Professors keep learning relevant
Professors at Minnesota's private colleges have a singular focus on teaching. And to make sure they're effective, many adapt and broaden their repertoires to increase student engagement in the learning process. With the start of the new academic year, we gathered a few examples of tactics that are hitting the mark with students.
Vial of sand holds clues
At Macalester College, geology professor Karl Wirth has developed three scenarios that he uses in his introductory geology class to help students learn. After reading the book The Power of Problem-based Learning, he was inspired to integrate real-world problems into the course.
The first scenario (Trouble in Paradise) involves "the Dude," a fictional college alumnus who lives on a tropical volcanic island. Concerned about the possibility of an imminent eruption, the Dude sends a vial of sand and a message to the college, asking the students for help in assessing the volcanic hazard risk and a response. He doesn't mention where he is, so students are not able to use geographic clues to infer the nature of an eruption.
"It's a bit of a leap for students in this first exercise, but I tell them that if they know the sand's mineral content, they can start to make testable predictions," Wirth said. Students use a scanning electron microscope to analyze the sand, which gives them information about how the volcano is likely to behave if it erupts (explosively like Mt. St. Helen or quietly like Kilauea in Hawaii).
Wirth said he has been surprised at how much students identify with the Dude. "Past students still stop by and ask me how the Dude is doing," he said.
The real-world nature of the problem is what makes the exercise powerful, Wirth believes. "It's designed to be a muddy situation; there isn't one right answer, but those answers supported by sound evidence and reasoning are better. In the process of solving the problem, students learn the geology that would normally be encountered in a more traditional lecture course"
Wirth said the exercise allows students to learn more deeply because they construct the knowledge themselves. "Having to think about evidence and solve murky problems is a lifelong skill," he said.
Learning from entrepreneurs
Last spring, Concordia University, St. Paul's business faculty injected some real-world experiences into their courses in accounting, entrepreneurship and microeconomics. Based on student requests for practical and applied learning experience, the school partnered with community development organizations to make that happen.
Concordia professor Bruce Corrie said that students had a chance to meet with ethnic business owners at Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis and at restaurants along St. Paul's University Avenue to learn about the ethnic markets.
"The students met with community and business owners from the University Avenue area and learned about the challenges around the light rail construction project. Students also offered suggestions for how ethnic businesses could tap into the mainstream market," Corrie said.
Students later said that this experience helped make their academic courses more relevant and gave them new insights into the ethnic markets.
Corrie was impressed enough with the results that he said the school will integrate similar experiences in other business classes. "These students' understanding of neighborhood and ethnic businesses will give them an advantage when they enter the job market," he said.
Hands on production
When Chris Johnson joined Bethany Lutheran College's communication department a decade ago, he knew that there were great career opportunities in sports broadcasting. In order to compete with larger schools' broadcast journalism programs though, Johnson aimed to find a niche for Bethany. That happened a few years ago when the school decided to invest in a remote production trailer to give students experience outside the studio.
Partnering with a local cable company, Johnson arranged for students to produce broadcasts of Minnesota State University-Mankato hockey games from the trailer. Since then it's been used to broadcast athletic programs from UMD, political programs and theatrical performances. Last spring the school took it a step further by involving students in designing and setting up a brand new trailer with high-definition video capability.
"As a liberal arts college, we want students to understand the whole process, not just be skilled in one part. They learn how to connect and operate all the equipment, adjust to weather and venues and get set up in limited amounts of time," Johnson said. "They really learn problem-solving on the fly."
When there's a client and you're in the middle of a live production, you have to respond fast, Johnson said. An ESPN producer who hired Bethany for a production told Johnson that his student crew was fantastic. "When the audio guy had trouble, the graphics guy helped — he knew what to do too."
Johnson noted that people often work in isolation in the broadcast field, so when crew members know all aspects of the process they work more cohesively and confidently.
Senior Marcus Taplin said that his production trailer experience gave him a leg up in snagging an internship with the Fox Sports North in the Twin Cities this past summer. "Having repeatedly done productions from the trailer, I already knew the protocol and order of doing things," he said. "I was able to apply what I knew at Fox."
Johnson said that recruiters know about the Bethany program and its graduates are now working at ESPN and TV stations around the country. "This experience sets them apart and can propel their résumé to the top."