Into Practice Issues

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Teaching system-level thinking with an interdisciplinary lens

Fawwaz HabbalDoris SommerFawwaz Habbal, Executive Dean for Education and Research and Senior Lecturer on Applied Physics, and Doris Sommer, Ira Jewell Williams, Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies, co-teach systems-level thinking. Their course, Aesthetic Pleasure and Smart Design: Janus Faces the Future, trains students to look at complex problems from the perspective of both artists and engineers. This requires the development of skills in scientific assessment and disinterested aesthetic judgment. In the spirit of Renaissance Now, an international movement to promote sustainable development, Habbal and Sommer model the combination of boldness and humility. Students in ES 27 read and reflect on material which ranges from aesthetic philosophy and history to triggers for scientific revolution. Then they tackle a complex problem through a proposal that will gain aesthetic acceptance and be scientifically effective. 

Building virtual community in a foundational class

Dr. Tamara KaplanMuch like all our faculty across the University, Dr. Tamara Kaplan, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, shifted the pre-clinical neuroscience course, Mind, Brain, and Behavior, to a remote learning space this past year. In addition to considering curricular materials, Dr. Kaplan and her team agreed that it was especially important to think about the learning environment and students’ social connection with the material, the teaching faculty, and other students. As a result, they developed several systems to foster this social sense of community and “combat the sense of isolation and disconnectedness that can result from online learning” in her class. All course instructors recorded three-minute introductory videos about both their career/research and personal interests. Dr. Kaplan used Canvas to send students daily announcements with learning objectives, key points that came up that day in class, and friendly support. A balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication was used to minimize student burnout and make sure students stayed engaged. Finally, the team built in time for genuine connection with daily half-hour breaks between classes for students to get to know faculty and ask questions. Dr. Kaplan notes, “we realized that creating relationships with faculty is a huge driver of a positive learning environment.”... Read more about Building virtual community in a foundational class

Demonstrating that everyone’s voice is valued

Monik JimenezDr. Monik Jimenez, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, uses different pedagogical approaches to elevate diverse voices and styles of learning. In her Mass Incarceration & Health in the U.S. course, she balances speaking time between a traditional scholar and an impacted community member, and emphasizes to the latter (and to students) that they are an expert. Dr. Jimenez also provides a variety of ways for students to participate and ask questions that include different cultural and neurodivergent learning styles. “It’s important to think about decolonizing the classroom in a layered way,” she reflects. “What are the multiple ways in which systems of power and white supremacy have impacted what we consider to be an ‘optimal’ student through the metrics we’ve been taught?”

Centering student need in gateway courses to the field

Messerlian_Profile PhotoDr. Carmen Messerlian, Assistant Professor of Environmental Reproductive, Perinatal, and Pediatric Epidemiology, remodeled the department’s gateway Reproductive and Perinatal Epidemiology I course after her first year teaching it. Drawing on key observations and 6-8 hours of one-on-one student meetings per week, “I wanted to understand students’ learning needs and requirements, their goals for the course, and where their training was going to take them.” From there, she synthesized both her own experience in the field and quantitative student review data to radically revise the course’s structure. Now the course helps students develop their scientific research skills, explicitly scaffolding how to perform activities that students rarely get formal training in, like academic journal peer reviews, abstract writing, and poster presentations. At its core, the course trains students “how to become a reproductive epidemiologist,” and to learn how to put on “an epidemiological lens” when they produce, digest, or evaluate material in the field. 

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