Big Ideas. Big Impact.

Big Ideas. Big Impact.

Review of Teaching Showcase: Creating and Assessing Cross-Disciplinary "Big Ideas" Courses, sponsored by the Center for Teaching.

Thursday, April 4, faculty, staff and executives from across campus gathered at the University Conference Centre to discuss “Big Idea Courses” and the impact cross-disciplinary courses have at the University of Iowa.

The event kicked off with presentations about courses currently underway or in development, and then concluded with an interactive session during which attendees’ brainstormed ideas for future “big idea” courses.

Inspired by similar pilot programs that brought together two or more outstanding professors from completely different disciplines to join for one “Big Idea” course, Cornelia Lang, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy, conceived and developed the “Origins of Life in the Universe” course this academic year.

This initiative was funded in part by a Student Success grant from the Office of the Provost. Provost Barry Butler spoke at the event about his support for these efforts and expressed admiration for the hard work making this series of courses an initial success.

The inaugural UI TILE-Constellation course, “Origins” is a two-semester, general education course launched in the Fall 2013 semester. Unique to Iowa, the TILE Constellation course takes advantage of the innovation afforded by TILE classrooms, which are designed to emphasize team-based activities as collaborative explorations.

“I am reinvigorated to teach,” said Lang. “Students and instructors are making meaningful connections and are inspired to get to know each other in class."

John Logsdon, Associate Professor of Biology, one of the co-teachers of the “Origins of Life in the Universe”, said he learned a lot from the experience.

“We have some 4 billion years to teach between us and I’m responsible for 4 billion of them which is a lot to cover,” Logsdon said. “I come from a teaching background where (course) material is the thing, right? Wrong. It’s about making connections.”

In a class like “Origins,” students will take two semesters to complete their general education requirements. The approach of modeling collaboration and interdisciplinary dialogue intends to make meaningful connections to apply abstract concepts to real-world experiences for students and faculty to explore together.

The course currently in development for Fall 2014- “People & the Environment: Technology, Culture & Social Justice” – brought some specific challenges to the instructors involved, especially given the wide scope of subject. Led by Anthropology Professor Meena Khandelwal, faculty members met initially through discussions on research questions they had about international global issues. This course evolved from those research interests.

Although initially skeptical, Matthew Hill, Assistant Professor in Anthropology, said his involvement has already had positive impact on his individual research.

“I told them okay, I will come to their meeting,” Hill said. “But I don’t know what I will be able to offer. I have since learned that our seemingly disparate fields of expertise dovetails nicely together and has pushed my research into new directions.“

Following lunch, attendees, in teams of four, brainstormed ideas for a new “Big Ideas” course.  As facilitated by Prof. Lang and shared later with the whole group, these ideas covered such wide-ranging topics as Art and Technology as well as Music and Ecology, among others.

To cap the event, Sebastian DePascuale, TA in Physics & Astronomy, talked about organizing and developing assessment for the “Origins” course.

DePasquale was instrumental in designing a wiki that was used by the faculty members as a way to communicate about the development of the course and respond to each other. The wiki played an important role in the faculty peer review of teaching. Communication in this way informed weekly meetings and also helped them to aggregate assessments and make changes for the upcoming week.

By the close of the event, many attendees seemed engaged in conversation around the issues raised. Jean Florman, Center for Teaching Director, offered her own perspective on the impact these courses have for faculty development.

“These courses are models of excellence not only in terms of pedagogy but also in the formative peer assessment of teaching that happens during the faculty meetings and classroom teaching," she said. "Not every course will or should be taught this way, but there are various effective aspects of the course--including team-based learning, inquiry-guided teaching, and assessment--that could be incorporated into virtually any course."