By Doug Ward

If I were to design the perfect learning experience, it would have all the components that Chad Kraus included in a studio architecture class he taught this fall.

Chad Kraus with a prototype of the Haitian center his students designed.
  • Start with a problem that has no single or simple solution.
  • Study the problem, the context and the people involved.
  • Learn the skills that will help solve the problem.
  • Practice the skills with teammates.
  • Get feedback from instructors and peers.
  • Apply the skills in an authentic assignment.
  • Teach others the skills you have learned.
  • Reflect on the work.

The project in Kraus’s class, ARCH 600, even goes beyond that, though, by adding a study abroad component. In a little over a week, Krauss and another professor, Lance Rake, and six students will board a plane for Miami and then fly to Haiti, where they will spend two weeks helping build a community center the class designed.

Kraus’s class, called Global Studio, has been creating, prototyping and revising plans for the community center all semester. The class has 12 students, though only six will travel to Haiti. Kraus, an associate professor of architecture, is the lead instructor for the class. He has been joined by Kent Spreckelmeyer, a professor of architecture who directs the school’s health and wellness program; and Rake, a professor of design. Cécile Accilien, associate professor of African and African-American studies and associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, taught an accompanying one-hour class that helped students learn about Haiti and its culture.

That’s only a small portion of a cast of instructors, students, consultants, fundraisers, planners, engineers and organizations that has been involved. The School of Architecture and Design raised more than $12,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to help defray student travel costs. Students and faculty at the American University of the Caribbean, and Haiti Tec, a trade school in Port-au-Prince, will join the KU team at the building site. Frank Zilm, who leads the Institute of Health+Wellness Design at the School of Architecture and Design, has been involved, as well. All of those involved have been working with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Leawood that is financing the construction.

If that sounds like a challenge to plan and coordinate, it is. And yet Kraus approaches the project with a quiet equanimity that leaves little doubt that all the pieces will fit together.

“It takes a village to do something like this,” Kraus said. “Part of that is we’re trying to string together different expertise. This whole project is a labor of love for everyone involved.”

Chad Kraus critiques final plans for the building project. With him are Kenneth Wilson (in windowsill) Melissa Watson (in red) and Sarah Wages.

How the project evolved

The new center will be built in Torbeck, a rural area near Les Cayes on the southwestern peninsula of Haiti. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew roared through the area with 140-mph winds and torrential rains. The area had few shelters, and 150 people took refuge in a birthing center in Torbeck. The center’s staff continued to offer all of its services – delivering babies, offering prenatal and postnatal care – even as they worked around the unexpected guests.

“It was really difficult for them, and it sort of catalyzed in their mind the absolute necessity of building a community center,” Kraus said.

The birthing center, Maison de Naissance, was established by the Global Birthing Home Foundation. The foundation shares oversight of the center with a Haitian organization, provides operating money, and handles all the center’s programs and operations. The foundation reached out to the School of Architecture and Design for assistance, and that’s when Kraus became involved. He and the foundation’s executive director traveled to Haiti during the summer to begin the planning process.

“They were looking for a way to build a strong, stable, long-lasting, secure building,” Kraus said.

To do that, Kraus and the students settled on rammed-earth walls and a bamboo roof. Rammed earth, which has been used for centuries, is just what it sounds like, Kraus said. A wooden form is constructed for the walls, and then soil mixed with a little water is added and tamped down with wooden dowels or specialized tools with steel butts.

“Basically you ram layer by layer and you build up the wall,” Kraus said. “And then you strip the forms and you have this wall that in some cases can be made entirely out of earth.”

Kraus learned about compressed earth while working for the Pritzker-prize-winning architect firm Shigeru Ban, who is known for his unconventional designs. He taught a studio focusing on rammed earth after he came to KU and found that students were especially interested in the techniques. He doesn’t want to teach the same studio every year, he said, but students continually ask to learn about rammed earth. That approach fit well into the designs for the community center in Haiti.

A prototype of a rammed earth wall that students created.

The class chose bamboo for the roof because bamboo is lightweight, flexible, and resilient in high winds. Lighter material reduces the danger of heavy objects flying through the air during a hurricane or falling during an earthquake. Bamboo is also a renewable resource. It grows quickly and its roots spread, providing cover for erosion-prone areas where forests once stood. Half of Haiti’s forests have been destroyed since the early 1900s through logging, clearing of trees for coffee and sugarcane fields, hurricane damage, and demand for land as the country’s population has grown. President Rene Préval introduced bamboo into the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a means of land cover and industry.

“But it’s still something that most Haitians have no familiarity with and it hasn’t caught on as a construction material,” Kraus said. “So we want to push that potential of bamboo.”

The project that Kraus’s students have designed uses renewable materials and has the potential of providing jobs for the surrounding community during the construction process. They also want to demonstrate how the same process can be used to build resilient homes with low-cost materials.

“We wanted the local community to be involved so that they felt some kind of investment in the whole thing,” Kraus said. “But we also didn’t want to get them started and say, ‘We’re done. It’s all up to you now.’ We wanted to support them as they’re going through the majority of the project and help with questions that they have or additional design work that needs to be done.”

An expansive team and lots of questions

The students in Kraus’s class have worked in teams throughout the semester.  A management team oversaw the broad aspects of the project, working with a design team, a research team, a budget team and a video team, which is creating instructional videos to demonstrate the building techniques for Haitian workers.

The teams researched similar projects for details that might improve the center’s design or offer clues about how the materials they are using will stand up in Haiti’s climate. Each new aspect raised new challenges or led to questions the students had to research, Kraus said.

  • How does the rammed earth meet the foundation?
  • How do we size the foundation?
  • How much rebar do we put in?
  • How we design the bamboo to be flexible but also stiff?
  • How do we apply cross bracing between the bamboo trusses?
  • How do we anchor the rammed earth?
  • How we design the roof so that it doesn’t blow away?
  • How do we build a latrine that can be maintained over time?
  • What colors and materials will fit best into Haitian culture?

The students have checked in frequently with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, as well as contractors and engineers in Haiti. They have drawn on experts in Lawrence to help answer questions about designs, and costs and availability of materials. For instance, Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a professor of aerospace engineering, helped the students understand how to design a roof that will stand up to high winds. An engineer in Ireland who has extensive experience with bamboo construction has spoken with the students remotely.

“The students do all that work,” Kraus said. “I would say they are heavily supported by the faculty members, but they are expected to do the work.”

Sarah Wages, a fourth-year student from Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., said those demands could be overwhelming at times.

“You have to make sure what you’re doing is possible, to the extreme,” she said. “You have to bring it down to a level you know we can do. Especially in the design phase, we were pulling out these case studies of crazy roofs and crazy building forms and having to kind of tame ourselves back to understanding what is needed and what is actually possible. If we don’t know how to do it, how are we going to teach others how to do it?”

Students in ARCH 600 discuss building plans during their final meeting before the trip to Haiti.

Final plans for construction and travel

During the last week of fall classes, the project team gathered in room 206C in Marvin Hall and ran through the final details.

David Vertseeg points out some problems in the building plans.

The room was warm and stuffy. The overhead lights were turned off, and a gray light from a cloudy December afternoon filtered in through three north windows. Students, many in sweaters, sweatshirts and stocking caps, huddled around a conference table. One sat on a window ledge, another on the floor. Some had laptops open. Others had building plans spread out in front of them.

Students projected their plans onto a large monitor at the end of the room, and Kraus and David Vertseeg, a post-professional student who is working with Kraus in a special problems course, asked questions and offered suggestions.

Remove an extraneous line from one drawing. Reduce the amount of ground showing on another so the notations can be seen. Adjust the hatch size of the background fill so that it conforms to the plans. What are those black lines in that section of the pony wall? Where does that downspout go? Do the drawings indicate rebar in the walls? Make sure the plans have consistent numbering for the contractor.

Zilm, of the Institute of Health+Design, reported by speaker phone on results of a test of the Haitian soil. It has about 14 percent clay, on the low end of what is needed, but it should be enough to provide stability for the walls, he said.

Considerable time was spent going over travel details questions.

Can we take batteries? What is the weight limit on luggage? What tools do we need to take? Would the birthing center know the cheapest way to ship tools we can’t get in our bags?

Instisar Tyne listens to Kraus as Melissa Watson (foreground) takes notes.

Spreckelmeyer asks whether all the students have a contact card for the Study Abroad office. Kraus tells them that wifi in the area is spotty, so phone use will be limited. Don’t take selfies with people or treat them like objects of art, he says. Make sure to bring a water bottle. Take nonperishable protein. Get a good sun hat and powerful bug spray. Take a small amount of cash but not so much that you become a target for thieves.

By the end of class, the sun has nearly set and the room has grown dim. Questions gradually fade. The monitor on the wall glows. Kraus reminds students to keep checking Slack, a communications program the class uses for sharing information. The students gather their drawings, close their computers, hoist their backpacks and hold the door open for one another as they leave the room

Wages is the last to leave. I ask her what she has taken away from the class. She talks about the technical elements (repeatedly revising designs, testing the rammed earth techniques, deciding on the best way to create shutters) but also the cultural elements (adding red pigment and other colors to the walls to accommodate Haitian tastes, making sure the project will help people in the long term).

“You can’t just plop a building down and assume it’s going to do its job in the best way possible,” she said. “There are so many factors you have to think about to make a building really work, and integrate it into the community in the best way possible. I’m really excited to go and see the actual site, see where it is in relation to where the people are. There’s just so much you get to see when you actually integrate a building into a real place.”

Continuing the learning through the spring semester

Kraus, along with Spreckelmeyer, will lead another class in the spring related to the Haiti project. Students will continue to work with the partners in Haiti, troubleshooting problems and offering advice on components of the community center. They will also develop prototype housing designs based on the plans they created for the center. The emphasis will again be on rammed earth and bamboo. Some of the students from the fall class and the intersession will continue, but additional students asked to join after they heard about the project. Some of the students will eventually earn 13 hours of credit for the Haiti project: three from the fall architecture studio, one from the class on Haitian culture, six for the Haiti trip, and three in the spring class.

Schuyler Clogston and Sekou Hayes work during the final class session.

Architecture classes regularly have a hands-on component, with students designing and building structures or additions, or renovating existing buildings. And all architecture students, who go through a five-year program and earn a master’s degree, are required to study abroad at some point. This class is different, though, because it combines the elements of a design studio with a study abroad.

“This is the first opportunity that’s been created to design something and then go and build it overseas,” Wages said. “We have a lot of study abroad programs that are really great. We have tons of connections overseas, and we can do internships, but this is something I really want to get into – helping people, experiencing different cultures and bringing from here to there.”

I told Kraus that I was impressed with the format of the class. It provides an amazing number of learning experiences for students, helping them turn the conceptual into the tangible and then see their work put to use for a good cause.

“I agree,” he said. “That’s probably the single biggest reason why I wanted to come back to academia. I knew it was a powerful way to learn. I see this time and time again. When you get students together and encourage them to share knowledge, then what this student knew and taught to this student becomes reinforced and expanded upon. The student actually becomes a better future architect having taught other students what they know. And you’re right. That is a really powerful way to embed new knowledge.”

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The new Earth, Energy and Environment Center is still a work in progress.

Workers in hardhats still move through mostly empty hallways and rooms. Cardboard boxes are strewn about as tables, chairs, computer monitors and other equipment is unpacked, assembled and put into place. The sound of a hammer or drill echoes occasionally. The smell of new carpet, upholstery, paint or wood greets you around every corner.

Even amid the clutter and clamor, though, this new complex attached to Lindley Hall looks like the future.

Paleocon, an annual event for students in Geology 121: DNA to Dinosaurs, gave the complex an initiation of sorts on Tuesday. Students set up displays about extinct and endangered animals throughout a large room in the south building of the complex, kicking off what promises to be a long run of learning at the new center.

Faculty and graduate students began setting up labs and offices last week, but the center won’t be put through its paces until January, when classes in geology and other STEM fields take over the new classrooms.

I made a brief tour of the center after I visited Paleocon. Here are some of the highlights.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Authentic assignments can be messy.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, the messiness helps students deepen their critical thinking, improve their decision-making, learn about themselves, and even take more control over their learning.

That messiness can be challenging for both students and faculty members, though. For students accustomed to a lecture-and-test format, it means grappling with ambiguity and working through failures. For instructors, it means ceding considerable control to students and devoting time to individual and group problem-solving.

stylized photo of students working together at tables and whiteboards
My approach to authentic assignments involves considerable group work.

Let me give you an example from a journalism class called Infomania, which focuses on research skills and critical thinking. To promote those skills, I challenge students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to solve a problem or answer a question using information and digital tools. They work in groups to identify elements of the problem, conduct research, and create a prototype of a solution.

The results have been impressive, but the process is messy. Students must identify problems and focus questions; identify sources; brainstorm solutions; distribute work among groups; set deadlines, and ultimately give shape to their ideas. I set aside one class period each week for group work, moving among the groups, challenging their thinking, pushing for context, and guiding them toward appropriate resources. I also bring in librarians, who provide important perspectives on finding information.

The approach I take in the class combines elements of team-based learning and problem-based learning, combined with a dose of entrepreneurial thinking. If you plan to try something similar, keep a few things in mind:

Embrace the messiness. It takes a while for students to come to grips with the idea of controlling their own learning. I provide material at the beginning of the semester on how to do that, but students take vastly different paths. Those who have mastered test-taking often struggle the most, but all students need reassurance and guidance. I give one piece of advice so much that it is almost a class mantra: “Try it.”

Provide choices. Choice motivates students. I rarely so no to ideas, but I spend a lot of time helping students hone their questions, think through what they really want to discover, and why they think that is significant.

Trust students. All too often, instructors set low expectations and assume that students need to be told what to do at every step. That teaches students to be passive consumers of information and of education. I’ve found that students respond well to challenges and high expectations. Consider that for years, students have told the National Survey of Student Engagement that they expected college to require more work than it really does. If we give students meaningful work, they will respond to the challenge.

Give students time. I devote a least one of two classes each week to group work. Many groups still meet outside class, especially later in the semester, but time in class is crucial. None only does it create a regular schedule for group meetings, but it provides a regular time for me to meet with the groups. As I rotate among the groups, I can answer questions, offer advice and head off potential problems. When I encounter questions that other groups need to know about, I can then provide a mini-lecture or simply provide answers that the entire class needs to know.

Don’t expect miracles. My approach to Infomania has led to such projects as a digital survival guide for freshmen, an e-book on KU traditions, an interactive guide for finding study spaces on and off campus, a prototype of an app for basketball camping, and a guide for matching volunteers and organizations. I’ve also had many shallow projects. Even with those, though, students learned to research and think through problems more effectively.

Nearly all students struggle with this process. That’s important because it forces them out of passivity and empowers them to take control over their own learning. Here’s how one student described the process in an end-of-semester self-evaluation:

“In other courses I have taken at various levels of schooling, it was essentially me pleasing the teacher and nodding my head. In this class, I was forced to take the lead and complete my work on my own.  This required focus and organization that had never been required before.  Although at the beginning of the class I despised it, I have come to realize that this is how the workplace will be. There is nobody providing you with the guides to succeed. You have to take it on yourself. This class has taught me that.”

Other students haven’t been as positive. Nearly all recognize the importance of authenticity, though.


More on authentic learning: The latest issue of Teaching Matters includes many examples of how faculty members at KU have approached authentic learning.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

One poster offers to explain the chemistry of the world’s most popular drug.

Another teases about the fatty acids that make T-shirts feel soft.

Still another promises secrets about the oils used in making the perfect chicken nugget.

None of them offers its secrets outright, though. And that’s just how Drew Vartia, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the chemistry department, wants it.

A poster in Malott Hall refers people to information about the chemistry of soap.

The posters were created by the 60 students in Honors Chemistry I, which Vartia worked on with Professor Tim Jackson. The project, Vartia said, was inspired by Rajiv Jhangiani, who spoke at KU in the spring about open education and the use of “renewable assignments” or “nondisposable assignments.” Most work that students complete never go beyond the class. Assignments and tests are created by the instructor for the instructor and are quickly disposed of by instructor and students after the class is over.

Nondisposable assignments, on the other hand, allow students to take their learning into the world or apply it to real-world problems.

Vartia wanted chemistry students to use that approach to help fellow students learn more about the invisible chemical interactions in everyday life.

“Chemistry is something that people tend to shy away from,” Vartia said. “For whatever reason, a lot of people have had a negative experience with it and so they don’t actively see chemistry in their immediate environment.”

So Vartia and the students in Chemistry 190 took chemistry to the people.

To do that, students researched the chemistry of everyday things: caffeine, blood, fabric softener, pigments, cooking oil, limestone, and body odor.

“We asked them to create information about chemistry that would be digestible to somebody who had only a high school chemistry course,” Vartia said. “So in principle their product could teach the public something about chemistry. It was low enough level that somebody could read it and latch onto it, and a high enough level that the person reading it would then further their knowledge of chemistry.”

Once students had completed their explanatory material, they created posters intended to grab people’s attention and try to get them to seek out more information. To assist with that, each poster has a QR code, which allows people to scan with a cellphone and retrieve the information the students wrote.

The posters, created by 15 groups of four students each, then went up in 11 locations where students were likely to find them, including the Kansas Union, The Underground, the Spencer Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, dorms, and Watkins Health Center. Each poster was tied to some aspect of the location. For instance, one at the Roasterie in the Kansas Union focuses on caffeine, which it referred to as “the world’s most popular drug.” One at Watkins Health Center focuses on the chemistry of blood. One at the Spencer Museum of Art focuses on the chemistry of pigment, and one in the dorms sends people to information about fabric softeners, which release fatty acids that give clothes a soft feel.

Vartia was pleased with the students’ work, but he said they learned a few lessons for next time. The most important is that the posters need to be bigger. The current lot is 8½ by 11 inches, and they are easily overlooked. The other important takeaway is that they need to be displayed earlier in the semester so that students can gather data about viewership before class ends. The assignment was certainly successful, though, Vartia said.

“Traditional writing assignments are typically two-party transactions between the student-author of some research paper and the instructor,” he said. “They do some back and forth and then the utility of the assignment is over. In this case, students were excited that what they were doing mattered to a greater number of people and had the ability to influence people that they’ve never met.”

The posters will remain in place through at least part of the spring semester, Vartia said. If you see one, give it a scan.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

It was a simple idea.

Bring together a group of faculty members from around campus for guided discussions about diversity and inclusion. Guide them to think deliberately and openly about making their classroom practices and pedagogy more inclusive. Then help them create plans to take what they had learned back to their departments and help colleagues do the same.

That’s the approach behind Diversity Scholars, a program that CTE began last year with 11 participants. A second class of 10 began this fall. Funding for the program was provided by the Provost’s Office.

Participants say the sessions have helped them find new types of class materials, improved discussions about social identity, and helped them challenge students to think in new ways about the intersection of course content and race, gender and ethnicity. That hasn’t always been easy, they said, but it has been encouraging, enlightening and enjoyable.

Lua Yuille, associate professor of law, speaks at a Diversity Scholars session. Marta Caminero-Santangelo, right, oversees the program.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, a professor of English and a Faculty Fellow at CTE through last spring, leads Diversity Scholars. She said there had been pent-up demand for just these types of discussions, especially with tension over race, ethnicity, and gender roiling campuses across the nation.

“People just want the time to think about the issues and talk about them with colleagues and to be very deliberate and focused about those conversations,” she said. “I don’t know that there were any huge epiphanies. I think it was just helpful to sit around with a bunch of really enthusiastic, dedicated colleagues and talk about diversity and inclusion once a month.”

Caminero-Santangelo has been joined by Darren Canady, associate professor of English, and Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs and administration, in guiding the program.

The goal of the program, Caminero-Santangelo said, is to help participants redesign a course or create a new course that more deliberately infuses diversity, equity and inclusion into the content, climate and discussions. The sessions, about one a month, focus on three areas: class content, pedagogy and class climate. The areas overlap, but they also connect with and reinforce each other. Each session involves readings, facilitated conversations and group work – essentially modeling the techniques that help students learn most effectively.

Caminero-Santangelo described the discussions about class content as an evaluation of the materials that the instructors use in their courses: “Am I drawing from a diversity of scholars, a diversity of voices, a diversity of readings? If my class content is STEM and it’s not specifically related to issues of diversity, are the examples that I’m using in class really addressing the diversity of human experience?”

The pedagogy sessions help participants understand the approaches that help all students learn effectively but that have shown to be especially effective with underrepresented groups. Those techniques include such things as clarity and transparency in expectations and grading; group work; universal design for learning; scaffolding of assignments; low-stakes assessments; and out-of-class work that frees up time for in-class problem solving and discussion.

The class climate discussions flow from the other two elements, Caminero-Santangelo said.

“If your class content is not diverse, that’s already sending a message to certain students that they’re not included and they’re not registering in the production of knowledge,” she said. “And if your pedagogy is not inclusive then students might feel alienated or silenced.”

Climate also includes smaller things, she said: creating ground rules for discussion, learning your students’ names, and handling hot moments in the classroom effectively.

Caminero-Santangelo said that none of the facilitators considered themselves to be experts, especially because participants came from several disciplines.

Shannon Portillo works with a group during a Diversity Scholars meeting.

“We had maybe a little bit more familiarity with some of the topics, but we were certainly learning as we read and found resources and then incorporated those resources,” she said.

Participants have taken many approaches in rethinking their classes. For instance:

  • Ward Lyles, assistant professor of public affairs and administration, added readings on overcoming an us-vs.-them mentality and added two class periods on community building. He also created a syllabus evaluation checklist for faculty members.
  • Margaret Marco, professor of music, had her recital students choose performance pieces form outside the classical canon. She added a survey to the class, asking students how likely they were to play pieces by composers from underrepresented groups. She plans to follow up with the same survey at the end of class.
  • Tim Hossler, assistant professor of architecture and design, plans to integrate material about cultural appropriation into a required design history course. He hopes to help students think more deeply about how diversity and design culture come together.
  • Cécile Accilien, associate professor of African and African-American studies, added more material about masculinity in her course on gender in Africa. She has had class discussions about how religion and social identity affect social justice for those in the LGBTQ community, and her students will critique an African art exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in terms of masculinity.
  • Kristof Kuczera, professor of chemistry, created a pre-class quiz on diversity in chemistry, and added an exercise in which students research and write about chemists from underrepresented groups.

Participants will also share their experiences with colleagues and help them develop their own plans for being more deliberate about infusing diversity into their classes and curriculums. Caminero-Santangelo called this “a sort of spider web networking effect” that will expand the reach of the Diversity Scholars program.

For those who haven’t been able to participate in a program like Diversity Scholars, Caminero-Santangelo recommended small things that can help begin a process of enlightenment. There are many resources available to help instructors make their classes more welcoming for diverse populations, improve class conversations, and help students think more deliberately about inclusivity, she said. And it’s easy to find a colleague or two and have discussions.

“Take a baby step or two,” Caminero-Santangelo said. “Look at that syllabus tool. Read up on transgender identity and issues that the transgender community is facing on campus. You’re not going to be perfect at everything – ever. And you can’t necessarily change everything at once, but you could decide, ‘OK, in this one way I’m going to set some ground rules on the first day of class. I’m going to send a message that my classroom is an inclusive classroom and that I want to hear a variety of voices and I don’t want voices to be shut down.’ ”

In other words, simple actions can lead to big changes.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.