Inspiration through Integrative Learning and Signature Work
One of the best aspects of my work as vice president for integrative learning at AAC&U is the opportunity to visit and work with campuses who are dedicated to creating curricular and cocurricular opportunities that challenge students to be adaptable, flexible thinkers. I relish opportunities to support institutions that empower faculty who trust students to take risks and mentor them through projects that require teamwork, leadership and communication skills, and multiple perspectives to conquer the challenges they face.
My favorite campus visits are when I get to see this in action and celebrate student success, which can take many forms. In February, I had the opportunity to visit Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts to judge the integrative and interdisciplinary projects that students spend significant time on in their junior year. I was struck by so many things as I listened to these students describe their work. Several teams worked on projects overseas in Africa, Australia, and Europe. Their ability to focus on their projects—which included recycling, microplastics, and improving technology for medical centers—while navigating new cultures or languages was beyond impressive. The students were engaging, dynamic, articulate, and polished, and it was clear they had all had an impact and were impacted in return. The projects were amazing examples of integrative learning to be held up and celebrated.
But one team in particular had a significant impact on me. It was a team based locally in Massachusetts that focused on trying to improve community relations around industrial composting and its impact on the environment. What was so astonishing was how this team faced obstacles and adapted their project to the situation at hand. When they began, the students quickly learned that their original goal wasn’t possible. There were lawsuits in process that prevented them from facilitating conversations, but the team pivoted to learn about regulations and how different companies solve composting issues that affect neighboring areas, such as smell and traffic flow. The students learned about legal issues facing the compost farms in their local communities, and they also researched a larger geographic area to provide context and recommendations.
The team of students didn’t get as far as they would have liked; legal proceedings tend to slow things down. But they showed resiliency and flexibility in how they took on their project. This is what I always hope a student will learn: how to adapt and be flexible. We often learn more from failing than succeeding, and this team managed to do both. I was inspired.
I started my career as a faculty member teaching biology, and for years I worked with students in my microbiology lab, watching them struggle and get frustrated when things didn’t go as planned. But I always knew that the ones who repeated experiments and learned to troubleshoot problems were the ones who had learned the most, and I celebrated those failures along with their successes because it made them better problem-solvers, and ultimately, better scientists.
Integrative learning and signature work can take many forms, from capstone projects, which may or may not include community engagement, to internships, study abroad projects, as well as many more examples. Two years into my role at AAC&U, I find myself on campuses looking for these examples and sharing best practices with institutions who want to advocate for this type of learning. In just the past few years, AAC&U has worked with over two dozen institutions through work supported by the Endeavor Fund (see https://www.aacu.org/diversitydemocracy/2016/fall for more information), the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations (featured in an upcoming issue of Peer Review), and the Davis Educational Fund (through the LEAP Challenge New England project, which brought teams from over forty institutions to Boston in March 2018 for a one-day institute on signature work). The work showcased by projects like these are gaining national attention. In April, over three hundred participants from a wide range of institutions logged in for AAC&U’s webinar on scaffolding signature work across the curriculum (the webinar recording is available online).
I’m beyond thrilled that there is such broad interest in how to create these curricular opportunities. AAC&U knows from years of working with institutions of all types that students are much more likely to succeed when faculty intentionally create curricular frameworks with shared student learning outcomes that create multiple opportunities for integration and reflection during an educational experience. If faculty are transparent and reinforce these outcomes as students move through first-year seminars, general education courses that are connected to their majors, and advanced work that integrates these earlier experiences, students will better understand connections between their courses and the reasons for curricular and cocurricular choices.
While faculty may teach courses independently, students move between them. Creating opportunities for students to reflect and practice skills in overlapping and reinforcing courses is key to helping them become adaptive and flexible thinkers. And in today’s society, we need graduates who are able to think empathetically, work collaboratively across differences, adapt to changing information, and think critically about how to solve the unscripted problems we all face in the workplace and in our civic lives.
I saw reason to celebrate during my visit to WPI as I watched students share their work and successes small and large alongside their faculty. And to the team that took on the legal challenges and taught each of us who listened why this was important, I expect great things from all of you. You were inspiring.