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Breaking down classroom walls

New initiatives take learning beyond College Hill

University News Editor
Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

The brick-and-mortar classroom has long been and remains the cornerstone of a Brown education, but future — and some current — undergraduates will experience the University in a broader context, venturing down College Hill and across the globe on the coattails of new pedagogical practices.

Over the past few years, student interest in engaged scholarship, faculty members’ drive to digitize courses and institutional directives aimed at sending Brunonians abroad have materialized into programs such as Engaged Scholars, the Teaching, Research and Innovation Lab, Global Experiential Learning and Teaching courses and flipped classrooms, all of which incorporate out-of-classroom experiences into undergraduate education.

President Christina Paxson’s P’19 administration has supported these programs, providing funding for faculty members to adapt courses to digital formats and take students on class trips to foreign countries as well as hiring additional personnel to assist students in finding internships and community engagement opportunities.

It is incumbent upon the administration to ensure “the University is on top of the freshest and most interesting pedagogical and curricular innovations that are available to us,” said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

Administrators said these initiatives both keep Brown’s education current with widespread trends in higher education and, in certain instances, embody what has always been distinctive about the University, allowing an innovative spirit to shape the institution in new ways.

Partnering with Providence

Beginning this semester, students in certain undergraduate programs have been able to declare concentrations as Engaged Scholars, a track that requires 250 hours of real-world experience related to a concentration.

Several administrators underscored the program’s distinctiveness. While many universities encourage students to explore opportunities beyond institutional walls, very few have incorporated those experiences into major or concentration requirements, said Provost Vicki Colvin.

“There’s a very powerful back-and-forth that goes on between the academic learning in the classroom and the work in the field or in the nonprofit or the government or for-profit entity out in the world,” said Allen Hance, director of Engaged Scholarship. “It’s a reciprocal process of learning, and one of the major goals of the Engaged Scholars program is to bring that process more into focus for each student.”

Ximena Carranza Risco ’17, a 2015 Tri-Lab participant and Engaged Scholar, said her experiences have embodied that “reciprocal process.”

“One of the main things that I’ve learned has been contextualizing the work that I do and understanding how the mostly theoretical knowledge that is created can be connected to the practical sphere — connecting the dots between those two,” she said.

Working on the Tri-Lab project — the two-semester class, ENVS 1500: “Environmental Justice and Climate Change in Rhode Island” — Carranza Risco, an environmental science concentrator, has become more familiar with Providence and the dynamics involved in explaining climate change to various constituencies, including local residents, business people and government employees, she said.

Building on Brown’s relationship with Providence is a major benefit of ramping up engaged scholarship, several administrators said.

“Engagement with our local community … is driven by student and faculty interest in social change,” Colvin said.

Many students endeavor to better the world, she added. “Your backyard is a great place to start.”

The origins of the Engaged Scholars program lay in student engagement with the city, said Kate Trimble, interim director of the Swearer Center for Public Service.

Trimble traced the idea for the program back to a focus group three years ago in which students active in the Swearer Center requested “institutional support” for tying local service to their studies.

In addition to illuminating the way classroom concepts can be applied to real-world work, engaged scholarship supplies students with connections that can help them pursue that work after college.

Kai Salem ’18, another Tri-Lab participant and Engaged Scholar, said her work on growing green infrastructure in Providence’s West End has provided her significant connections with climate organizations in Rhode Island. Recently, she witnessed several speakers she knows personally discuss climate change at the Statehouse, she said.

Outside the States

These opportunities for engagement are not limited to Providence. Recently, students have, with passports in hand, taken their education abroad in new ways.

The GELT program marks one way students have integrated international experience into coursework. GELT grants allocate advanced undergraduate or graduate courses $35,000 each for international travel, according to the program’s webpage.

This spring, Stephen Kinzer, visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, taught INTL 1802: “International Journalism: Foreign Reporting in Practice,” which centered on a foreign reporting experience in Leon, Nicaragua.

Before embarking on the spring-break trip to Leon, students amassed knowledge about Nicaragua and tried their hand at reporting in Providence. Kinzer said students tackled two stories prior to the trip, both of which incorporated their Spanish-language skills.

For the first assignment, which tasked students with reporting on a specific place in Rhode Island, Mariela Mannion ’16 focused on a Colombian bakery in Central Falls.

“The story turned into me not only describing the bakery but also learning about the community,” she said, calling increased engagement with the Providence area one salient takeaway from the course.

In Nicaragua, students explored topics they had chosen and researched beforehand, Kinzer said. They spent days traveling “to hospitals and visiting remote towns and interviewing people,” he said, adding that nights were consumed by writing and editing.

The friendliness of the Nicaraguans Mannion interviewed facilitated revealing conversations, she said. “I went into the market the first day to get myself acclimated, and I just sat with this woman and talked to her for two hours about her traditions.”

Another foray into the field landed her in a source’s home, where she cooked and ate iguana soup.

HIAA 1850H: “Berlin: Architecture, Politics and Memory” also required a plane ticket — in this case to Berlin, where the group explored the capital’s many memorials.

Before arriving in Berlin, each student thoroughly researched a specific memorial and learned about the city’s history and culture, said Professor of Urban Studies and History of Art and Architecture Dietrich Neumann. This coursework was reinforced by guest lecture throughout the semester from architects who have designed memorials in the city, Neumann added.

For Renata Robles ’15, the trip took her understanding of the memorials discussed in class to another level.

Photos don’t do justice to every building, she said, recalling a visit to the Neues Museum, which was destroyed during World War II. Germany “redid it in such a way that it was preserved as a ruin but is still a building,” Robles said. “They left all the bullet holes in the exterior facade.”

Neumann’s class may not mark the last time a cohort of students explores Berlin. Vice Provost for the Arts Michael Steinberg is spearheading efforts to establish a global observatory in the city.

“Berlin has become a real hub for the arts,” Steinberg said. “We’re making good headway on institutional partnerships that would allow students to do a semester or year there.”

Steinberg would like to see humanities and arts opportunities outside Brown proliferate for students in other ways, too. This could include more partnerships with artists, who could both teach at Brown and take students under their wing off campus.

Such relationships have already started to emerge, Steinberg said.

Olafur Eliasson, a prominent Scandinavian sculptor who owns a studio in Berlin, emailed Steinberg several months ago to ask if a Brown student would be interested in spending time there with him, Steinberg said. That same day, a student interested in sculpture who had heard of plans in the works for a Berlin program coincidentally asked Steinberg if he could set something up with Eliasson.

She’ll now intern at his studio this summer.

A digital direction

As the boundaries of the traditional classroom begin to blur, the University is also taking education into a less physical realm: online.

Cultural interactions can be one of the many benefits of digital education, said Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein, who taught a blended version of his famous course COLT 1420: “The Fiction of Relationship” last fall.

Weinstein offered the course on Coursera while simultaneously teaching it at Brown, asking his students to participate in the Coursera version’s discussion forums.

Weinstein praised the variety of points of view the online discussions offer, noting that commenters came from all over the world and varied widely in age. “If I’m teaching literature where we’re talking about value or social issues,” he said, “then it’s absolutely crucial that you get as many perspectives as possible.”

Bruna Lee ’17, who took the course this fall, said she visited Coursera forums weekly but only commented once or twice. While the comments were not as deep as those in a typical Brown discussion section, they did represent a greater range of perspectives, she said.

J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” — a novel involving non-consensual sex between a professor and student — proved particularly interesting in this regard, Lee said, as people from all over the world explained how their cultures grapple with that issue.

Weinstein said the massive open online course format has its limits, as it is currently impossible to offer all students a grade in humanities courses, which generally require papers.

Still, MOOCs are not the administration’s focus as it moves in a digital direction, Colvin said.

Instead, the University would like 20 percent of faculty members to incorporate digital technology into their courses within three years, she said.

Colvin said technological advancements provide an opportunity to maximize faculty-student interactions, particularly in large lecture courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In flipped classrooms, for example, students can watch online lectures at home and spend class time on hands-on, collaborative work with peers and professors.

To reach its goal, the University offers summer stipends and single semesters of leave to faculty members aiming to redesign their courses in digital formats, Colvin said. The University also provides seminars, workshops and classes that educate faculty members about “the kind of options that are out there.”

A financial analysis conducted last fall indicated the University needs to increase the Office of the Dean of the College’s budget by about 7 percent for undergraduate digital purposes, Colvin said. “To be leading the curve, we have to invest and help our faculty master” digital tools, she added.

Professor of Public Policy and Education John Tyler has taken advantage of technology to widen the appeal of his economics of education courses, conveying basic information through video lectures and teaching more complicated concepts in class. Because the change allowed him to focus on more advanced material, one of his courses attracted many more economics concentrators, doubling its enrollment from about 35 to 70.

At the same time, “students who have not (studied) economics like learning material this way because they can do it at their own speed,” Tyler said.

But whether future students learn in flipped classrooms, entirely online or in some setting in between, it is clear they will encounter a number of innovative learning environments that Brown did not offer when the class of 2015 arrived on College Hill.

For new students, the Brown experience may mean something very different than it did for those graduating this year. Long an ivory tower, Brown is becoming more integrated with the globe.

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