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Capturing Curriculum Creativity at the Olin Collaboratory Summer Institute

Seventeen teams of educators, from places as far away as Chile and as close as Cambridge, converged on Olin for the 8th annual Summer Institute.

The week-long session included 70 participants from over 11 countries who teach at a variety of colleges and universities around the world including large public and small private ones. One of the things they do have in common is a desire to find out more about designing and implementing student-centered learning experiences in their own classrooms.

“We had a pretty sophisticated idea of what we wanted out of this,” said Rachel DeLucas, an Active Learning Labs manager at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Harvard team was able to quickly get down to work by spreading paper over a table in their studio space in the Olin College Library and breaking down their semester week by week. “First we’re identifying the themes we want to cover over the thirteen weeks [of the semester], and then we will write down specific questions to answer within those themes.”

Harvard is opening a new facility in Allston and the team from Cambridge hopes to implement new learning modules at the new facility.

“Some people are here for course design, some people are hearing thinking about program-level reform, some people are here for even bigger things than that,” said Jon Stolk, professor of materials science and engineering education at Olin College. “Our hope is that they can all find value - and maybe some inspiration - in our methodology and our tools.”

The main workshop sessions were facilitated by Stolk and Alexandra Coso Strong, Rob Martello, and Paulina Achurra.  Subsequent “Choose Your Own Adventure” workshops and project consulting groups involved over twenty additional Olin faculty and staff.

The Institute started with an activity focused on “Day One” in the classroom. The participants were asked to think about the emotional journey for people in the classroom and to design, prototype and test a Day One activity that would set the tone for engaged, active learning in a course.

That kind of brainstorming activity was welcomed by the team from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, K.C. Kerby-Patel, Kim Hamad-Schifferli, Joanna Dahl and Philip Cuckov. These educators comprise the backbone of a very young department; the UMass Boston engineering department is just two years old.

“This is the most time we have spent talking about teaching. We spend a lot of time teaching our students content, but now I think we need to spend more time on the stuff that is not technical,” said Dahl. Kerby-Patel added, “Now that we have the program off the ground, we need an intentional trajectory. We need to not just think about graduating engineers, but what kind of engineers we want to graduate.”

Lynn Andrea Stein, Olin College professor of Computer and Cognitive Science and former Director of the Collaboratory, ran the Summer Institute for six years. “Institutions come here knowing that they want to make a change, but they don’t know how to make it real. We help give them the tools to make that change.”

Those tools include workshop sessions covering topics like “Project Based Learning” and “Understanding Students.”  The teams were also given a chance to apply their learning to specific curricular or institutional change projects.

The week culminates in a poster session where the teams gather to show and share all of their work.

At the poster session, Pablo Gonzalez, an asssistant professor at the Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago, Chile, shared specific plans to address the needs of his unique student population.

UDD has a high drop-out rate, in part because many of the students are working while they attend school and because some found the focus on math and science quite difficult. The problem seemed to stem from a lack of student engagement. In trying to put the focus on active and experiential learning, Gonzalez and his colleagues came up with two specific ways to engage students. They will design a paper plane hands-on activity that the students will complete in teams. And the incoming students will also engage in a “speed dating” session related to their classroom work so that they get to know one another better.

As for the UMass Boston team, they crafted a plan to introduce team and design courses in all four years and increase the focus on soft skills.