The Future Is Hands-On

New curricular model will bridge classroom and community like never before

By Leona Baker

What is the role of trust in the workplace? How does leg loss affect the order of arachnids known as harvestmen? How have “super models” informed our contemporary concept of beauty?

"A prudent question is one half of wisdom," wrote 16th-century philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon. The monumental curricular reform that goes into effect at Virginia Wesleyan College beginning in the fall of 2011 will make prudent questions like these an integral part of the academic experience.

“Inquiry-guided learning,” as it is known, encourages students to become active learners by focusing on intellectual curiosity as a catalyst for acquiring knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, integrating that knowledge with real-world experiences.

“In the traditional college scenario, students are passive a lot,” explains Virginia Wesleyan Professor of English and Associate Dean Lisa Carstens, who has been at the helm of a reform process several years in the making. “That idea of a student sitting in a chair and the teacher saying, ‘Here’s what you need to know about history: write this down, you will be tested.’”

The new model, which is currently being used at 21 of the nation’s top 25 liberal arts colleges, represents a renaissance in higher education philosophy – one that looks beyond memorization and regurgitation and asks students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and put it into practice on a practical level, often in the broader community.

“If you’re having them read about the sociology of health care, that’s great,” says Carstens, “but if you go out there and have them volunteering in a retirement center, they’re going to understand on a deeper level how what they are reading pertains to actually helping people or the profession that they are looking toward.”

The concept is already in play in some respects at Virginia Wesleyan and at many colleges and universities. Science students, for instance, tend toward inquiry-based practices because of the nature of the research process and activities in the lab and elsewhere. Study abroad is another example in which immersive, experiential learning comes with the territory.

The newly implemented reforms, however, will apply that principle in a broader way across the entire curriculum – whether it’s students of Greek mythology attending an opera and submitting related writing assignments on the political and religious dimensions of tragedy or psychology students creating campus programs to increase awareness about eating disorders. It’s about connections.

In May of 2011, members of Lisa Carstens’ creative writing class are gathered at Clare Bridge Virginia Beach Estates, a senior living community with a specialized program for residents coping with dementia.

Seated in a circle, a small group of residents studies a mysterious picture that has been passed around to them by one of the students. It is an old black and white photograph of a man in a wide-brimmed hat pointing a rifle towards the sky.

“Where is the picture taking place?” one of the students prompts the residents.

“In Washington, D.C.,” a resident suggests. “Outside, where there’s more room to shoot,” says another. “Up my nose,” yet another blurts out, drawing laughter.

“What is the man in the picture doing?” the student asks.

“He’s trying to shoot a bird down for dinner,” says one man. “He’s shooting stars and killing birds back in the ’30s, trying to change the sky,” another offers.

A student sits cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the circle with an oversized drawing pad on her knees. With a purplish marker she records the residents’ responses to a variety of open-ended questions about the image, designed to encourage them to piece together a narrative based on a visual cue.

The exercise is part of a national program called TimeSlips, which uses interactive, creative storytelling to engage patients with memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s. It’s just one example of a way in which students can integrate something they’ve learned in the classroom – in this case creative writing – with a hands-on opportunity in their community.

This type of program, when used in the context of higher education, is often referred to as “service learning.” Through volunteerism, students gain valuable insight while simultaneously helping others, an important step in the development of any engaged citizen.

Volunteerism has always been a big part of the Wesleyan experience, in part because of the school’s Methodist tradition. The formation of the Office of Community Service in 1997 crystallized these values.

Many Wesleyan students get involved in everything from environmental partnerships with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to building projects with Habitat for Humanity. The new curriculum reforms will make the connection between classroom and community service even more meaningful and measureable.

“Yes, you are helping people, and it is focused on the needs of the community,” says Carstens, “but you have concrete academic goals, and students are trying to learn academic concepts connected to their learning at the same time they are helping. It’s not one or the other; it’s both.”

The implications of the curriculum changes on a philosophical as well as a pragmatic level have meant a complete revamping of the College’s course offerings and credit requirements. This includes a sweeping overhaul of all 34 majors (down from 38) and virtually every course.

More than 400 newly “enhanced” courses have been developed based on a four-credit rather than the traditional three-credit system—the idea being that the “fourth hour” of each class will be utilized for in-depth, independent study. This study can include extra reading assignments, research or writing, community service, externships, group projects or other activities most of which will take place outside of “seat time” in the classroom. It means students will take fewer classes each semester and get more credits for each class.

Professors have had to think creatively about how to enhance their individual courses.

Associate Professor of Education Jayne Sullivan will be taking her students to a local elementary school to observe kids in grades K-5 learning how to read.

“It's going to be really exciting and vastly different,” Sullivan says. “Watching master teachers demonstrate with students should be informative and enlightening.”

For students of theater, the reforms might mean more time immersed in the artistic process.

“In performance-based classes such as acting, directing, and improvisation we are adding a half dozen lab sessions throughout the semester,” says Professor of Theatre and Chairman of the Humanities Division Sally Shedd. “These sessions provide an opportunity for students to perform scenes and monologues in front of a larger group, participate in large-scale group exercises, and work with guest artists.”

Professor of Philosophy Larry Hultgren is taking a different approach by asking students in his philosophy/environmental studies course to keep a “sense of place journal” to help them connect their reading in environmental theory with a specific location. They will also be asked to consider

“the ethical dimension of sustainability,” he explains, by “comparing and contrasting the ecological footprints of differing lifestyles, their own included.”

Whether it’s keeping journals or journeying into the community, students like rising sophomore Ada Van Tine seem to be taking the changes in stride.

“It’s going to be less classes but a more intense learning experience,” Van Tine says, “so I’m excited about that part.”

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