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One University, Many Ideas

One University, Many IdeasThe staff behind the creation of the University Seminars program discuss the work that went into making it all happen.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.26.09] When the Office of the Provost embarked on developing the interdisciplinary University Seminar program, one challenge the organizers faced was the distance between Tufts' three campuses. The distance is not just geographical but logistical, with differences in registration processes, academic calendars and other organizational elements across schools.

"It is not a small feat to offer classes that both undergraduate and graduate and professional school students can take from the different schools," says Linda Jarvin, director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT).

The end, however, was well worth the means in executing an initiative set forth by Provost Jamshed Bharucha to "further Tufts' goal to prepare leaders with a rich and textured understanding of the world in all its complexity and diversity."

"There have been many lessons learned when it comes to the logistics of the programming," says Caroline Campbell, director of program development for the Office of the Provost. "But also, more importantly, this program came about to really push the envelope, linking research and teaching, two primary goals of the university, and integrating them into the learning process."

The University Seminar program successfully launched in the fall of 2008 with two courses: "Water and Diplomacy: The Integration of Science, Engineering and Negotiation" attended by students from the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and The Fletcher School, and "One Health: Interdisciplinary Approaches to People, Animals and the Environment" which included students from the Medford, Boston and Grafton campuses. The hope for these initial courses was that students would come away with lessons that would provide a usable framework for future courses and other cross-disciplinary initiatives.

 See how students and professors felt about the first two Seminars.

"These are opportunities for faculty to incorporate their research and passion into their teaching, and for students to benefit from that," says Campbell.

To solve the program's biggest hurdle of bridging the distance gap, the organizers called on David Grogan, manager of University Information Technology's Academic Technology (AT) group, and Melanie St. James, AT's senior interactive media designer."We work with the faculty as the curriculum is being developed to figure out what the learning goals are for that particular seminar, and through that we can decide what types of technologies can be used to meet those goals," Grogan says. "The 'One Health' course, in particular, not only had the difficulty of teaching across disciplines, but also teaching across geography, so in terms of pragmatic use of technology we worked with them on the use of video and web conferencing to try and bridge the gap."

Another distance tool used in the course was the wiki, a web application that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser.

"One student could log into the wiki, make their changes to the project document, save them and then another student could come along and make their changes, and the wiki technology takes care of tracking who did what," Grogan says.

Academic Technology also provided technological means for facilitating interdisciplinary learning. VUE, or Visual Understanding Environment, is a concept and content mapping software application developed in-house by AT "to support teaching, learning and research for anyone who needs to organize, contextualize and access digital information," according to the software's Web site. Both courses used concept mapping, and the students in the One Health course used it extensively.

Course for Academic Year 2009-2010:

Child and Youth Development: International Perspectives on Children in Exceptionally Difficult Circumstances (Fall 2009)

The Obesity Epidemic: Science and Food Economics (Full Year 2009-2010)

Stem Cells, Human Regenerative Technologies and Society: the Future of Global and Personal Health (Spring 2010)

For application deadlines and information visit the Provost's Web site.

"It helps you visualize ideas and think and create relationships among those ideas," St. James says. "If you think of the 'One Health' seminar, there were three perspectives- human health, animal health and environmental-and each team developed their own perspective, creating a map for their discipline, and then they used those maps to create a map together. So that is when the integration of ideas and concepts happens, leaving them with a final product that shows the synthesis of those ideas."

There was a second layer of learning taking place in the development and delivery of the Seminars, on the pedagogical level. CELT's Senior Specialist for Learning and Teaching, Annie Soisson, spent much of her time conversing with faculty and sitting in on classes to find out what it really means to do interdisciplinary teaching and how one knows if it is succeeding.

In determining what constitutes high quality interdisciplinary work, "there is this idea that, 'I'll know it when I see it,' but we wanted to really figure out how build the components into the courses, to create a process to help students come to a higher understanding, and perhaps help faculty learn across their disciplines as well," Soisson says. "One of the fun outcomes of the courses was that these faculty members are now excited to work with each other again, not just on future courses, but other projects, grant writing and research. This was a nice outcome that we hoped would happen, but through the planning of the Seminars wasn't a definite."

As program organizers prepare for the courses coming up in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, Jarvin says one of the most valuable parts of this process is figuring out how to make interdisciplinary coursework successful for all involved, and to then take that information and disseminate it to the community at-large.

"There is a lot of effort behind the scenes to make these courses happen," Jarvin says. "Once we have five courses under our belt we hope to be able to host a presentation on interdisciplinary teaching strategies that we can open up to not only the Tufts community, but the greater Boston community as well."

"These courses all tackle the issue of global concern from many different perspectives, and the benefit that all students and faculty get from learning from their peers in many different disciplines is enormous," Campbell says. "And that dialogue and discourse is linked together throughout the process of the course and disseminated through digital technologies that foster dynamic, rather than static, uses of the information. The potential is that information generated by students and faculty in the course goes from being that which may just sit on a shelf, to being part of a global conversation on how to address critical issues through an interdisciplinary approach."

Story by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

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