This summer, I worked as the student coordinator for the German Fulbright Student Summer Institute here at Virginia Tech. For three weeks, 24 German Fulbright students toured campus, hiked the surrounding area, and explored the Blacksburg community. During that time, the students also took two courses: Communicating Science and Scientific and Technical Writing. Essentially, these classes are designed to help students better share scientific topics with the everyday person. But on a deeper level, the courses allow students to make connections across cultural barriers, develop confidence, and enhance awareness for others. I never got to sit in on a class, but from what the students told me, every session was full of high energy activities that pushed them out of their comfort zones while also helping them feel connected to their fellow classmates. As a result, the students felt more than comfortable presenting a topic of their choosing to the class at the end of the three weeks – this was set up sort of like a Ted Talk. They’re awesome.
Every time the students talked about their classes, I cringed out of embarrassment – I’d never feel comfortable doing the activities they did! Improv exercises, dancing, singing, you name it. But I soon realized that the “active learning” made them excited to go to class, and therefore, eager to participate, no matter how embarrassing. Plus, a significant portion of course time was spent working in pairs or in groups, allowing them to form special bonds, and a sense of teamwork. While their final speeches were given individually, there was a lot of collaboration that went into the speeches. And that collaboration was evident in everyone’s support and glowing reviews of each other’s work.
Outside of class, we took the students on a handful of tours, from the VTCRC to the CUBE, to the DREAMS Lab. Amazing things are happening at all of these places, most of which goes right over my head. Aside from the language barrier, I think the German students had a good grasp on what was happening during these tours (they’re a crazy smart group!). But even if the topics are complicated, I feel there’s probably a better way to share the research or business models with the public. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the tours. My mind was blown at every stop, and I’m so proud to attend an institution where all of this important work happens. However, if the goal is to get more people interested in such topics, or to at least update outsiders on what’s going on, I think the approach to learning could use some updates. Perhaps the way learning occurs in these STEM classes is more exciting, I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, I hope that I can provide some insight or guidance for these tours in the future.
Is active learning the answer? Maybe. Could we have played some kind of game, created something ourselves, watched a video. . .danced or sung a song? Maybe! But these tours were quick and jam packed, so maybe a simple change in the setup is all that’s needed? Moreover, Robert Talbert suggests in “Four things lecture is good for” that we shouldn’t be quick to make lectures a thing of the past. For tours with these high-level scientific topics, a lecture might actually be ideal – but those doing the lecturing have to understand the purpose and the context. Also, it was evident during every tour that these scientists and researchers are fiercely passionate about their work. And according to Professor James Gee in “Digital Media – New Learners of the 21st Century”, having a specific passion is important. But as the world develops, the information about which people are passionate will change, too. Therefore, what’s even more important than having a specific passion is being passionate about learning. I think if this mentality were more popular, we’d all do a better job at sharing our particular passions because we’d want others to understand them so that we can swap ideas and opinions. It’s quite isolating to be so passionate about something that we aren’t able to share with other people.
Again, I was truly in awe of all the tours during the Fulbright Student Summer Institute. I’m sure I learned a lot more than I realize, but through all the powerpoints, lectures, and scientific vocabulary, all I really remember is being asked to imagine a pig cadaver as a crash-test-dummy at the Center for Injury Biomechanics. Poor little guy!