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ISCL conference focuses on building community

By : Katie Ellis

From the moment the 12th annual Institute for Student-Centered Learning began, participants were engaged and building a community — exactly what this year’s ISCL was focused on: “Building Communities Inside Your Classroom and Beyond.”

The annual day-and-a-half conference brings together faculty from all levels and all areas of campus to learn from and share expertise with each other. About 40 people attended.

“Learning is an individual process that can be enhanced by community,” said Jeff Barker, associate professor of geological sciences and environmental studies. “It’s a partnership between faculty and students, and between students and students. At the same time they are learning from you, you are learning from them.

“The classroom community can extend beyond the lecture and the four walls of the classroom. ... Our challenge is to create learning environments that promote active learning, critical thinking, collaborative learning and knowledge creation,” he added.

Chris Reiber, assistant professor of anthropology, teaches sex and evolution. To establish communities in her classroom, she creates a safe place for students to open up and share.

“To achieve that, I need to have community at various levels, so I know every one of their names the first day of class,” she said. “That makes them feel like I care about who they are. They’re not anonymous.”

Reiber then gives students anonymity through paper and pencil surveys that provide the fodder for discussions on Blackboard. She analyzes the survey data for the students, based on their own information.

“We meld that together and have discussions in the abstract, but it’s also about them,” she said. “There’s a safe, online community that gives them anonymity, and in the classroom we discuss their reality to apply concepts to their lives.”

Associate Professor Donald Spangler divides students into teams for a leadership course he teaches in the School of Management. After that, the teams connect with an outside agency such as a local police or fire department to work on a project — building community beyond the classroom. Students go to the agency’s site, interview people who have worked in extreme situations, and sometimes observe training.

“These experiences are very vivid and valuable for the students because they learn a lot about leadership,” he said.

Many faculty also build community around the globe, with examples provided by Don Boros, associate professor of theatre, and Dora Polachek, visiting associate professor of romance languages. Boros has used technology to connect with classrooms in Russia and taken students to Beijing and Shanghai for collaborative productions and classes.

“These are really rather remarkable exchanges,” he said. “And I never teach anything that I haven’t experienced first.”

Polachek, described the “Paris experience” she created for students to better integrate into the global community. With funding from the Lois B. DeFleur International Innovation Fund, Polachek developed a list of activities and programs in Paris, including contact information, which she provided to students studying there. The information helped students more easily connect for internships or volunteer activities, enabling their learning and assimilation into French culture and society.

A resource fair held on the second day of the conference featured more than a dozen campus offices.

“We tried to anticipate which people the faculty would like to meet or learn something from based on examples from the first day of the workshop,” Barker said. “The fair worked because so many of those who work on campus are willing to share their time and participants get to know people, so they don’t just talk to an office, they talk to a person.”

The ISCL is an initiative of the Center for Learning and Teaching, which focuses on programs to help students learn better and to help faculty be more effective. Other programs include the monthly “teaching corners” that bring faculty together to discuss teaching strategies, challenges and solutions; and the half-day workshop on technologies to support teaching that was held in January.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08