“Innovation.” What flashes through your mind when you hear that word? Maybe you think of technology mastermind Steve Jobs; maybe electric or driverless cars, or Amazon drones delivering purchases.
At Seattle Pacific University, innovation extends beyond shiny new technologies. Sure, faculty embrace those, and use them for students’ benefit. But more importantly, they constantly pursue new teaching methods to give students a holistic education. Margaret Diddams, SPU’s assistant provost and professor of industrial and organizational psychology, calls it “deep learning” — and it’s at the heart of the University’s strategic plan.
In 1990, Margaret Diddams explains, Ernest Boyer — president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching — directed educators’ focus to the study of teaching.
“That scholarship was all about ‘who I am as an instructor’ and ‘how I manage a course,’” she says. “But in the last 15 years, that focus has shifted toward a scholarship of teaching and learning.”
The scholarship of teaching and learning, says Diddams, “is about asking ‘What do we expect from students?’”
As innovations in scholarship of teaching and learning are put to work at SPU, classes become less about passing tests and more about collaborative connections. Faculty and their learning assistants are “flipping” classrooms, tailoring courses toward interactive engagement as well as captivating lectures. They integrate field research and practice with study. They’re embracing community-oriented online education. And they’re emphasizing a discipline central to teaching, learning, and the Christian faith: reflection.
“Reflective students make connections, not just within their classrooms but across disciplines,” says Diddams. “And that is the definition of creativity: making connections where others have not. Deep learning happens when we make connections.”
These innovations are driven, in part, by standards of accreditation, which require programs to demonstrate that students are actually learning. But it’s also part of SPU’s mission to ensure that graduates are articulate and able to critique and apply information they learn. At Seattle Pacific, Diddams says, courses are increasingly designed to integrate student learning with their stories and vocations, equipping students for service to God and others.
“For us, innovation isn’t about being on the cutting edge. It’s really about solidifying our core,” she says. “And as a Christian institution, SPU has always sought to transform.”
“There’s a buzz through the music program,” about SPU’s new Nickerson Studios, the music program’s first-ever campus performance space, says Zachary Meyers ’17. “This building will get so much use.”
On a quick walk-through, you’ll find choral and recital space, which seats around 100 listeners for small group performances. Curtains adjust acoustics so the room’s inconspicuous 24-channel recording system captures every note. (Before, SPU’s faculty and students often used a performance space near campus, at First Free Methodist Church.) A small, thickly insulated studio nearby houses a shiny new drum kit.
“Nickerson Studios has the potential to be one of Seattle’s best recording studios,” says Brian Chin, associate professor of music. “It’s going to be transformative for our students, and I predict big interest from the larger community wanting to use that space.”
The buzz seems justified. But greater innovations are taking place in methods of teaching and learning music at the University.
Learning assistants — which have rarely been employed in disciplines outside of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields — give Chin’s nine-unit, two-year aural skills sequence an advantage over other music programs. LAs are students trained by professors to help other students in a large class learn more by working in small groups.
With 14 LAs leading small groups, students get individual practice time and assessment every day, instead of the standard two or three times per quarter. What’s more, they have time to form small group ensembles, take piano exams, and practice conducting. Chin plans to share the nine LA learning modules on an open-content platform, so that Seattle Pacific can begin to “steer the conversation nationally” in teaching these skills. And that’s not all he plans to share. Incoming students sometimes have knowledge gaps that can slow class learning down, he says.
To address this, Chin is working with SPU’s office of Educational Technology and Media to produce instructional videos on particular skills; students learn quickly, he says, when they have a visual guide.
Chin will make the videos available online, along with an open-source music theory textbook, at a new online Center for Talent and Creative Music. Twenty students will help Chin research the topic in a new class: “Talent and the Professional Musician.”
Meyers, a music composition major, was initially skeptical of Chin’s ambitions to involve him and his classmates in “the national conversation” on talent and music. “But by the second class, I realized — he’s serious! We’re going to be on the forefront of this research.”
For Chin, the goal of new facilities and learning innovations is clear: “We’re developing a community of practitioners. At a traditional music school, you spend a lot of time in a practice room by yourself. It can feel lonely and intimidating. But the Center for Talent and Creative Music is a way that we can be together on our separate journeys with music.”
Kata Krueger ’15 (left) talks with TC3 resident Lantz Rowland (center) and another student.
Madelyn Hogue ’15 first felt a drive to serve the homeless in 2011, when she welcomed residents of Tent City 3 at “the warming station” — the off-duty crew shell — and served them coffee and tea as she listened to their stories.
That was Seattle Pacific’s first time hosting Tent City 3, one of several area encampments sheltering people who are homeless.
When Hogue heard that Tent City 3 was returning to campus in 2014, she got involved further, joining other sociology students to conduct research under the direction of Associate Professor Karen Snedker and Professor Jennifer McKinney. Snedker and McKinney wanted to study the problem of homelessness, focusing on tent cities. But they wouldn’t send their student researchers in cold — they trained them first.
Students read about systemic social problems during Autumn Quarter with Snedker. Then they studied research methods with McKinney. Four weeks into Winter Quarter, after weeks of getting accustomed to the presence of Tent City 3 on campus, they began interviews.
“It ingrained in me what I had been learning,” says senior Elisa Raney, a global development major. “I gained a greater appreciation for the research process.”
Students quickly realized just how many myths powerfully influence social views about homelessness — blaming a person’s health or a person’s “sinful” past for their homelessness is common, rather than blaming social forces outside an individual’s control.
Studying can be a challenge, but interviewing total strangers can be even more daunting, even for sociologists. “Everyone was nervous — OK, terrified — during week one,” Snedker laughs. “By the quarter’s end, students were saying, ‘This is one of the hardest things I did, but I’m so glad I did it!’”
With interviews in, data gathered, and a lot of writing ahead, Snedker and McKinney are slow-cooking a few academic papers about this research. Sociology done right, says McKinney, is slow and rigorous work. “In sociology we like to say that we’re making visible the invisible,” says McKinney. “With Tent City 3 physically in front of us, these students confronted that reality.”
As myths began to dissolve, barriers between researcher and subject began to disappear. Senior Elisa Raney found herself in a casual chat with a Tent City resident about the price of cell phones and how women’s pockets are never deep enough. “It was just a mundane, ordinary conversation,” she says. “That’s when I realized that I wasn’t a student and he wasn’t a TC3 resident anymore — we were just two people talking about pockets.”
“It was stunning,” says Snedker. “Students brought in their parents, their roommates, their friends. This has broad reverberations.” One student found that her father was reading her assigned texts; now, his Pioneer Square company is starting an initiative for the homeless.
Students didn’t stop at Tent City 3. They traveled to the Washington state capitol in Olympia to meet with legislators during the annual Homelessness and Housing Advocacy Day, where they attended meetings and advocated for affordable housing.
“When I think about my time at SPU,” Hogue reflects, “I think that my experience on the Tent City 3 research team was the most formative and educational, because it applied what I was learning in the classroom.”
In an early fall meeting with a former student, Kara Gray — interim director of the Integrated Studies Program and an assistant professor of physics at Seattle Pacific — listened closely to a young woman describe her struggle to understand the behavior of light. But Gray was not attempting to set the student straight. Instead, she was learning from her former student how to better teach a complex concept.
Gray’s conversation with her student highlights a particularly effective application of the learning assistant model Chin is using. This particular LA was drawing from her freshman experience to help Gray and the LAs clarify concepts for a new class.
“LAs are some of my best sources of information on how students are doing,” says Gray. “A professor can lose that sense of what it was like to learn. Our assistants have taken these classes so recently that they remember exactly what it’s like.”
The LA program is particularly effective in the SPU physics program because of the courses’ small-group, topic-focused structure. LAs encourage and facilitate group discussion, helping students who get stuck, and encouraging everyone to go deeper.
Research on LAs in STEM fields and other programs shows that this teaching model increases deep learning. Stamatis Vokos, professor of physics at SPU and chair of the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, highlights another result: “Learning assistants learn the topic they’re helping to teach much better. And they’re getting professional training in getting into other people’s heads and figuring out how to help a group learn.”
Now a graduate student in the University of Rochester’s physics department, Hannah Sabo ’15 says that her LA experience at Seattle Pacific had a lot to do with listening to, and learning from, other students. “I have heard creative metaphors and been floored by the connections that students draw,” she says, and she now sees teachers and students as “equals who share in the learning process.”
Learning assistants are paid student workers who are appointed either by application or recruitment. They must also enroll in a weekly seminar on pedagogy for as long as they work in the program. LAs are different from undergraduate teaching assistants, Gray says: They’re in constant conversation with professors, always discussing better ways to teach and learn.
While the LA model is just catching on in departments around campus, SPU’s Physics Department has been using them for a decade, almost since the idea pioneered at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The idea should be a hit at Seattle Pacific, Gray says.
“SPU is committed to helping students, and it has support from the administration to try new things and to be innovative,” she says. “Also, we have students at SPU who are interested in helping each other.”
Associate Professor of Education David Wicks uses Google Hangouts to teach Digital Education Leadership classes. Here, he talks with Ann Hayes-Bell, a student in the 2015 DEL cohort.
While Issaquah humanities teacher Annie Tremonte’s seventh-grade students were getting a lesson in digital citizenship last year, Tremonte learned some lessons of her own, thanks to SPU’s Digital Education Leadership (DEL) master’s program.
Tremonte’s students partnered with a northern Virginia classroom to produce infographics and videos comparing the two school districts and surrounding communities, learning cultural and communication lessons through cross country collaboration.
Tremonte and her D.C. teaching partner were pleasantly surprised by their students’ progress in the “Four Cs” of 21st century learning: creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration.
And Tremonte drew encouragement and insight through the process from her Seattle Pacific community under the guidance of David Wicks, associate professor of curriculum and instruction. He helped her think about ways to integrate technology in her classroom and creatively meet student learning standards.
“I was fortunate to be able to troubleshoot and problem-solve with my cohort and instructors in the SPU community,” says Tremonte, “and to work things out with students in real time.”
Teaching teachers in ways they can apply in their current positions — that’s one of the goals of the DEL program as Wicks has envisioned it.
Much about online learning has changed since Seattle Pacific first offered online classes in 1999, but online courses still typically stick to readings, recorded lectures, and asynchronous discussion boards with a large number of students.
Wicks has met students who got master’s degrees online without ever meeting other students or the instructors.
SPU, on the other hand, bypasses the massive open online course model to offer something different: a small, community-based program, capped at 15 students.
“Other institutions are actually going for ‘How many possible people can we get in the same course?’ We’re looking at ‘What’s the right number of people to sustain a community?’” Wicks says.
Wicks commits to meeting each student for coffee or a teaching observation. He occasionally visits classrooms virtually, through a Google Hangout, and uses the same technology to make sure students meet each other.
Tremonte feels close to the rest of her cohort. The students are all local, so they meet up in person along with virtual hangout meetings, she says.
Tech can get pricey, so Wicks is careful to think of strapped budgets by using simple, free tools like Google Classroom. “Simplicity makes them accessible,” says Wicks. “I want it to be easy for teachers to participate.”
This, he says, is consistent with SPU’s Christian vision. “As Christians, we’re called to care about ‘the widows and orphans.’ In our world, those are the digital have-nots. We’re addressing it by using open resources.”
Because of SPU’s innovation, Tremonte herself has become an innovator. She’s been appointed to a lead role with educational technology and has started a professional development program for teachers. She also uses a “bring your own device” approach to classroom technology, which Wicks says works well.
“Students in the DEL program want to be leaders in digital education,” says Wicks. “They want to see the pedagogical use of technology and participate in it. So, wherever possible, we’re modeling that at SPU.”
Tremonte plans to have her next class of seventh-graders collaborate with students in India. And as her class’s global understanding and community expands, so will hers.