Future Focused Teaching
January 15, 2013
Throwing out the books, slowing down, digital imaging, kinesthetic learning and using the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a metaphor are marks of innovative teaching at Earlham.
Students in Assistant Professor Kalani Seu’s chemistry and biochemistry courses regularly work with a molecular viewer that is used most often at the graduate and research levels. The viewer, Swiss PDBViewer or DeepView, is a computer application that allows students to see, layer and analyze molecules. Various tools give users a seemingly limitless array of controls to manipulate the vividly colored 3-D images.
“It’s a really good visual supplement to what we talk about in class,” Seu says. “When you talk about the binding of oxygen to hemoglobin and the cooperative effect, that’s hard for students to see, but once they view it in DeepView it becomes a powerful thing.”
Biochemistry major Cate Simmermaker '13 says she appreciates working with such an advanced program that has the capabilities to stack proteins from a variety of species and see them in more detail.
“By being able to take control of the models we learn about, we have more control of our understanding of the knowledge gained,” she says.
Seu was introduced to the molecular viewer during his first semester at Earlham when he taught with Professor Mike Deibel.
“It did not come easily at first,” he says. “There was a pretty steep learning curve. I saw the potential, and I thought this could be the coolest thing for students.”
Instructions that are provided with the application are far from intuitive and often discourage students. Consequently Seu refines the instructions each year.
“DeepView advances the way we see structures,” Simmermaker says. “This could only be done by using the explicit directions that Kalani gives. With exact directions, students are more capable of learning in the way they need to. This structure does not limit the creativity for discovery but rather directs it in an effective manner.”
Because of his persistence, Seu has noticed less frustration and more interest in the program.
“When I show them how powerful this tool is, they genuinely embrace it,” he says. “Admittedly, I use this viewer because it was what I was introduced to, but a lot of people say they love it because of its power and its analysis capability. This is a useful tool for the students’ future; it’s a skill they can take with them to grad school and on into their work.”
Language in Motion
Professors Aletha Stahl and Chris Swafford have resurrected Earlham’s once-popular Super Language courses in French and Spanish. Each eight-credit, single-semester course, is packed with innovations including kinesthetic learning. In French, Stahl incorporates a 50-minute weekly yoga session, and in the Spanish course, Swafford incorporates walking five miles each week through different parts of the town of Richmond. Both courses include a .5 wellness credit.
“For me, this is part of a bigger experiment I’m doing on kinesthetic learning,” Stahl says. “Total physical response is a well-known language pedagogy, whereby students comprehend by acting.”
Stahl says she knows it works because of the affectionate way her students mock her.
“Students are embodying the language while moving with it in a relaxed atmosphere,” she says.
An unexpected outcome of the Spanish class is that Swafford has noticed an increased interest in the community from her students.
A second innovation that both Stahl and Swafford have incorporated is that textbooks are not required.
“We have found that students increasingly don’t want to pay for textbooks. It is just not in their head that they should buy textbooks. Open source and other online materials really make a lot of sense,” Stahl says. “In addition, textbooks can be constraining, and for the most part, Earlham students are more sophisticated as far as what they have seen and experienced in life. Textbooks suppose a white, middle- class American student, but many of my students don’t fit that profile for a number of reasons.”
The final innovation is that the classes, which meet nine times each week, rely more heavily on the use of teaching assistants.
“We have TAs who are native speakers, and TAs teach my afternoon classes,” says Stahl, who covers more grammar, vocabulary, structure, and assimilation of materials in the mornings while the TAs target more open-ended activities in the afternoons. “This is a component of peer learning.”
Collaborative afternoon activities between the French and Spanish classes have included a dance-instruction session and a soccer match. “We yelled at them as much as we could in French, and they yelled at us as much as they could in Spanish,” Stahl says.
Both professors are pleased with the progress students are demonstrating in the Super Courses and plan to offer them again next year. Stahl says she is excited by the initial assessments in her course.
“Part of our goal is that more students in these courses will attain a higher level of learning than they would in the regular two-semester course,” Stahl says. “From what I have experienced so far, I think these Super Courses should be a model for language instruction. It’s a great way to meet a requirement or narrow a student’s focus for a semester.
“These courses take huge amounts of time, but I find myself energized to give students this incredible experience of learning a language in an intense way. It has shifted my whole way of teaching.”
“What I do is nothing new, but it’s how I approach each student and how I put each lesson together for that student,” says Judy Wojcik, assistant professor of art. “I am trying to get my students to work in ways that are meaningful to them. I push them to make pieces that are personal and make sense to them.”
Wojcik’s courses are popular with an enrollment cap at 20 students, and there is always a lottery. Each year two or three art majors graduate with a focus in ceramics, so she finds herself teaching to a lot of non-art or at least non-ceramics majors.
To help students create distinctive pieces, Wojcik instructs biology and chemistry majors to look through their science textbooks and study the diagrams and drawings and try to interpret those in clay. Mike English’s ’12 senior exposition entitled, “The Wave,” included slip-casted replicas of salt and water molecules.
“It was actually pretty amazing,” comments Wojcik, who discovered parallels between the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears and the instruction on the various stages of clay.
“You don’t want it to be too hard or too soft; it has to be just right,” she says. “This requires patience and attention. It is similar to a dialog between two people except that it is a dialog with a material. You have to listen to your material — push too hard and it might crack, build too fast and it may collapse, ignore it and it may dry out.”
Students learn to hand-build, which includes building with coils, slabs or pinching, and throwing on a potter’s wheel. While honing these skills, they focus on surfaces and idea development and learn to mix and test glazes. Because of the size of the ceramics program, ceramics majors learn all facets including mixing clay and firing in pitfire, wood, raku, gas and electric kilns.
“My goal, by the time they graduate, is that they are proficient in materials and techniques, and they know how to run a studio, including mixing, glazing, firing,” she says. “They can apprentice with a ceramicist or they can go to any other ceramics studio and adapt very easily.”
A Change of Pace
A wilderness experience inspired some radically innovative pedagogical ideas for Associate Professor of Philosophy Kevin Miles.
“I’m always trying to figure out better ways to get the teaching done, looking for innovations,” he says. Unexpectedly, he received insight during his August Wilderness experience in Utah’s rugged Uinta Mountains.
“I spent time this summer observing the behavior of members of our incoming class and their lives, and I saw how inextricably connected they were to notions of speed,” he says. “They seem to be in a hurry in ways they don’t even realize.”
The wilderness group quickly established a routine with the objective of getting from point to point as quickly as possible.
“I talked to the students,” he says. “They told me ‘the goal was to put our heads down and go.’ Here we were in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the students were not pausing to appreciate or even recognize where they were. This seemed crazy to me.”
Miles applied this new awareness to his life’s passion of teaching.
“My insight this summer is that we may not be thinking seriously enough about the role of time in education,” he says. “Sometimes our teaching is very much like that way of hiking — we put our heads down and go. We need to learn to absorb, and this takes time.”
The longer he pondered the subject, the more the evidence validated his concern. He remembered the story of one student who had written a paper one semester and then could not resuscitate any useful information on the same topic during a class discussion the following semester. He began thinking about courses that cover three or more texts in one semester. He began questioning the structure of an American college education, and he began questioning technology.
“While technology accelerates our access to information, does it decelerate our thinking?” he says. “Technology allows us to quickly plug in the information, but have we really thought it through. I think we are experiencing an academic identity crisis, and we don’t know what we should be doing. How do speed and acceleration affect education today?”
Miles remains focused on the implications of time on a college education, including questioning the four-year graduation timeframe, the length of classes, the number of credits per class, the number of credits needed for graduation, majors, double majors and minors.
“We need to rethink our standards — standards that were put in place in the 19th century should be questioned in the 21st century,” he says.
Upon his return from the mountains, Miles thought about how his insights could prove useful during the fall semester.
“I have tried to slow down some, and I think the situation calls for slowing down,” he says. “My sense is that my students can always be better readers, and to make one a better reader you have to cover less ground. Rather than have four texts, I am going to use just one text for an entire semester. I have done that before at Earlham, but I want to be more intentional. We will study not just content, but form and style, and we will really learn to read the book. I want my students to be more mindful of the experience of education. If Earlham is the place that changes lives, well that requires time.”
Editor's note: this article, written by Denise Purcell, first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Earlhamite magazine.