutchinson shouldn’t be speaking because she’s a woman. I believe that women have rights and should be able to have religious ideas and speak to men” and I’m like, “Yes, but you’re in a different historical context, so you need to be able to separate yourself from that.” I love—and I don’t say to students—I love that you’re trying to hold in tension what you think and feel with what you say and isn’t that how we sometimes have to act in the world? They did a really lovely job with that this semester. So, that’s the Anne Hutchinson game. The one we’re launching next week is the Frederick Douglass game which takes place in 1845. Abolitionism is really coming to its own as the political force. Slave owners are getting even more anxious and holding on to their power and the country is really in turmoil, specifically around the publication of the new autobiography by a man named Frederick Douglass. In this game there are even more historical characters—we have students who are about to be assigned the roles of John C. Calhoun and Senator Henry Clay and William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth and Angelina Grimké and they’re gonna go at it around issues of slavery, what the Constitution does and doesn’t allow about slavery and there will be indeterminates as well who can see the wisdom in both sides. They may not like slavery but is it politically advantageous to go against it at this point? This is a controversial game in some context, as you can imagine, because there will be students playing slave owners, there will be students playing former slaves, so you have to tread really carefully. That’s another thing with role-play, depending on your institutional context and who your students are, you do have to be careful as you ask students to step into roles that are not their own identities, but, again, that takes a lot of prep upfront. I think it can be done, you just have to be delicate with it. So with Frederick Douglass, for instance—I mean, who’s going to be John C. Calhoun? He was one of the biggest, baddest, most racist (by our terms) slave owners in the 19th century. Well, I’ve sold him this way to students. They’re gonna get input on the characters and I have an African American male in the class who said, “I want to play that part; that’s a part that I want,” and in fact when I did this last spring I had an African American male who wanted that part. I talked to them and I say, “are you sure? Why do you want this? And that’s awesome.” They say “I want to understand where they’re coming from, because that’s the worst thinking I can imagine and I want to know more about it.” So my student who did it last spring came to class in costume every single day as John C. Calhoun. I have pictures of the students wearing this wig and invariably he also wore some symbol of Africa on his person, like a shirt or a medallion around his neck. It was great what he was doing… how he was showing resistance to these messages that he was speaking in class—I mean, it was actually deeply profound. It also liberated other students to argue in the voices of pro-slavery advocates to have students of color in the class be willing to do that work too, and frequently at the end of classes—again, Frederick Douglass was about six days—like we would stop maybe five minutes early; I don’t know that the Reacting people would approve of us, but we’d stop and say, “Okay, this is getting heavy—how can we support one another around some of these really difficult conversations? How can we continue to support the pro-slavery students in the class…” because what would happen is the indeterminates in the Frederick Douglass game would just be like, “Oh, well slavery is bad; I know it’s bad ‘cause it’s 2018, slavery’s bad”—we just kept having to note that’s not where you are, but the water in which you swim as a mid-19th century fish is one in which slavery’s just accepted. You can’t don your 21st century hat and argue from that way. So, that’s also part of the learning objective. I think it’s probably clear that student collaboration is a big part of this… students having to work together in teams, having to come together around strategies and how to make an argument and who to target on the other team to try to turn their mind around.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the prep work before any of these role-playing instances? Clearly there needs to be some groundwork laid before you have a whole class period dedicated to any of these activities that you’re talking about.

Jill: Yeah, definitely. Letting them know in advance it’s coming is a big one. With Reacting it’s on the syllabus. I send out the syllabus about two or three weeks before the semester starts and I’m always like, “Hey, this is coming, so please look at this two-page document I’m sending you about what this entails; if this sounds great to you, wonderful; if it sounds miserable, let’s talk, because I don’t want you to be immersed in something that’s really unpleasant.” With the symposia that we do that’s a heads up in advance on the syllabus and then a constant reminder going into it—I tend to tell them within the days before to start making notes as you’re reading—read with the intent of thinking about how you would talk as this theorist. How would you channel these ideas? …and I also always for the symposia start class, ‘cause usually I can’t just have like one student as one person because they’re too many students, so I usually have two teams, like so there’s the Adorno team, whatever. What then happens is I give them about ten minutes to start, just to work together, to come, to brainstorm some ideas and maybe pull some quotes from the reading, also to prepare questions—that’s always the other thing, so it’s not just what are you going to say, but what are you going to ask of one another to keep the conversation going. Part of being in discussion is knowing how to ask questions and when to ask questions. Also encouraging them to draw connections between what different groups are saying—I never want the role-play to be an opportunity for every group to grandstand and then pass the torch to another group of grandstanders who aren’t really making connection. How does that work with role-play? That… either I’ve been modeling that all semester or I haven’t, but something I consciously do in class, I try to tell students, you know, when we’re building on each other’s comments let’s not change the subject without trying to bring in what has come before; if you’re going to change the subject, announce it and explain why you’re changing the subject. That’s part of the modeling that I try to do really consciously throughout the semester so that students get in the groove of how to have a conversation and then these other things just sort of kick it up several notches where then I’m more out of the way and they are hopefully building on tools they’ve been given and are ready to run with it.

Rebecca: You mentioned reflections earlier; can you talk about what that reflection process looks like in a little more detail?

Jill: Yeah, for the Reacting games, a whole day of debrief is built in; that’s one of the things that the Reacting people are pretty insistent on and I do not disagree with them. That tends to be a “Hey student, we just did this whole several days of this historical event. We changed history a little bit because in history this would not have happened and this would not have happened, so here’s what really happened and here’s why.” The debrief is very important for connecting back to larger class theme because, again, when you are sort of stepping outside of normal classroom behavior for a while it’s good to remind students as they gently re-enter why you’ve done what you’ve done and how it connects to these larger class themes, and that’s what the debrief is able to do. So, what you called reflection, Rebecca, I think of also as a debriefing. I also always have students write about these experiences. With Reacting they write a couple paragraphs reflection; I give them some very directed questions. After we did Anne Hutchinson, for instance, in my 101 class, I said, “What did you do well and what are you going to do better next time? Because we have Frederick Douglass coming up in a month.” …and then I share those with the students, like, “Okay, your classmates are really proud of how you all did this and here are the requests that people have for the class going forward. Many of you would like your classmates to prepare better; many of you would like your classmates to show up on time so you’re ready to give your speech; many of you would like your classmates to put more effort into writing your speeches and then delivering them with more confidence and poise.” In this way I don’t become that naggy teacher saying, “Okay, remember, we watched videos on public speaking before you delivered your speeches, but you are still not standing with much confidence and you are still reading from your paper.” Then it becomes the students doing it. Again, it goes back to John’s point before about peer instruction—the self or peer critique—and students don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers, so that sort of ups the ante there. With, for instance, the be the theologian assignment, and even the dialogue test, I always either give a journal assignment or even at the end of a dialogue test on a test say, “Okay, in three or four sentences what did you learn writing this as a dialogue that’s different from writing it as an essay? Or you’ve just performed the role in class of Mary Daly in feminist theology. What did you learn from being Mary Daly that’s different from you as Caitlyn talking about Mary Daly.” So, I think reflection is always such an important part of putting the lid on the assignment, really making it a full, complete thing so that it’s not that weird thing we did once in class but something that “Oh, like giving them the opportunity to make their own connections.” That’s why creating conditions for them to make discoveries for themselves and the reflection is sort of the last chance to do that and I don’t squander that opportunity. So, I think asking those questions and giving them space to reflect is really key.

John: There’s a lot of research that certainly supports that. Sounds like a great collection of activities. You mentioned of some concerns that students have. But, in general, how have students responded to these activities?

Jill: Yeah, a range of things. Some students, I will admit, seem confused. I’m thinking about the last time I did the be the theologian activity—I would say like the first month of class students were like, “What are we doing? Why are we doing this?” And I was trying to be patient and then I’m like, “What have I not been clear about?” And at some point it clicked and it seems to happen with role-play: at some point it clicked and it usually comes with one or two students and then like a lightbulb goes off and they get it and then everyone starts to get it. So I will say for anybody who’s thinking about these things or any creative pedagogy really from my experience: do it more than once, because the first time might not work, but that doesn’t mean that the pedagogy is not right; it might just mean that students are gonna need a little more time. Some students really thrive in it; they feel—I’ve talked about this earlier—they feel free to do college in a way that they haven’t felt free before and that’s really awesome to see because some of these are students who don’t speak. With Reacting, for instance, sometimes I’ve been in class with these students for a month or two months and suddenly we do this different thing and they just come to life and it’s really exciting. You get to see a different part of their personality. What is also exciting is how they then carry some of what they learned and some of the collaborative work that they did into future things like, “Oh, we really work together on this one game that we did, like maybe we can do our group project together at the end.” They respond really interestingly in that way. What I love is when I see then in their written work going forward how they make allusions to the role-play, even if it’s indirect. They start using some of the language and some of the teaching tools and some of the terms, it’s like they actually got it. So, it’s a real range. I’ve had some of my very best students not love it, but, yeah, I think those are the students who you pull aside and you talk to them about why because you can usually show them why you’re doing this pedagogy and why you’re doing something so different and they tend to have some really interesting ideas too, ultimately, and then they can sometimes help you reframe things. One of the things with this role-play stuff that I’ve been working on the past few years is I try to be creative but also humble. I’m not afraid—I try to not be afraid when students have critiques and suggestions ‘cause often they have some of the best ideas. They’re the ones who are doing it and so I invite them to do it; I think that goes to the reflection part that Rebecca had asked about earlier. Sometimes reflection means how would we do this differently? How can we do this better? …and sometimes that’s not just about students and their peers but also about me and the way the assignment is written.

Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded to what you’ve been doing?

Jill: Oh, good question. I’m fortunate because this year at Guilford we have a Center for Principled Problem Solving and they have faculty fellowships for a year and I was lucky to get one for the 2018-2019 school year focused on this performance and pedagogy stuff and specifically around trying to bring some of these ideas to my faculty colleagues. I should say again, I’m never an evangelist for these kinds of ideas because I think everybody should do them at all; I’m really an evangelist for teachers doing things that they think are cool and might work for their students and, while I’m not trying to force anything on anybody, but I am trying to help some of my colleagues just as they’re helping me to come up with new and creative ways to engage students and engage material and make what we do exciting to us. We’re going through a pretty significant curriculum and schedule revision at Guilford that’s gonna kick off next fall; we’ve got a lot of faculty who are rethinking their courses and course designs and activities and there’s not a small amount of anxiety about this change. So, one of the things I’m saying is, “Hey, this is a good opportunity to do some things that are more experimental and even experiential.” One of the things I did was, with the help of faculty development, brought in a Reacting to the Past Consortium board member who came and did a workshop for faculty development in September, and it was awesome. He was really engaging, gave us a lot to think about, and hopefully he’ll be back in January to do a small Reacting game. Reacting has some micro games that last an hour and a half. I believe some of Guilford faculty are going to go to a regional Reacting workshop in March. So, I’m trying to just invite people in—nobody’s being forced to do anything. I don’t have that kind of power, nor do I want it. I’m just trying to give people some ideas that have worked for me that I think are fun and that students seem to respond to and it helps our students. So, Guilford student population… we have traditional age students. we have very diverse, like ethnically… racially… in terms of class… we have a lot of diversity. We also have an adult population and then we have some high school students that take college students at Guilford in one of the best high schools in the state of North Carolina, so we have so much diversity, so how can we reach everybody? How can we invite everybody to the conversation? And this is one way that’s gotten people to sort of break down their walls. I think my colleagues are—some of them are suspicious and they should be—nobody should listen to this and be like, “Oh, this is brilliant, perfect, like, no, it’s not perfect.” Reacting to the Past is well-established, it’s not perfect. Some of my ideas aren’t perfect, but it’s a starting point and we can keep honing and keep working together to fix some of these ideas and that’s certainly what I’m doing. A lot of this work started with a fellowship I had a couple summers ago with the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology; I got to spend the summer researching performance and pedagogy and that’s where I started to develop a lot of these ideas and some of the folks that run the teaching journal in conjunction with the Wabash Center, it’s called Teaching Theology and Religion—TTR. They’re excited about this; they think it’s worth hearing about so I’m working on an article with them—I’ve already published a few things smaller with them and I’m gonna work on some bigger pieces. There seems to be enthusiasm because I think we’re at a place where we want students to be engaged. The population of students seems to be changing in terms of their preparation for college, what they find interesting, what they’re willing to sit through in class. So, this is just one of many ways to get students trying a new way of learning. I don’t think if everybody did it that it would be awesome; I think it’s fun because they’re gonna remember in five years, “oh, yeah, in Jill Peterfeso’s class we did that really weird thing. It was weird, but it was also really cool.” I’m alright with that, I’m totally okay with that. Yes, I just say also like “I’m not afraid to be a dork about these things” and I think that’s disarming and students respond to that, ‘cause I’m like, “You guys are gonna get to role-play and I don’t get to play, but I get to watch, and do you want invite your friends?” and there at first they’re like, “no” and then by the end of the class, like we did this in the spring with Anne Hutchinson, I said, “So you want to invite like your professors or some of your friends?” and they’re like, “no, no” and then with Frederick Douglass they’re like, “We could invite everybody, like let’s put a message in the college newsletter,” like they got so into it. So, that’s learning and that self confidence and that’s not being afraid of trying new things and that transition over the course of a semester… something’s going on. I haven’t measured it and assessed it yet—don’t tell the administration—but it’s doing something and they’re learning because I read their reflections and what they come up with is pretty profound.

Rebecca: Sounds pretty incredible.

John: It does. I know in my own class I went from having students write papers to have them do a poster session and I asked if they wanted to invite other people and they were thrilled to have people from the department come in and the Dean came over and visited them and they were so much more excited and engaged about it. Small changes can make a big difference.

Jill: Yeah, I think that’s my thing whether you’re doing my level one immersion, level two, level three—those are just my categories—those small changes can mean a lot ‘cause even a little bit of reframing get students’ brains working differently and gets their hearts engage in different ways, so I totally agree with you, John.

Rebecca: I’m just sitting here contemplating how I can add role-playing into my Three Little Pigs exercise.

Jill: Aren’t you already doing it? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: A little bit, but I’m thinking about how maybe the students can do it more. I usually have someone come in and be the client and role-play the client role in my design class but the students are still acting as designers as humans but maybe they need to be characters in the Three Little Pigs or something for my assignment.

John: Actually, I was thinking of that—our second most popular episode has a title “The Three Little Pigs” and I can imagine all these parents playing it for their kids and finding out that it was really an exercise for a design class. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah.”

John: Much of what you’re describing in terms of being in this third party role is exactly the same type of thing, where students are able to see things much more clearly and are able to address issues that they’d be really cautious to approach if they were doing it in their own persona and I can see that connection and the benefits of that.

Rebecca: Somehow it’s just okay to embody that…

Jill: Yeah.

Rebecca: …other that they don’t feel connected to and explore and develop empathy and those sorts of things which is pretty powerful but I think the actual acting it out or writing the dialogues would really strengthen some of the things that I was already doing.

Jill: For sure.

John: How did you prepare to introduce this activity?

Jill: When I had my summer fellowship about performance and pedagogy I spent a lot of time doing research, starting to see who’s doing this and where and I was frustrated by the lack of what I could find in humanities classes or in sort of your more traditional classes—you get a lot of great activities coming out of theater classes or some more of the arts classes, but like high school classes or elementary school, like most of the role-play books I was finding were not geared toward college students doing the material that I wanted to do. So, I think there is room still for exploration and creativity here, that’s what I like about this. Reacting to the Past is certainly a place—Mark Carnes who designed it has written this great book called Minds on Fire, which I would recommend to anybody interested in this. There are other books about reacting that really do some pedagogical analysis of student experience in what’s going on. But, I think then within our individual discipline there’s a lot we can still do and I’m trying to think about that for myself as a religious studies scholar. I think there’s got to be stuff with empathy there and belief—I mean it’s really hard for students to try to understand beliefs of religious groups that they don’t subscribe to. This seems to be a way where they can at least intellectually be trying on beliefs of others just as they would an idea and I think that also shifts the location of some of these ideas where students are I find, “okay, I can understand that someone else may have this idea but to think somebody else may have this belief is like not about the head but the heart.” They’re more uncomfortable with that. So, trying to push those ideas of the heart as they see it up into the head, I think, could be really rich and beneficial for them. I’m sort of just riffing as I’m discovering this year but when we were talking about Puritan Theology… this Anne Hutchinson game… I just kept reminding them Puritans were intellectuals. These are highly educated people, so their beliefs weren’t just of an experience of God—it was well researched and reasoned with their relationship with scripture. So, I think there’s got to be some of that too… to think that where our emotions and our motivations come from connects heart and head; there isn’t some bifurcation of the two. I think that might help us as a society moving forward as we think about where some of our ideas and inspirations come from. I hope that what they take from some of these role-plays they’re able to put in other parts of their lives, that’s really the idea, ‘cause it’s more authentic than a classroom environment, this kind of here, I have some ideas and now I’m gonna improv conversation and ask questions and try not to step on toes… that’s life.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of interesting research can come out of what you just said. Sounds like you’ve got lots of plans. [LAUGHTER]

Jill: That’s what I’m thinking through right now. I guess that’s hopefully the next paper for the TTR Journal.

John: We always close with the question, what are you going to do next?

Jill: Next… So, I’m currently designing a new class. I alluded earlier to the new schedule that we’re doing, so we’re going to have three-week classes—some three-week classes, some twelve—and one of my three-week classes is going to be a new class called Religion, Voice and Performance, where I’m gonna use one or two Reacting games… we’ll see… in the service of helping students think through some of the things I was just talking about with empathy, compassion, belief, reason, rationality and relief, discovering voice, whether it’s claiming your own voice while speaking for another through Reacting and role-play or whether it’s trying to figure out who you are. I think that’s another beautiful thing about theater and acting is it invites you to figure out who you are while you are dancing around in somebody else’s shoes—that’s one of the things I’m working on now, which hopefully I’ll get to teach next year. Working on this article for Teaching Theology and Religion and I’m getting ready to keep working on these assignments that I’ve designed from the past and keep making them better. There’s always room to improve them, so those are my three things right now… and helping my faculty colleagues, as they may or may not want to try some of this stuff, so four goals.

Rebecca: It’s really exciting work, I’m glad that you were able to share it with us today.

John: Yes, thank you.

Jill: Thank you; thank you for inviting me.

[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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

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

John: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, we’ll 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.

[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: Our guest today is Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College. Welcome, Khuram.

John:Welcome.

Khuram: Thank you for having me.

John:Our teas today are:

Khuram: I’m actually drinking coffee. I hope that’s ok.

Rebecca: You and most other people. [LAUGHTER] We’ll let it go.

Khuram: I will end the day with tea.

Rebecca: Ok, perfect. I think we had a recent guest who also ended the day with tea. Today I have chai.

John:And I have pineapple ginger green tea.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good. You always are far more adventurous than me.

Khuram: If it’s any consolation, I have a little cardamom in my coffee, which I typically put in my tea, but I really like it in coffee as well.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I should try that.

Khuram: I highly recommend it.

Rebecca: Do you have an advice about how much?

Khuram: One. One is good.

Rebecca: One is good. [LAUGHTER].

Khuram: If you want it a little stronger you can crack it and then let it sit and it’ll be even more cardamom(y). [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Perfect. [LAUGHTER]

John:We see you’ve done some work with engaged scholarship and service learning. Could you tell us a little bit about what is meant by engaged scholarship for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Khuram: Engaged scholarship is essentially the integration of community needs with learning and it involves addressing community needs along with whatever respective disciplines and skills a scholar may apply to a particular condition. It could be anything from developing a literacy program that is also being useful and utilized in a community, but drawing from that community in order to make sense of what questions you want to answer. So, you’re not drawing it just from a review of literature or from a body of scholarship that emerges from conferences or a community of scholars, but in fact from a variety of voices within the community itself. It’s a much more community relevant approach to even designing research before you actually do it, and it spills out into community engaged teaching as well.

Rebecca: What got you involved in engaged scholarship?

Khuram: I first had the opportunity to do engaged scholarship as a professor of education at Hobart William Smith. I was teaching a course on the civil rights movement and a colleague approached me about volunteering to serve as a professor at a maximum-security prison, and the program there was run by a Bard Prison Initiative where long term inmates were given the opportunity to enroll in an undergraduate program. And so I taught the exact same course that I was teaching on campus within the educational space that they had created for prisoners (maximum security prison) and that was my first chance to think about the ways in which the needs and realities of communities outside of campus and inform the work in learning on campus and could also inform my notions of scholarship.

John:Your work is a form of service learning in terms of the student involvement in it. How does your approach differ from the more traditional service learning approaches?

Khuram: I think that a lot of what I have seen in traditional or conventional service-learning approaches is that there’s a great focus on the ways in which our students will learn by “doing for” communities. So how can we help children learn how to read? How can we provide food to food-scarce areas? And that becomes such a central narrative and the assumptions that young people have about what service-learning is is that we’re gonna learn through service for, and what I think is unique and special about the kind of work that many folks are doing today and I hope to be a part of that (and I hope I have been a part of that) is to do service with. To move from that model means we are required to collaborate and to take a much more team-based approach to service work and the learning then moves both ways. The service then moves both ways, and that I think is the fundamental difference between what we’ve been trying to do the last few years and what we’ve often seen provided to students.

Rebecca: How does your engaged scholarship relate to the service-learning projects and things that you do with students?

Khuram: In part, the ways in which engaged scholarship works is by providing students and faculty and community members an opportunity to create knowledge out of the questions and concerns that emerge in community related work. So for instance, we started an initiative known as “Tools for Social Change” some years ago, and before we looked at any kind of service project we looked at the ways in which the community saw itself. How did long-term residents see college campus residents? How did college campus residents in the same city see long-term residents of the city? And put them into intentional dialogue, first through interpersonal relationship building and then talking about social and structural issues that have informed their understanding of themselves within the city. And within larger structures of identity, race and class particularly. After they developed that understanding we asked, “Ok, what does this community mean to you? Where do you feel empowered? Where do you feel isolated?” Based on the answers to that, we were able to map out a different kind of geography. Even though we had developed a sense of connection and collectivity as members of a community that had been dialoguing all semester, we were operating within a city that was deeply segregated and divided, and so it was from there that we looked at scholarship. We looked at research that we could pursue, and one of the first things that became really important for us to consider was the way in which the economics of the city and the capacity of some to gain access to jobs opportunity was very different than it was for others. And so we ended up taking that initial group and developing wider groups that would go out into the city and inquire… essentially do a self-study of the city about the economics and economic opportunities that were available. And so essentially it was these two stages: first of engaging in dialogue; coming to an understanding of what shared community work could be and then going out into the city with the same participants and essentially conducting appreciative inquiry and having students and faculty and community members (long-term community members) interviewing members of the community, and we were out at the Salvation Army, we were in barbershops, we were in laundromat, we were in every corner of the city and particularly in corners of the city that didn’t often have a strong voice or were not well represented, I should say, in conversations about economic development. We were able to take those, transcribe them and give them to members of the working group that are trained qualitative researchers. They synthesized that, summarized it, and we were able to present it to the city. So, here we’ve created knowledge and we’ve created it through a certain kind of process, right? You might want to call it bottom-up, but I like to see it as horizontal; it’s relational knowledge, and that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about service-learning with as well as engaged scholarship with.

John:That group that was doing the analysis of the data… Were they faculty? Were they students? Was it some mix?

Khuram: It was some mix, but here you do have kind of a hierarchy of knowledge and skill, I should say, in terms of how to do this, and so students and community members were trained by ethnographers and researchers on how to hold a tape recorder, what kinds of questions, and how to ask questions, the ethics of confidentiality, and then they went out and they conducted (after receiving a few weeks of training) these interviews in the community and it was the researchers, mostly faculty, that then booked and analyzed that data and ultimately synthesized that data, but every turn there was some part of this that was democratic and collaborative. Even the questions themselves were questions that the participants generated in concert with other community members. What is it that we want to know about ourselves? And so those were the questions that were ultimately used when we did the broader interviews.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really powerful way of breaking down the town-gown divide that happens in a lot of communities where there’s an institution of higher education.

Khuram: I think that it was transformational for all of us. I don’t think anyone could truly have appreciated what was going to happen, and I think part of it is because it was an open conversation and we sustained a certain level of openness, curiosity, and vulnerability to each other as well as what we hope would come out of it, and I mean for me it’s transformed the way I think about everything from teaching to service to even social action and the role of institutions of higher education in really engaging in communities, and so the power of it, I think, was also to reveal what’s possible that we are capable of operating on different terms and the institutions of higher education do not need to be paternalistic in their engagement with communities and they do not need to take a charity-based approach in their supportive communities; they can be collaborative, it just requires us to match strength to strength to define the things that are going to be valuable for college students and faculty and staff to learn from communities and what communities will benefit learning with their work with institutions of higher education.

John:It strikes me too that this type of project could be much more sustainable. Many service-learning projects or one-off projects where the students work and do something in the community or to the community or for the community, but when you get the community itself engaged it swould seem that that could, at least for some types of projects, set the stage for continued collaboration, either with later groups of students working with them or with the community itself. Has there been much success in continuing the efforts once the classes ended?

Khuram: I first off want to say that I absolutely agree that service-learning is conventionally structured as a one semester project-based or hour-based experience, and it’s usually focused on alleviating one particular social issue, and what we have found is that it’s necessary to do year-long initiatives and we’ve been very fortunate to see that this initiative has been able to sustain itself for over three years, but that’s required us to allow it to evolve into what it needed to and one of the biggest parts of that has been that it has been untied from any particular course. It used to just be tied to my classes and so students would do service learning project were tied to classes they were taking with me. Now, students are participating as participants in independent studies, they’re participating in different working groups that sustain themselves a little bit more autonomously, and that is also true for a lot of long-term community residents that have joined smaller working groups. There’s a working group on food insecurity, there’s a working group on political representation, there’s a working group on economic empowerment and economic opportunity, and so any one of these working groups becomes its own kind of autonomous community that intersects with long-term residents and college students and faculty and staff and that, I think, is a sign of progress and health, is when the institution of higher ed that’s tied to these projects doesn’t need to own it, control it, and manage every aspect of it. If it can become a little bit more fluid and have its own purpose outside of a predetermined purpose from the institution, it becomes more organic and more impactful often.

Rebecca: The continuity that set up in a structure like that of “community who doesn’t go away” versus students who drop in and out as they go through four years—they’re a member of the community but then they often leave—seems like it’s a really useful model for not only making the learning better but just making the impact better. Can you talk a little bit about the community’s response to these projects.

Khuram: Yes, drive-by service-learning isn’t the way to transform communities or students; it requires a real, authentic engagement, and I think when you put people in real situations you get real outcomes and that’s across the spectrum. So you’re going to get people that are going to collaborate, develop great friendships, but you’re also going to get friction and struggle and honest expressions of frustration with one another. And so that becomes a part of it too, so our students need to learn or end up learning—whether they need to or not—the ways in which their participation is both important but sometimes limited. They are going to sit and be witnesses to long-standing struggles in a community; for instance, long standing struggles between law enforcement and communities of color, and they’re going to find their own footing in those spaces; they’re going to need to make sense of how to be an ally, how to be an advocate for an inclusive community that they now belong to, so the stakes become a little bit more real. But I would be a little bit disingenuous if I was going to imply that it’s neat and tidy. I’ve received pushback at times. I remember we were holding a dialogue and I had said that we’re really starting to build some really empowering opportunities here and someone coughed and said, you’re from the colleges; you have all the power. It was a great check on my own assumptions about how I was being seen in that space… that participating in a community activity while still being associated in some ways representative of a very wealthy, multi-million dollar institution in a post-industrial Rust Belt City is not going to play out in someone else’s mind the way that it might in mine. Now what I’m proud of in that work is that someone felt that they were in a space where they could call out people’s unseen or unacknowledged privilege, and that I thought was really important for other people to see, and for me to experience, but it also means that tension in real relationships is ongoing. Honestly, we are not dealing with a utopian situation where we’re all playing on equal terms; we’re coming with different levels of capital and different levels of support within that community, so even as we do this work, my students are good to remember, as am I, we cannot be tourists in other people’s lives, that if we have certain privileges this is a place to take responsibility for some of them.

Rebecca: In a situation like this where tensions can be high, differences big sometimes, and you’re trying to dialogue, how do you set up that environment so people feel safe, like the situation that you’ve just described.

Khuram: Always sit in a circle. Always begin with some expectations. What do we need from each other to have respectful and productive and meaningful conversations? Let’s create those standards together and revisit them every time we sit in circle together. Have people that are prepared to facilitate, that have training or are getting training in facilitation; that needs to be, I think, a critical piece of that, because while it is important to hear from everyone, there is a lot of value in having someone who can reflect back some of the bigger messages and patterns that are emerging in the conversation, someone that can point to the standards that we’ve set for ourselves and what we expect as our best way of engaging, and to remind people that there are strategies that we’ve identified when things get really heated where we want to go with that. So, I think being very intentional about creating a dialogical space, and for us, the use of intergroup dialogue and a lot of the pedagogical strategies developed by the University of Michigan Intergroup Dialogue were very important and helpful resources to get started.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I was hearing here that I want to just note, is if you’re having one of these conversations that you should have a facilitator and that the facilitator is not really participating in the conversation but rather facilitating the conversation. I think that can be challenging if we want to be involved in those conversations, but you need to make sure that you’ve picked that person and that person is staying as a third party.

Khuram: Yes, absolutely. And we typically have two people that will facilitate and that way there’s still some opportunity to give feedback or response or to slightly move out of a facilitator role, at least in terms of being able to share some ideas. But yeah, it does require you to pull back a bit. But having two facilitators… and it isn’t something that can’t be learned; I don’t think that people have to be lifelong professional facilitators. Most teachers are facilitators, and most of us have some experience facilitating or mediating conversations between others. As much as it’s important to start with people that have a background in facilitation, I think ultimately you want to end in a place where many of the participants feel comfortable and can contribute to the facilitation process over time, so we would meet every week. Ideally, we wanted to prepare people for their opportunity to do some facilitating. At this point we’ve seen dozens of participants go on to do much more formal facilitation in other spaces. That’s something that I’m very proud of and I’m very proud of them, I should say, for what they’ve accomplished.

John:You had mentioned some broad categories of tasks and working groups. What were some of the specific projects that were undertaken by people working in these projects in the community?

Khuram: All of these emerged dialogically as members of the campus community and long-term residents of the community talk through ways in which they felt connected and disconnected. We had four big ones, I’d say. We had community police relations, economic opportunity, food justice and food insecurity, and political representation. I’ll touch on each of them a little bit and then if you want to know a little bit more about any one of them I can pause. So, for food justice and insecurity, part of the challenge was an immediate one where it was about galvanizing community members to glean food and to increase access to fresh food, so we had volunteers doing gleaning. In the midst of that they were also looking at the president’s food deserts and dialoging along with community members about their access to nutrition and presenting some of those findings to the City Council and the Mayor. Or police community relations, we had two dedicated members who were part of a standing committee known as the Community Compact that met with different members of law enforcement and city government on a regular basis to talk about police-community relations and to develop programs to engage the community as well as to address certain policies. Then we have political representation, and for that what we saw was a wonderful volunteer energy of members of our entire group that went out and facilitated dialogues between political candidates and community members. Unlike conventional town halls where you’d have people sitting behind a table or behind a podium, we chat in circle with political candidates, and we had facilitators asking questions and facilitating dialogue in a pretty different kind of environment than I think a lot of us have when we engage with people that want to be elected, as well as elected officials. So we ran those, along with giving people an opportunity to register to vote. For economic empowerment, we trained facilitators to go out into the community in pairs and to hold circles in different corners of the community… in laundromats… in a variety of public spaces… to ask them what were the ways in which they were experiencing opportunity and what were the ways in which they were limited from economic opportunity. We also explored with them if they could wake up tomorrow to a different city, what would it look like? What opportunities would exist? And we took all of that and made it a final document called the “Big Talk in a Little City,” which has become an important and integral part of the city’s long-term commitment to economic empowerment, and so, not only are those voices and stories included in an official document, those voices and stories are now helping to shape policy and resource distribution in the city.

John:How have students reacted to this? Have any of them considered careers as working with communities and such things?

Khuram: For some of our graduates this has been life-changing. I think that one of the most fundamental things that we did well was simply to put people that would otherwise never have encountered each other in the same room and to ask them to share their stories and to talk about themselves. Developing those personal relationships between people that would otherwise pass each other on the street without a glance. People that had age differences, 40, 50, 60 years, people that had racial and socio-economic differences and geographic differences were suddenly having dinner at each other’s table, knew the names of family members, and knew the smallest things about one another were coming to their respective graduations and ceremonies and really becoming participants in each other’s lives. So, for a lot of our undergraduate students, having an opportunity like that is so deeply transformative because now policy is not just a matter of abstract equity and justice; it’s a matter of empathy and equity. You feel differently for someone who feels like a friend or family when they are in need and that informs your approach to policy and your approach to work in a community differently. So, we’ve had students that have gone on to do some really powerful work in law clinics, AmeriCorps and have stayed in the community to do some of that work because it was so transformational and they committed so much of their learning to this kind of engagement that they want to continue it. We do have a few folks that took a gap year between graduate school and stayed on, or decided to pursue a different kind of professional path because of the work they did.

John:That’s impressive.

Rebecca: It’s really exciting.

Khuram: I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.

John:Could you give us some idea of the scale of this—how many students are involved and how has it grown?

Khuram: We started with a relatively small group of about 20 students and 20 long-term community members, and in terms of active participants, it never really went much bigger than that, but it sustained itself over time and it also engaged a lot of other students and long-term community members for months at a time. What I mean by that, for instance, is a lot of our sustained participants would engage their friends, their roommates, their neighbors to come to our weekly sessions. So, we would oftentimes have topical session that were open to the public and those open sessions we could have up to 60, 70, 100, 200 people at those sessions, and so we had an active presence for quite a long time in the community when the courses were running, and now that we have the working groups there’s smaller numbers, but again, their impact, I think, in some ways is deeper because they’ve sustained some really deep work. One of the most incredible things that I saw the students do was they developed a course that would involve high school and college students learning together; so they essentially wanted to do what we were doing through these community dialogues in the high school. They wrote a course proposal, they submitted the course proposal, and after a few revisions and edits it was approved by both the college and the high school and we had a small group of about a half-dozen college students and a half-dozen high school students that took a course together at the high school. And that’s not a lot of people—but that doesn’t—what an incredible experience that they’re participating in something they helped codesign in order to address an issue that they perceive to be real across these age differences and community differences; that these teenagers and these college students together identified this town-gown divide and saw high school and college as a way to build bridges and constructed a course to do that and then participated in that course together. To me, that’s a kind of deep, transformative, impact that doesn’t quite reflect big numbers, but big experiences.

John:It’s certainly a testament to the impact that it had on those students that they were willing to do this and interested and motivated to do this.

Khuram: Absolutely.

John:How have your colleagues responded?

Khuram: I think that my colleagues have been excited, and I think that for many of them it created a new opportunity for them to engage. So, we’ve had faculty that have come in as participants, we’ve had them lead certain workshops and activities. They’ve come in with their expertise within their respective disciplines and fields. So, we’ve had a really great showing of faculty support. And part of it is we did not host this work on campus. We were very intentional about finding a place and space that was both a place that could be shared as well as a place that was easily accessible for long-term community residents, and so we found ourselves at the oldest black church in the city and a place that many of my colleagues had never been… that many people in the community had never been, and it was in the part of the city that is still segregated across a number of lines of race and class, and yet it was one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse spaces that you could sit in in the city and here it was in a historically or at least currently segregated space… and so I think the opportunity for faculty and for staff to engage with a community that they’re really caring about in a context that seemed more inclusive was really exciting and affirmed a lot of their values. I think this is something that people really want, it’s just a matter of creating the opportunity so that they can engage in it. I don’t think that most faculty or staff want to engage in these kind of vertical relationships with communities. It’s just how we’ve been doing things for so long.

Rebecca: Seems like your background in teaching about equity and teaching about intersectionality and doing some research in the classroom about these topics set you up really well to do this work. Are there tips or other things that could provide faculty who don’t have that same background that you could share to give us a doorway in?

Khuram: I think that in some ways having a background as a scholar in any kind of social justice or equity field can be a barrier, and here’s why. That work is always in your head and it is disembodied in the institution, and the institution is, by its very nature, disembodied from the communities that it surrounds. And so you can very easily be a deft and prolific scholar of social inequity and convey and facilitate inequity in your actual life. So really it’s not a guarantee of anything. I think the measure of your capacity is in the doing, and I think it’s really about addressing questions. Who am I inviting to the table? Where is the table? Who is not here? What do I need to ask now to get who’s not here, here? Those are the more important questions, and I think if we don’t presume that there’s a certain kind of institutional privilege that comes even with being able to wax philosophical about questions of equity, then we’ve already lost the plot. We’ve got to honestly think about the spaces and places in which we’re doing our work and the kinds of privileges that we need to interrogate about ourselves before we can do any of this work in equitable and meaningful ways, and so I would say this work is for everybody, and this work is for anybody who is willing to really work with community members and to find shared purpose with community members. It’s willing to listen and learn from… and is not just interested in providing to.

Rebecca: Those are such great reminders… and empowering to make sure that we can all find a way to help and work with the communities that we live in.

Khuram: Yeah, and sometimes it does mean maybe rethinking a service-learning project that’s a semester long and seeing if you can map it out over a year. Would you spend a semester just creating relationships between students, yourself and long-term residents of a community just in that exploratory project? and then say, “Ok, out of this what have we identified collectively as a community need that we can address as a class?” …so that you get, of course, that buy-in, which is so important, but there’s a truly transformative possibility that is emerged that simply wasn’t there until you took the time to really connect and build that relationship, so I’m also in practical terms a really big proponent of year-long service-learning initiatives and moving away from the pressures of a semester-long initiative, unless you’re willing to do half a semester of really just relationship building and collective meaning-making and then cut the service piece a little shorter.

John:We usually wrap up the podcast with a question: “What are you going to do next?”

Khuram: What I would like to do next is to start preparing and supporting students to be the initiators of this work. I am currently working with a couple student groups that are creating their own curriculum and their own activities to engage people in the community with. Right now it’s a youth-to-youth, college student and high school student initiative, and the aim there is to just be a guide on the side, to really maximize whatever space and context I can help create for students to develop their own initiatives for engagement. Again, along these principles of working with, but to see our students become the guides that they need that our students can be the leaders that they’re looking for and that they can help develop leadership in their communities, and so for me right now what that involves is again having college students and high school students connect and collaborate and learn from each other with really very little use of faculty and take from us what you need and build what you must.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for all that you shared today; I think it gives us all a lot to think about. Not just think about it; we need to take action too. [LAUGHTER]

Khuram:Thank you.

John:Thank you.
[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.

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.

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