Labs Across the CurriculumPosted by admin on 3/14/13 • Categorized as Featured Stories
By Susan Kasten
Lately, more Beloit students than ever can be found doing active, collaborative academic work far beyond the physical and imaginative boundaries of a traditional classroom.
The steam building around creative teaching and learning at Beloit can be traced in large part to an initiative called Labs Across the Curriculum, which launched in 2010 in conjunction with planning for the college’s new curriculum.
As the name suggests, Labs Across the Curriculum looks to the laboratory as its teaching model and muse. It essentially challenges Beloit’s faculty members—a group already recognized for teaching innovation—to rethink the traditional lecture-discussion model, to collaborate to find new ways to practice their subject areas, and to look at experiential learning through the lens of the science laboratory.
The initiative places a high value on the kinds of learning typically found in a lab—including experimentation, observation, discovery, collaboration, and the use of evidence—but applies them across the range of academic disciplines, especially in the arts and humanities.
One of several efforts underway in support of Beloit’s new curriculum, the Labs initiative is being funded by a three-year, $500,000-plus grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“The laboratory can be a lot of different things,” explains Chuck Lewis, a professor of English and the grant’s project director. “That’s a key to our success and part of the challenge. But we like the concept of getting beyond chalk and talk, and we like the idea of rethinking the traditional classroom, giving people the chance to encounter a discipline in a different sort of way.”
To get a sense of its impact, consider the project’s reach. The concept for Labs came out of the collective efforts of nearly a quarter of Beloit’s faculty, about half the faculty have either piloted courses or participated in professional development opportunities through the initiative, and around a third of students have already enrolled in courses shaped by Labs.
Faculty have given students plenty of opportunities to choose from, with more than 35 Labs-inspired courses offered in the grant’s first two years, and more than another dozen slated for the final year.
How has this changed the Beloit experience for students?
By the second year of the grant period, students were already beating more frequent and intentional paths to places like the college museums and archives, area public schools, and the Stateline Literacy Council. They’re utilizing Beloit’s collections of art and artifacts in their exploration of topics like authenticity, realism, and the use and display of religious and devotional objects. And students—who already have a propensity to study abroad individually—are finding they have more chances through Labs to join faculty on course-centered excursions. In places like Egypt, Jamaica, and Central Europe respectively, for instance, students have the opportunity to learn about performance and feminism, ethnography, and the plight of the Roma.
Labs in Practice
Among the new courses to evolve from Labs is a lit class called American Realisms: From Grit Lit to Ashcan Art, which Lewis offered for the first time last fall in conjunction with Wright Museum of Art staff and Nystrom Professor of Art History Jo Ortel.
Students in this class hit the books like they would in a typical literature course, but they also curated, designed, and mounted an exhibit in the Wright Museum that examined the links between realist fiction and visual art. As a class, this group of students—mostly comparative literature and English majors—interpreted and communicated this connection for museum visitors by way of Beloit’s art collection.
“These students entered into a realm that was new for many of them,” Provost and Dean of the College Ann Davies says of the Realisms course. “They puzzled their way through, found connections, and produced a show that demanded keen analysis, good writing, and an attuned aesthetic sense. Just as important, they had to work together to do it,” she says. “Underlying the show is a spirit of collaboration and the kind of discovery it can bring.”
Daniel Youd’s course, Advanced Readings in Modern Chinese, offers another example of how a class can be re-energized using the Labs model.
The associate professor of Chinese has students study a contemporary Chinese play in the course—no surprise there. But then students translate the play, stage it, and videotape the performance. Their translations serve as the English subtitles for the filmed version.
During the first year of the grant, efforts focused on calls to faculty for pilot course proposals like these. Some faculty members joined forces with colleagues to develop cross-disciplinary courses with heightened experiential components. In a few cases, science and humanities faculty came together to design or enhance courses.
Lewis compares some of these projects to breaking into your own house through an upstairs window. “They might start with a familiar subject, but they’re going to come at it in a creative, unfamiliar, and even a somewhat disorienting way,” he says.
How Labs Fit
The Labs initiative plays to existing strengths at Beloit, already the home of innovative science pedagogy, strong international education programs, entrepreneurial Venture Grants that send students around the world, and the groundbreaking Beloit Plan-era field terms of the 1960s and ’70s.
The opportunity for the Mellon grant came about as faculty members and academic leaders were hammering out details of Beloit’s new curriculum, which went into effect in the fall of 2011. The Labs initiative was created to support that curriculum in both broad and specific ways.
For example, Beloit requires that students complete at least one “liberal arts in practice experience:” that is, applied or original work that goes beyond the traditional classroom. Labs courses could fulfill that requirement in some cases, or the skill sets students hone in a Labs-based class could build a strong foundation for a future practice experience.
But the strongest link between the Labs project and the new curriculum is the broadest one: It reinforces Beloit’s overarching commitment to the liberal arts in practice, which infuses all of the college’s educational goals.
“What we hoped to do with Labs was to tap into Beloit’s DNA of innovative teaching and give people opportunities to try new things in and out of the classroom,” says Davies. “The faculty and staff have responded with exactly the kind of enthusiasm and bold creativity that has come to define Beloit.”
Labs also supports an expectation that students will take charge of their education by going beyond a checklist of requirements to discovering the opportunities that are on offer and bending them to their will.
Charles Westerberg’94, who directs Beloit’s Liberal Arts in Practice Center, sees the Labs initiative as pure inspiration for students.
“The thing that excites me most about the Labs courses is that they’re concrete examples of how the liberal arts can be practiced,” he says. “They are exemplars for students about how they might take their regular classroom work and extend it beyond the classroom, which is really a hallmark of the liberal arts in practice.”