76. Courses with travel

International travel can be intimidating, but it provides invaluable learning opportunities. In this episode, Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond join us to discuss their course in which students travel with them to study the science of fermentation in a global city.

Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond are associate professors in the chemistry department at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Show Notes

Show Notes

Rebecca: International travel can be intimidating, but it provides invaluable learning opportunities. In this episode, we’ll examine a course in which students travel with faculty members to study the science of fermentation in a global city.

[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 guests are Jeffery Schneider and Casey Raymond, associate professors in the chemistry department at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome, Jeff, and welcome back, Casey.

Jeff: Thank you.

Casey: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Jeff: I’ve got no tea, they wouldn’t let me bring in anything more stronger than that.

Casey: I’ve got Earl Grey.

John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Green tea.

Rebecca: I have my standard issue English Afternoon.

Casey: It is afternoon.

Jeff: Pip, pip, cheerio.

John: We invited here to talk about your course Fermentation Science in a Global Society. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how you got away with… uh… how it started?

Jeff: So back in 2005, I think, I was a member of the International Education Advisory Board and we had a big board meeting and they were talking about a way to get more quarter courses and get students interested and I was being kind of a smartass at the time, and I said…

Rebecca: You? [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Right?

John: At the time.

Jeff: Right? And I said, “Oh, I could teach a course on scotch” and the D ean at the time—I won’t name any names in case she’s listening—but she said, “Oh, that’d be great, because then I can help you guys, I could teach about some of the history,” and everybody at the table is like “Ha ha ha ha ha,” and nobody took it seriously. And I was kind of mad that nobody took it seriously. And so then I went over to Casey and I said, “You know, I just had this talk, and I thought we could do a thing on scotch,” and Casey says, “Well I don’t really know too much about scotch, but I bet we could do something on Belgian beer,” and being easy as I am, I said, “Oh, okay.” [LAUGHTER] And so we proposed the course and, you know, they said, “Okay,” and so we did. They gave us money to go explore and so we ended up taking a little exploratory trip to Belgium in the middle of January.

Casey: In 2006.

Jeff: 2006, yeah.

Rebecca: That sounds really awful.

Jeff: You know, it wasn’t actually that bad. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: I think she was being sarcastic. [LAUGHTER] It was really an opportunity to spin a hobby—I’ve been home brewing about eight years at that point and had started getting Jeff interested in home brewing—to spin the hobby into a class. And so we did that exploration trip in January to work out a few details and then that May took fourteen students to Belgium for, I guess it worked out, nine days at that point in May.

John: And how many times have you done this?

Jeff: Since 2006 we’ve only…

Casey: Only not done three years.

JEF: …not done three years, I think. It was because we couldn’t get enough students. It was really strange for whatever reason, there was one point—I hate to say it—but I think it was around that time when terrorism was kind of a big thing and parents were a little reluctant to send their kids and so we did see a dip then, but then all of a sudden, it’s like, “I guess everything’s okay.” We’ve only never done it three times but we’ve tried every year since.

Casey: And I think in one case, we were proposing to go back to the Czech Republic, we had done one trip there. And I think that wasn’t just maybe not as a high-interest location for some students as others. But we’ve done Belgium, we’ve done Scotland—which is where we’re going back to this year—we’ve done a trip to Munich, Germany, and we’ve done a trip to Amsterdam and the surrounding areas in the Netherlands.

Rebecca: So SUNY Oswego has a number of quarter courses, which you mentioned that this is one of. Why does this particular format work so well for a class like this?

Casey: So the format is: it ’s seven weeks of instruction on campus and then travel over spring break or in the case of the second half of spring semester, travel in May after graduation, and it really gives the students a chance to have a study abroad experience without committing to a whole semester. And in some majors, it’s hard to commit a semester without falling a whole year behind. And there’s also students that are hesitant to go that far for a whole semester. And we have always said that, “Yeah, we’re interested in this. We know students are interested,” and it’s more about giving those students the opportunity to experience something abroad than the actual content that we’re covering.

Jeff: And we’ve always taken quite a few students and a lot of them have never been out of the country before and a lot of them have never been outside of New York State before, and so it’s a good opportunity for them because it really is a different clientele between the quarter course students and the whole semester students. It’s the kids that haven’t traveled before, they’re a little afraid, they don’t know if it’s for them, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to learn a language. Do I have to learn a language?” and so it just gives them an opportunity. But then we’ve had kids after that, we’ve kind of given them the travel bug and they just go off and travel and I know one student in particular now she’s actually living in France.

Rebecca: That’s been my experience too, teaching the quarter classes with travel. I think that’s who those classes are really designed for. What have you found the balance of course content is in terms of helping students learn to travel, the subject matter you’re covering, and then also the country you’re traveling to? Because you’ve gone to different places.

Jeff: In our course we tried to have science just about every course period. You got to teach them about money, you got to teach them about what they’re going to expect, you got to teach them what not to do because that’s always important. And if it’s a place where English is not the native language, then we got to teach them a little bit of language as well. And if you take them to someplace like Scotland, where English is the native language, you still have to teach them a little bit as well, because you can’t understand a word they say.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the science that you cover?

Casey: So one of the things that we try to focus on is how broad fermentation is and how long we’ve been doing it and it was only relatively recently that we really understood what was happening in fermentation in making bread, in making beer, in making wine, in making cheese.

Jeff: When Casey says “we” he means it as “we” as a society.

Rebecca: Not you? You’re not making cheese in your basement? [LAUGHTER]

John: Not for centuries.

Jeff: Not right now, but we have.

Casey: Not right now. We have made cheese and that’s one of the things as well that we do with students in terms of getting them a sense of the science outside the classroom. We usually do a demonstration day where in the past we’ve had a couple people maybe brewing beer, we’ve done a session where we’ve actually gone through the cheese- making process so they can kind of see how that works. The very first time we did it, it was an absolute disaster.

Jeff: It was terrible.

Casey: But we’ve learned.

Rebecca: You’re going to tell us about that then, right?

Casey: The simple fact of the matter is, we squeezed too much of the liquid out of it and it became a hard rock. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: But I tell you what, we took that cheese to Belgium with us and we did a day trip to Amsterdam and we all sat down—there was construction outside of Centennial at the time—but we sat down outside the little barrier and everybody…

Casey: …tried…

Jeff: got that cheese down. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: It was bad. But we’ve learned. It really is to give them a sense of appreciation of the science behind it all, not to make them experts, so that when we’re visiting breweries, or cheese production, or distilleries, they have a sense of the science behind it. We’re not trying to make them experts in it and so that’s really the balance. And we’ve had everywhere from first- year students to graduating seniors and art, english, history majors, chemistry, biochemistry, so we just kind of have to take each class as a group and figure out what the balance is.

Rebecca: Do you tend to have many science students as part of your student body?

Jeff: We have, but that also fluctuates. There will be some years when a chemistry major says, “Oh, hey, so and so, do you want to take this course? I’m taking it…” and then all of a sudden you’ve got a mass of chemistry majors or science majors taking the course. Other times you get maybe one or two, so it’s varied.

John: How many hours does a class meet if it’s a quarter course?

Casey: Most of the quarter courses on our campus meet one hour a week and then have the rest of the content delivered when they’re abroad. Our course, we meet two hours a week just to be sure we get the science covered as well as the travel… the location information… covered. And so we meet two hours a week on campus, and then we go abroad for in general eight to ten days.

Rebecca: You hinted a little bit at some of the kinds of places that you visit when you travel. Can you talk a little bit more about what your in-country experience is like?

Casey: It is pretty varied, and it certainly depends a little bit on where we go. Besides visiting things specific to fermentation, we try and also visit things that are historical or cultural. Many times, but not always, we will be in a couple different destinations, cities, instead of just staying in one location the whole time. And all of the transportation that we do, we try to do on local buses and trains. We very rarely have a charter service. Part of the reasoning for that is one it’s easy and two it gets the students a little more experience of what Europe’s like.

Jeff: And it also keeps the cost down.

Casey: Yup.

John: How do you prepare students for the trip in terms of preparing them for the culture and the experiences in advance?

Casey: I think part of it is getting them a few common phrases, if it’s a foreign language, getting them a sense of what the customs are, but likewise, letting them know that it’s not that different. Sometimes it’s a case of, “I need to pack absolutely everything.”

Jeff: Right, they think that we’re going to a third-world country and so we have to remind them: “You know, Belgium is a first-world country. The Netherlands is a first-world country. You can buy toothpaste, it’s okay. You don’t have to pack it. Or if you forget it, it’s not the end of the world.”

Casey: And sometimes it’s a fun experience to have to go, “Okay, what am I trying to find?”

Jeff: Of course, if a student gets sick, and they have to go to a pharmacy, that’s also an interesting time.

Casey: Which we have had occur.

Jeff: Our inaugural experience, we had a young lady terribly sick and she went to a pharmacy. She got some cough medicine and we said, “That’s great,” until Casey read the bottle and it said it was loaded with codeine. [LAUGHTER] And so she was taking it easy after we said, “Hey, don’t chug that.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: The benefit of having a scientist with you on a trip. [LAUGHTER]

Casey: Yeah.

Jeff: Well, yeah.

Casey: Partly. But I also know in many European countries, the pharmacists have a lot more leeway. You still have to talk to them to get ibuprofen or aspirin, but they also have the ability to sell you hydrocodone cough syrup, if that’s what they think you need. So things like that in terms of preparing students.

Jeff: You know, how to deal with money, right? That’s always the hard part. We’ve had kids lose their debit card, we’ve had kids bring traveler’s checks, and over the years we’ve built up a list of no’s and we just tell them, “Bring your debit card, that’s all you need.” Make sure though that it’s current because the one kid’s was not current and that’s why his card was eaten by the machine. And so then, of course, that was on a weekend and so we had to loan him a little cash. I don’t remember if it was me or Casey, but one of us floated him some cash. So we also have to be a bank while we’re over there. [LAUGHTER] My son went on that first trip with us, and everybody started calling me the international bank of dad.

John: What were some of the best experiences you had during the travel component?

Jeff: Personally I love traveling so I think all of the experiences are good. A kid will say something funny or whatever and everybody has a good time because even the kid who said it realizes, “Yeah, I guess that doesn’t make sense, does it?” I think it’s just fun being with the kids. There have been some probably not so great times, but…

Casey: …only a couple.

Jeff: …but only a couple.

Casey: Only a couple of situations where we’ve traveled that have been, let’s say, taxing and not ideal.

Rebecca: Like? [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: I can think of one in particular.

Casey: Basically, students thinking they knew what they were doing and deciding they were going to go off on their own and got themselves stuck in a different city overnight. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Oops.

Casey: Because they basically decided to do things on their own without consulting with anybody that actually knew what was going on. And it happened to be a day that was a holiday in Europe.

Jeff: And they just left us a note. And finally somebody came and knocked on my door late and said, “Uhh so-and-so and so-and-so and s o-and-so are nowhere to be found.” I said, “Oh boy,” “But they left us this note.” I said, “Oh, what does the note say?” And it said, “Went off to discover mother Europe,” and they ended up not returning til the next morning.

John: You brought most of them back to Oswego, right?

Jeff: We’ve never lost a student. We’ve wanted to. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Actively tried.

John: They’ve always found their way back.

Jeff: But we’ve never lost a student. We’ve never had to send anybody home early.

Casey: No.

Jeff: Although it certainly, we may have…

Casey: That incident was close.

Jeff: That was close. And we probably wanted to, but honestly—and hopefully no future students are listening—honestly, we didn’t want to deal with the hassle.

Rebecca: It’s too much work, right?

Jeff: It’s a lot of work.

John: Yeah.

Casey: It’s a case, though, that by and large, it’s gone really well.

Jeff: Yeah I’d say overall, we’ve done well. I think the students always give us glowing reports back as well. They have a great time and they learn a lot. And I think sometimes they don’t realize it until after they’ve come back that they’ve actually learned a lot.

Casey: We make them keep a journal. We have six, seven, eight specific assignments we want them to write about, but we really stress, “Use it as a log,” so that you can look back on it and remember. And that’s, I think, where they really start to realize how much they’ve learned if they take it serious and write everything. In terms of losing students—and trying to lose students—one of the challenges we sometimes have is getting the students to go off on their own. They want to stay right with us all the time and as part of their experience they need to, in small groups—not alone, but small groups—go do your own thing.

Jeff: Yeah, some of them like to be glued to you at the hip and it’s because as I said before, not everybody has traveled. They’re afraid, it’s a new place, the language might be different, they just don’t know. And you really see a difference between whether or not you’re taking a freshman versus whether or not you’re taking a senior.

Rebecca: What have been some of the challenges and opportunities of co-developing and co-teaching this class?

Casey: One of the situations we encountered is we developed this and even the very, very first year we did it, there were people on campus that were incredibly uncomfortable of us teaching this class. They were very concerned that we were teaching a class all about drinking and that’s not the case at all. And Josh in International Ed…

Jeff: This is not a “how-to” course in how to drink.

Casey: No, and we’ve heard it several times that in many respects because it’s a course that involves alcohol and it’s all about appreciating alcohol and understanding it, we have less problems with drunkenness than some of the other study abroad classes that don’t really address it. But that very first year or two that we did teach the class there was a lot of skepticism and concern by several people on campus about what we were actually doing.

Jeff: Well, and even if somebody would mention the fact, “Oh, you teach the beer course, hahaha,” right, and they kind of give you this kind of snide look like, “You’re a joke” kind of thing. Say what you will, but we know what we do and we do it well and kids get an understanding of fermentation and all the processes that go into it and an appreciation.

John: And it is applied chemistry.

Casey: It is.

Jeff: It is applied chemistry, applied biology, it’s applied science. One of the things that people have to keep perspective of is that alcohol is a multibillion dollar industry, right? …a multibillion dollar global industry. And people don’t appreciate that.

Casey: Sometimes it’s juggling who’s scheduling what because we do almost all of our own planning and organization for the study abroad component.

Jeff: I would agree. Just even this latest trip, Casey and I are both trying to plan hotel accommodations and it’s like, “Hold it. Did you talk to someone?” “No, wait, I thought you were,” “Oh? No I didn’t.” So that’s probably one of the challenges. Opportunity, I don’t know, we get to work together.

Casey: Yeah. And it provides…

Jeff: Doing something we like.

Casey: Yeah. It provides a little extra coverage in those times when it’s like, “Oh, I can’t quite get to class tonight. Can you cover?” and it gives us that balance as well. It gives us a little more balance when we’re abroad. Kind of keeping track of students especially in the trip’s locations where we’re moving destinations and hopping between trains.

Jeff: Right. One of us will be in the front, one of us will be in the back, Casey will do a count, I’ll do a count, hopefully they’re the same. [LAUGHTER] So it does make it a little easier.

Casey: Thinking about trains, challenging instances. When we went to Munich, we took the train from the airport to the city.

Jeff: Yeah, we did.

Casey: Two of the students didn’t realize we were serious when we said, “When the doors open at the next stop, get off,” because the doors closed before they got off. We were able to signal to try and get turned around.

Jeff: If this was visual, you could see me waving like they did, because as they’re going they’re just “Ugh.”

Casey: Now what? [LAUGHTER] And it happened to be two students that year that didn’t have a cell phone that would work in-country. So that’s something that’s changed a lot since we first taught courses, the wireless and cell phone and technology. But you know, 40 minutes later, they’d find their way back to that.

Jeff: They had the presence of mind to get off at the next stop, cross the tracks, get back on, and come back to where we were. We didn’t move, we waited, and not having cell phones when we went to Belgium—must have been 2011—we took my daughter with us. I took all of my kids when they were 16-years-old, with my daughters. And it just happened that it was always to Belgium. Well this time we took a day trip to Amsterdam and…

Casey: No, we stayed in Amsterdam.

Jeff: Oh we did. That’s right we did.

Casey: We landed in Amsterdam to stay there.

Jeff: And we’re wandering around and…

Casey: Introducing them to the city that first day.

Jeff: And all of a sudden…

Casey: We sent everybody to ATMs to get money because we just got in the country.

Jeff: And it’s like, “Hold it. Where’s my daughter?” She was only 16. I said to my wife, “Where is she?” so we’re going one direction and I think somebody told me where they had seen her and we went that way and turns out, Casey and his wife and my daughter are going a different way looking for us and I was just…

Casey: You had like, two students with you and I had the other 10 with me.

Jeff: …round and round and round. And yeah, so cell phones would have been helpful. But I mean, you think about it even seven, eight years ago, cell phone technology is vastly different. So that can be a challenge sometimes. And the lesson I took away with that is don’t take my own kids with me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: The lesson of the 40 minute wait is nobody else wants to be that kid next time, so it’s like, lesson learned the first 40 minutes we’re here.

Casey: And it’s something we tell classes now. We’re serious when we say get off the train, get off the train.

Rebecca: This is why you don’t take too much luggage with you. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: We do tell them to pack light. I will admit that as I’ve gotten older I tend to check a bag rather than carry it on but Casey will get there, he just doesn’t know it yet.

John: What would a typical day be like while you’re in-country?

Casey: Usually see everybody at breakfast, it’s kind of a standard.

Jeff: We tell them, we want to see, we don’t care if you eat—even though breakfast is probably included—but we got to see you at 9 o’clock or whatever it is.

Casey: And then usually we’ll have half of the day planned… programmed… scheduled. There’s cases where it’s a whole-day situation but usually we’ll have half-day things planned so we’ll do that and then they’ll have a chunk of open time to explore things that they’re particularly interested in. We certainly make recommendations and suggestions. But we found it’s really valuable to have the free-time for them to do things they want and do their own exploring.

Rebecca: But I bet the free time is really good for you.

Casey: It is. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Maybe…

Casey: It is. And it also gives us the flexibility to adjust our schedule in some cases. If we’ve had something planned outdoors and it’s a really cruddy day and we know the next day is going to be better, we’ve been known to flip things around to make it work. The very first year, our flight was six hours late leaving New York City which then affected things we were going to do that first day in the country. And we just started flip flopping things and we made it all work, but it was a lesson immediately: Build in that flexibility.

Rebecca: I can imagine that by students taking this class if they weren’t interested in science or didn’t know that much about it, that when you see how it’s applied and have a practical application that maybe they didn’t experience in high school that they might actually develop an interest in an area that they didn’t know they had an interest in.

Casey: I’ve spoken with people, some parents but others and they asked what I teach, and I say chemistry. “Oh, my student will never have you for class,” or, “I would have never had you for chemistry,” I said, “Well, you might take the fermentation science course.”

Jeff: “What?”

Casey: Wuh…. huh… what? And it’s really about—I said many times—it’s sort of enticing students into a course based on the topic. I usually actually say, “Sucker them into a course,” because they think it’s going to be about something, but it really is: give them that basic science that appreciation, but really give them a chance to experience something different, something very eye opening.

Jeff: And we’ve had kids actually go on and work in the industry, and being brewers and distillers.

Casey: Yeah.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Jeff: What’s next? Well I know come spring break, Casey’s taking a bunch of kids to Paris.

Casey: It’s an honors course, related to food science.

Jeff: And I’ll be taking a dozen kids to Dublin for spring break. That course is not about drinking.

Casey: You talk about challenges. This year has been a different challenge because Jeff’s planning Dublin, I’ve been planning France for spring break, and then we’re planning Scotland in May. And so I’m trying to keep things straight.

Jeff: It was hectic. It was hectic.

Rebecca: I made that mistake. The first year I took students abroad I planned another U.S. travel class in the same year, so like Q3 was a travel and then Q4 was. I hear you, I learned my lesson. [LAUGHTER]

Jeff: Well, no, the lesson is you just have to keep practicing.

Rebecca: O, oh, oh yeah.

Casey: Thankfully Jeff’s done Dublin several times.

Jeff: I’ve done Dublin several times now and I basically plan it as soon as I get back after spring break. This year I’ll have the next year planned already or pretty close.

Casey: And we’ve been to Scotland so most of that was set. At least, we knew what we wanted to do, it’s just a matter of finalizing things. And we’ll do the same thing, end of May we’ll come back and we’ll start strategizing, “Okay, what’s the location for May ‘20?”

Jeff: I mean even before that, we’ve already talked a little bit about the location for May ‘20.

Rebecca: Which is going to be?

Jeff: Well, we haven’t decided yet.

Casey: It may be the Netherlands, it may be Munich.

Jeff: I love Amsterdam and I love Munich as well.

Casey: I haven’t put on his radar that we could go to Cologne.

Jeff: Well, we could go to Cologne… ah…Decisions.

John: And what is your class in Ireland?

Jeff: The class in Ireland, that’s GLS 100. It’s a Global Cities course and so there’s always some question as to, you know, is Dublin really a global city? Because there’s some kind of fancy-pancy definition of what a global city is and I’m not quite sure if Dublin actually fits but I think it’s a global enough city. It’s cosmopolitan, it’s got a lot of political problems, especially now with Brexit coming up. It’s a fun course. We talk about culture of Ireland and Dublin and the history and we spend a lot of time on the 1916 revolution and things like that and so kids get a lot of information. I only meet one night a week, like most global courses, and then we’ll be gone for all of spring break. In fact, we’re going to leave the Friday before spring break, and we’ll be coming back midnight or one Monday morning.

John: Well, thank you. This has been fascinating.

Jeff: Thank you.

Casey: You’re welcome.

John: It sounds like an interesting class.

Rebecca: Thank you.

Jeff: Thank you.

John: We’ve recorded this podcast a couple weeks early, which is somewhat new to us because we’re often recording these within a week of their release. But as we were completing editing on the podcast, we got an email from Casey who noted that perhaps some things can go wrong on trips that they had not yet experienced. So Casey, would you like to tell us a little bit about what happened?

Casey: Yeah, John. I led the spring break class to France, as I indicated at the end in the last podcast. And I recalled you asking about challenging or difficult situations that occur. And in our case, it reminded me that I probably needed to do this little addendum. Specifically, we were scheduled to leave Syracuse Friday afternoon and we had all 13 students at the airport on time. We actually even boarded the plane Friday afternoon, and the pilot came on and made an announcement that during his walkthrough, he noticed a small leak. He wasn’t sure what it was, they were bringing mechanics over to look at it. A couple minutes later, he comes back on and says, “They’re not sure, we need to de-plane so they can figure it out.” And so everybody’s off, everybody gets in line to the ticket counter for fear of missing connections and rebooking and lo and behold, they weren’t sure what the problem was. When they finally did find the leaking part, they didn’t have a replacement, and it wouldn’t come in until maybe six o’clock Friday night, in which case we would have missed our international flights. And so I contacted our travel agent, she couldn’t really do anything because it was all airport control. I ended up working with a supervisor, just by chance, he pulled me out of line to try and rebook 15 of us on a single ticket. And so as he was working with corporate trying to map this out and come up with a plan, we ended up needing to split our group to come up with options because there just weren’t seats available leading into spring break, dealing with some weather issues that were happening, and the fact that the 737 Max grounding had limited some of the airlines—not ours—but there just weren’t seats available. And so I agreed to split the group, my wife would go with one part, I would go with another part and we came back with our new itinerary, instead of a direct flight from Washington D.C. to Paris, the first group of us was going to fly from Washington D.C. to Chicago, to Frankfurt, and then to Paris. The second group was going to fly from Washington D.C. to Zurich to Paris. So we get in a couple hours apart… day late… which would affect our train travel to Lyons because our first four days was going to be there. And so it’s like, “Well, it’s the best we can do, that’s what we’ll do.” And so we stayed in a hotel Friday night as a group, got to the airport Saturday morning, and by about 9:30…10 a.m. Saturday morning, they had completely canceled our flight because they still didn’t have the right repair part and they couldn’t bus us to Washington D.C. So the next thing we knew they were going to bus us to New York City so we could have a direct flight from JFK, but they couldn’t find busing to get us to JFK. And so then they rerouted us on a Sunday night like from Washington D.C. to Paris, with the promise they would get us to Washington D.C. Saturday night. So now we’ve spent all of Friday afternoon sitting in the airport. Now we’re going to spend all day Saturday sitting in the airport. And some of the students got together with parents that were local, some of the students hopped an Uber and ran to the mall to kill some time. But we finally got out of Syracuse on the fixed plane. Saturday night about 8:30 got to Washington D.C. about 10pm, got into a hotel there—the airline put us up—and then Sunday morning, students studied, did various things, but we all got to the airport Sunday afternoon, and finally got on our flight to Paris. So we arrived in Paris Monday morning instead of Saturday morning. by Saturday afternoon, when I knew we’re going to miss two days and that the things we had planned on Monday were not going to be possible, we just weren’t going to make it, and that was a key reason for going to Lyons, I all of a sudden was in the mode of, I need to completely reconfigure the whole front end of my class. And so I started working with International Ed and the person on the ground in Paris. We have to try and get two additional nights of lodging in Paris, just cancel the whole Lyons part of it, try and recruit rail ticket expenses, cancel the hotel there—which did cost us two nights of lodging, but not all four—and then try and figure out what am I going to do in Paris with this group food related in the two days now that I have? So it really wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon that I finally started to feel comfortable and relaxed on this trip just because of all the upheaval. The crew at the Syracuse airport that was trying to help us… the person there… was outstanding. He was doing everything he possibly could to help the class. The students were really pretty good. They understood that was not a lot we could do other than keep pushing along. Some were concerned, some were upset, there were certainly frustration and disappointment for all of us, especially as we had to cancel things we were planning to do. But it was a situation that you hope you never really encounter. But it’s a case of, you really have to be ready for almost anything. And as Jeff and I indicated before, you’ve got to be ready to be flexible. And this was really an extreme case of it because all of a sudden, I’m rescheduling basically half of our overseas experience completely on the fly and largely with an internet connection through a cell phone.

John: Flexibility is important. There are a lot of moving parts there. And if one of them stops moving, it affects all the others.

Casey: Yeah.

John: Overall, how did it work?

Casey: Overall, it worked out really as best as it could under those situations. Once we got into France, everything went fine on the ground there. It actually worked out amazingly well that the extra two hotel nights were in the same hotel we originally going to be in. And I discovered at least one activity in Paris as a substitute… a cheese tasting that worked out outstandingly for the students and it was a great experience. So in the grand scheme of things, I think it all worked. We’re disappointed to have missed a few things that we had originally planned, but I think the students still benefited from what happened and the stress that I experienced didn’t really negatively impact the class.

John: Great. Well, thank you for the update.

Casey: You’re welcome.

John: And we look forward to hearing more stories about more pleasant travel experiences in the future.

Casey: Me too.

[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 Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

22. Transhumanism

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Damian: Thank you.

John: Ginger peach white tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: I’ve seen some other photos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Damian: Yeah, it should be fun.

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

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

John: Excellent.

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

Damian: You’re welcome.

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

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