Wanted: Bright, New Teaching Ideas

L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Day 1 of the new quarter, students divide into teams of seismologists, volcanologists, geochronologists and geographers to study plate tectonics. They pore over maps of earthquake distribution, volcanoes, sea floor rocks, elevation and bathymetry, as they prepare to report back to their classmates on their findings. “As they present, students begin to see patterns emerge—hey, all the earthquakes in the middle of the ocean are shallow, and the rocks are all really young there.”

That’s Anne Egger describing how “active learning” has transformed how she teaches Dynamic Earth: Fundamentals of Earth Science. Instead of bombarding students with lectures, Egger, the undergraduate program coordinator in the School of Earth Sciences, gives them “a chance to explore things on their own.”

Her dean applauds the approach. “It’s very different than standing in front, doing hour-long lectures, and having them walk out without even opening their mouths,” Pam Matson says.

Matson and Egger recently received $40,000, distributed over two years, to revamp the way undergraduates learn earth sciences. The other two recipients of monies from the new Hoagland Award Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Teaching are an interdisciplinary team awarded $20,000 to revise a core course in medieval studies, and an assistant professor of philosophy granted some $8,000 to create a new course in social choice theory.

“The Hoagland Award Fund arose because leading undergraduate teachers among our faculty said Stanford needed a source of support earmarked solely for new ideas for teaching,” says Michele Marincovich, ’68, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. “Just as new research ideas find funding, we want to make sure innovative pedagogical thinking also finds support and recognition.”

Matson and Egger plan to reconfigure the way four introductory courses are taught in Earth Sciences in autumn quarter 2008, and to launch some new courses. The bulk of the money will support third- and fourth-year doctoral students working with faculty as course development assistants.

Matson says she’s encouraged by the breadth of faculty interest in improving teaching. Four years ago, the school developed a strategic plan and identified the need to revamp undergraduate education, “but nobody had the time and resources to make it all work.” Today, she says, faculty are signing up for every pedagogy workshop that’s offered. “They’re from every age group and every professional level—senior and mid-career.”

Egger is a project leader on a multi-institution proposal for the International Year of Planet Earth in 2008. The plan is to assemble faculty from around the world to address how to teach introductory courses in earth sciences. Interested Stanford faculty agree on a number of broad learning goals: “a sense of how humans interact with the earth, a sense of geologic time as opposed to human time scales, and skills like communication and computer visualization.”

In their offices on the Main Quad, three faculty in the humanities are having similar conversations. They are using the Hoagland funding to revamp Medieval Studies 165, a core course of the interdisciplinary program that hasn’t been taught for seven years. In spring quarter 2008, the all-new Crusades: Interdisciplinary Approaches will be offered as a team-taught examination of how the Crusades, a “violent paradigm of Islamic-Christian relations,” continue to shape and divide our world today. A hybrid of lecture and seminar, the course will conclude with a conference to showcase students’ research projects and will feature a public talk by Princeton historian William Chester Jordan. Funding will support two graduate students who are translating and modernizing several important texts.

Noting that medievalists often study poems, ritual objects and entire cathedral fronts, religious studies professor Hester Gelber (a historian who also has taught philosophy) says that she and her two colleagues will likely teach from primary sources, music, art and film. They will ask why St. James of Compostela—the patron saint of Spain—“gets reworked into the Moor-killer—very strange,” and examine how current discussions in Europe about whether Turkey can join the European Union reflect “worries and anxieties that go way back.”

And the team may not always agree, says historian Philippe Buc. “If we give students examples of disagreements, with arguments and data to back them up, I think that’s good. You don’t have to just nod politely in class.” According to associate professor of English Jennifer Summit, “what we now separate as literature, art and history, in the Middle Ages were experienced in very different ways.” She says the revamped course is designed so that “everyone is bound to feel out of water, and we’re all going to be learning new things.”

In early September, assistant professor of philosophy Marc Pauly was still searching for the two or three real-world problems that will drive his new course, The Logic of Social Justice. A specialist in logic, computability and social choice theory, Pauly will launch the course in winter quarter, 2008, as a freshman seminar; it will subsequently be integrated into the Ethics in Society program.

“What I like is the most basic logic class, where students from all different disciplines ask the most basic questions, like, ‘Why is this a valid argument?’” says the German-born Pauly, ’96, who majored in symbolic systems. “I want to do a course for students who have very little, if any, previous knowledge [of social choice theory], and get them excited about it.”

Pauly will identify several problems—what criteria should be used in deciding who should be discharged first from the military, or who should get a kidney donation when one becomes available, or what’s the fairest way to assign university housing. Students will then develop a social algorithm—a step-by-step process—and argue for why it will solve a particular problem.

Pauly says developing the new course is “driven by my desire to have the feeling that I’m not just writing academic papers, but doing something positive for actual, real people.”