Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2013 (March 14, 2013)

Labs Across the Curriculum

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March 14, 2013
By Susan Kasten

Labs Across the CurriculumLately, more Beloit students than ever can be found doing active, collaborative academic work far beyond the physical and imaginative boundaries of a traditional classroom.

The steam building around creative teaching and learning at Beloit can be traced in large part to an initiative called Labs Across the Curriculum, which launched in 2010 in conjunction with planning for the college’s new curriculum.

As the name suggests, Labs Across the Curriculum looks to the laboratory as its teaching model and muse. It essentially challenges Beloit’s faculty members—a group already recognized for teaching innovation—to rethink the traditional lecture-discussion model, to collaborate to find new ways to practice their subject areas, and to look at experiential learning through the lens of the science laboratory.

The initiative places a high value on the kinds of learning typically found in a lab—including experimentation, observation, discovery, collaboration, and the use of evidence—but applies them across the range of academic disciplines, especially in the arts and humanities.

One of several efforts underway in support of Beloit’s new curriculum, the Labs initiative is being funded by a three-year, $500,000-plus grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“The laboratory can be a lot of different things,” explains Chuck Lewis, a professor of English and the grant’s project director. “That’s a key to our success and part of the challenge. But we like the concept of getting beyond chalk and talk, and we like the idea of rethinking the traditional classroom, giving people the chance to encounter a discipline in a different sort of way.”

To get a sense of its impact, consider the project’s reach. The concept for Labs came out of the collective efforts of nearly a quarter of Beloit’s faculty, about half the faculty have either piloted courses or participated in professional development opportunities through the initiative, and around a third of students have already enrolled in courses shaped by Labs.

Faculty have given students plenty of opportunities to choose from, with more than 35 Labs-inspired courses offered in the grant’s first two years, and more than another dozen slated for the final year.

How has this changed the Beloit experience for students?

By the second year of the grant period, students were already beating more frequent and intentional paths to places like the college museums and archives, area public schools, and the Stateline Literacy Council. They’re utilizing Beloit’s collections of art and artifacts in their exploration of topics like authenticity, realism, and the use and display of religious and devotional objects. And students—who already have a propensity to study abroad individually—are finding they have more chances through Labs to join faculty on course-centered excursions. In places like Egypt, Jamaica, and Central Europe respectively, for instance, students have the opportunity to learn about performance and feminism, ethnography, and the plight of the Roma.

Labs in Practice

Among the new courses to evolve from Labs is a lit class called American Realisms: From Grit Lit to Ashcan Art, which Lewis offered for the first time last fall in conjunction with Wright Museum of Art staff and Nystrom Professor of Art History Jo Ortel.

Students in this class hit the books like they would in a typical literature course, but they also curated, designed, and mounted an exhibit in the Wright Museum that examined the links between realist fiction and visual art. As a class, this group of students—mostly comparative literature and English majors—interpreted and communicated this connection for museum visitors by way of Beloit’s art collection.

“These students entered into a realm that was new for many of them,” Provost and Dean of the College Ann Davies says of the Realisms course. “They puzzled their way through, found connections, and produced a show that demanded keen analysis, good writing, and an attuned aesthetic sense. Just as important, they had to work together to do it,” she says. “Underlying the show is a spirit of collaboration and the kind of discovery it can bring.”

Daniel Youd’s course, Advanced Readings in Modern Chinese, offers another example of how a class can be re-energized using the Labs model.

The associate professor of Chinese has students study a contemporary Chinese play in the course—no surprise there. But then students translate the play, stage it, and videotape the performance. Their translations serve as the English subtitles for the filmed version.

During the first year of the grant, efforts focused on calls to faculty for pilot course proposals like these. Some faculty members joined forces with colleagues to develop cross-disciplinary courses with heightened experiential components. In a few cases, science and humanities faculty came together to design or enhance courses.

Lewis compares some of these projects to breaking into your own house through an upstairs window. “They might start with a familiar subject, but they’re going to come at it in a creative, unfamiliar, and even a somewhat disorienting way,” he says.

How Labs Fit

The Labs initiative plays to existing strengths at Beloit, already the home of innovative science pedagogy, strong international education programs, entrepreneurial Venture Grants that send students around the world, and the groundbreaking Beloit Plan-era field terms of the 1960s and ’70s.

The opportunity for the Mellon grant came about as faculty members and academic leaders were hammering out details of Beloit’s new curriculum, which went into effect in the fall of 2011. The Labs initiative was created to support that curriculum in both broad and specific ways.

For example, Beloit requires that students complete at least one “liberal arts in practice experience:” that is, applied or original work that goes beyond the traditional classroom. Labs courses could fulfill that requirement in some cases, or the skill sets students hone in a Labs-based class could build a strong foundation for a future practice experience.

But the strongest link between the Labs project and the new curriculum is the broadest one: It reinforces Beloit’s overarching commitment to the liberal arts in practice, which infuses all of the college’s educational goals.

“What we hoped to do with Labs was to tap into Beloit’s DNA of innovative teaching and give people opportunities to try new things in and out of the classroom,” says Davies. “The faculty and staff have responded with exactly the kind of enthusiasm and bold creativity that has come to define Beloit.”

Labs also supports an expectation that students will take charge of their education by going beyond a checklist of requirements to discovering the opportunities that are on offer and bending them to their will.

Charles Westerberg’94, who directs Beloit’s Liberal Arts in Practice Center, sees the Labs initiative as pure inspiration for students.

“The thing that excites me most about the Labs courses is that they’re concrete examples of how the liberal arts can be practiced,” he says. “They are exemplars for students about how they might take their regular classroom work and extend it beyond the classroom, which is really a hallmark of the liberal arts in practice.”

Sustaining the Momentum

As the laboratory mindset takes hold at Beloit, patterns are beginning to emerge and a few overlooked opportunities are coming into sharper focus.

It’s clear, for instance, that the college museums and archives are playing a central role in Labs courses. Six of 17 pilot courses in 2012-13 alone are built around tapping these rich resources. This satisfies a broader college goal of more fully integrating Beloit’s remarkable art, anthropological, and archival collections into teaching.

Labs has also revealed growing interest among faculty in learning how to utilize digital tools to teach in the humanities—through techniques like mapping and digital storytelling to facilitate visual learning. The grant is allowing Beloit to put substantial faculty development opportunities into place that address these interests, and in doing so, it’s building a stronger, more sustained cohort of faculty who are adept at developing and delivering new Lab-based teaching strategies.

A significant number of Labs courses are also taking shape around community partnerships, such as with local schools and non-profits, signaling the wealth of field experiences possible in Beloit’s own backyard. Many other pilot courses are integrating study abroad into the curriculum through classes built around an embedded travel component.

With about a year left in the grant cycle, champions of the initiative are concentrating on cultivating more participation, measuring results, and identifying and sustaining the Labs teaching strategies that support the college’s mission.

Humanities Arts Labs, set to roll out this fall, were devised in part to strengthen the project’s sustainability. HALS will allow faculty to enroll in mini courses conducted over four weeks that collectively explore existing patterns and emerging themes in the Labs initiative, but that also encourage new courses and ideas and form new partnerships. Potential Labs offerings are percolating around the ideas of entrepreneurship, digital humanities, public history, and environmental studies.

Beloit’s new modular fundraising initiative called Fast Forward: The Campaigns for Beloiters, offers one avenue for continued financial support of the Labs initiative, and projects like it, once the Mellon grant funding ends.

Of the six mission-based priorities called out in Fast Forward, one is the Liberal Arts in Practice, a module designed to fund new programs in support of Beloit’s curriculum. President Bierman recently described this module as allowing “research opportunities on steroids.”

Davies says the module includes three components that advance Lab-like activities: by funding something called Leadership Circles and by supporting two kinds of Opportunity Grants for faculty and students.

Leadership Circles involve two rounds of intensive two-year group studies led by a senior fellow (a faculty member) that examine best practices in specific areas, including Labs Across the Curriculum, already designated as a best practice at Beloit.

Two types of Opportunity Grants also have the potential to carry the Labs work forward. One allows students to pursue or build on liberal arts in practice opportunities. The other is for faculty and staff to investigate, design, and execute courses and activities that connect knowledge and experience in ways that deepen an understanding of the campus itself, the Beloit community, locations in the United States, or particular regions of the world.

In addition to financial resources, Davies says that the continuity of Labs going forward depends largely on the college’s culture.

“It has to do with reinforcing and building upon people’s willingness to experiment and then supporting those efforts,” she says.

For his part, Lewis sees Labs as partly a bold, new initiative but also a continuation of something Beloit has done so well throughout its history.

“This is a natural part of our fabric,” he says. “But we can still do it better.”

Keep reading to learn about some of the Beloit classes embodying the idea of Labs Across the Curriculum.

[ENGLISH 228] Practicum in Literary Editing: Beloit Fiction Journal

Labs Across the CurriculumWhen Associate Professor of English Chris Fink encounters the central tenets of a Labs course, they definitely sound familiar. Collaboration and hands-on experience are the foundation of his Practicum in Literary Editing, a course that has produced the Beloit Fiction Journal for nearly 30 years.

Each volume of BFJ contains a collection of submitted works of fiction vetted, compiled, and edited by Beloit College students. Since 2005, Fink has guided editorial teams as they comb through as many as 700 submissions.

“They start from scratch, and by the end of the year they have a book,” Fink says. “Students get more excited about this class than any other class I teach, for that reason. This feels tactile; they’ve gained a skill they can apply. It’s not just theory.”

Students choose the stories, select cover images, and market their finished product.

“The BFJ really helped me have a finer grasp on what objectively gives a story quality, and it’s helped me improve my own writing,” says Dan Birkholz’14, a creative writing and cognitive science double major.

There is no fail-proof method for creating a volume, and each year comes with a new set of unknowns: the chemistry between students, and the type of stories the journal receives.

Without collaboration, there is no journal.

“One of the seismic shifts that happens is that they have to learn to collaborate,” Fink says of his students. A split vote on whether or not to publish a certain story is a regular occurrence. When that happens, “People have to listen to each other, they have to take their classmates’ opinions seriously, and they have to be able to step back and say, ‘Well, my first opinion was this, but I’ve changed my mind, because of what the other editors have said.’ That’s collaboration, I think, in its truest sense.”

One of the ways Labs Across the Curriculum has shaped the longstanding literary practicum is to enhance the journal’s technical capabilities with Mellon funding via a new computer, printer, and software. It also allows Fink to bring in students from prior versions of the class as interns.

Besides the fact that Practicum students leave the class as better editors, proofreaders, and possibly with new software skills under their belts, Fink says the tangible, final product is one of the most meaningful parts of the class. His students are able to leave with concrete evidence of their work and collaboration, he says.

“They can say, ‘Hey, I’ve done something. Here’s the proof I’ve done it: a book with my name inside the front cover.’”

—Lynn Vollbrecht’06

[DANCE 250] Repertory Dance Company

Labs Across the CurriculumBlaize D’Angio’11 had barely resettled in St. Louis, Mo., post-Beloit, when she already had a gig with a dance company and a job working with kids in an afterschool dance program in her new home city. She was qualified for both in part because of her experience with Beloit’s Repertory Dance Company.

Led by Gina T’ai, visiting assistant professor of dance, this special Labs course teaches students how to form and run a functional dance company. Members create tailor-made programming for area elementary and middle schools, and Beloit students learn the ins and outs of managing the enterprise, including how to promote it, build a budget, fundraise, work with clients, and write grants.

“It was almost like an internship, we covered so many aspects of what it means to be in a dance company,” says D’Angio, who currently teaches movement and dance to young people in a juvenile detention and prison program.

The concept for a Repertory Dance Company grew out of a pivotal experience in T’ai’s own career as a dancer and educator. Enrolled in a performing arts high school with a touring dance company, she recognized the value of being able to perform and teach in elementary schools.

“The company was really influential on my performing career because I was performing all of the time,” she says. “It made me a better dancer and better at teamwork.”

When she started teaching at Beloit, T’ai wanted this kind of experience for her students, too. At the same time, the dance department was seeking new ways for students to practice the liberal arts, while cuts in local school funding had created a gap in elementary and middle school arts education.

“It’s mutually beneficial because the schools get the programming for free, and we get the experience,” T’ai says.

Ahead of the Labs Across the Curriculum curve at Beloit, T’ai formed the company a year before the college-wide initiative, which attracted Mellon Foundation funding. She applied for Labs funding in the company’s second year and got it. The support allowed RDC to establish a stronger foothold, with students having the chance to attend conferences on self-employment in the arts, and the company being able to commission professional choreography to build their repertoire.

While RDC is an ambitious and ongoing project, with a Labs component on top of a discipline that’s inherently experiential, T’ai doesn’t like to take too much credit for teaching the course. Instead, she says she guides, she facilitates.

“When you’re working in a dance company, someone is the leader, but everyone takes leadership at different times. They learn to work as a team,” she says. “What I try to do is set up the scenarios, pose the questions, guide a little as needed, and let students learn to cooperate, communicate, delegate, get together what needs to be done.”

—Susan Kasten

[INTERDISCIPLINARY 274] Cognitive Robotics

Labs Across the CurriculumIt’s generally accepted that giving students the opportunity for experiential learning is a good thing. But what’s not always mentioned is that experimentation allows students the chance to fail—and that failure can lead to a more important learning experience than success.

This is especially evident in Robin Zebrowski and Steven Huss-Lederman’s interdisciplinary course, Cognitive Robotics. The two are team-teaching the class for the second time this spring, giving their students the philosophical, psychological, and historical background of artificial intelligence before setting them to the task of building operational, responsive robots.

“The concepts, while they come out of philosophy and psychology, are about computer science,” says Zebrowski, an assistant professor of cognitive science whose very appointment at the college is interdisciplinary, spanning the computer science, philosophy, and psychology departments. “So while I would give them the history and deeper conceptual understanding, Steve would come in and say, ‘This is how we use this in computer science.’”

Armed with conceptual theories and working from Legos-style robot-building kits (Mellon grant funds allowed for more kits and an increase in class size), the students program the robots’ brains and experiment with different tasks.

“We usually start by giving them a little, simple wheeled vehicle that can move around; it has a form of eyes, and sensors. And then we teach them how to write the software that’s needed to make that useable,” says Huss-Lederman, an associate professor of math and computer science. “So instead of just saying ‘Oh, here’s a canned thing that does it,’ they need to be able to ask things like, ‘If the robot knew it touched something, can it respond in this way?’”

They also learn that in programming their robots, they can’t anticipate every aspect of the environment the bots will encounter. One assignment asked the students to work in teams, programming their robots to maneuver out of a confined area.

“They all did it, and the day came to demonstrate, and nobody could get out of the box,” Huss-Lederman recalls. It turned out that the teams had mostly worked on the assignment at night, then proceeded to try and demonstrate the task in the sunlit Center for the Sciences atrium during the day. Like humans, robots reacted differently in the bright light.

The class also gives Beloit students hands-on experience beyond building and programming robots: The students will demonstrate the bots when local middle school kids from the college’s Help Yourself TRIO program visit the class mid-semester.

“It really is, at its heart, an interdisciplinary, hands-on course,” Huss-Lederman says. “You have to live within the limitations of what you can and cannot do with this device, and also that sometimes seemingly simple things lead to complex behaviors. And that’s a revelation to the students and something they’ll discover throughout their lives.”

-Lynn Vollbrecht'06

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