By Doug Ward

The University of Kansas has gained international attention with its work in student-centered learning over the past five years.

Grants from the National Science Foundation, the Teagle Foundation, and the Association of American Universities have helped transform dozens of classes and helped faculty better understand students and learning. Participation in the Bay View Alliance, a North American consortium of research universities, has helped the university bolster its efforts to improve teaching and learning. And participation in organizations like the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the AAU has provided opportunities for KU faculty to share the rich work they have done in improving their courses.

Participants in TRESTLE brainstorm during a launch meeting for the network. They met in Lawrence in early 2016.

KU’s leadership in student-centered education will be on display at home this week as instructors and administrators from a dozen research universities and educational organizations gather in Lawrence for a three-day institute on teaching and learning. The institute, which begins Thursday, is part of the annual meeting of TRESTLE, a network of faculty and academic leaders who are working with colleagues in their departments to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes at research universities. TRESTLE is an acronym for transforming education, stimulating teaching and learning excellence.

Attendees will participate in workshops on many facets of course transformation and active learning organized around a theme of sustaining change and broadening participation in student-centered education. Among the speakers are Howard Gobstein, executive vice president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities; Pat Hutchings, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment; and Mary Huber, a senior scholar at the Bay View Alliance, an international organization working to build leadership for educational change.

“KU has been a hub for transforming teaching and learning for several years,” said Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and leader of the TRESTLE network. “TRESTLE has allowed us to expand that community beyond campus and connect with faculty at other universities.”

Andrea Greenhoot

That collaborative approach has been central to the TRESTLE network and to this week’s institute.

“Teaching is often seen as a solitary activity,” Greenhoot said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Our philosophy at CTE has always been that great teaching requires community. The TRESTLE community provides role models, engages faculty in intellectual discussions about teaching, gives instructors opportunities to reflect on their work, and creates a platform for sharing ideas and results.”

TRESTLE was formed three years ago after Greenhoot, Caroline Bennett, associate professor of engineering, Mark Mort, associate professor of biology, and partners at six other universities received grants totaling $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation. Their work has focused on supporting the development of STEM education experts who work within academic departments. These experts collaborate with other instructors in their departments to incorporate teaching innovations that shift the emphasis away from lecture and engage students in collaborative activities, discussion, problem-solving and projects that lead to better learning. Over the last three years, faculty members involved with TRESTLE have transformed more than 100 courses.

The transformation efforts have been impressive, Greenhoot said, but maintaining the changes after the grant ends in two years will be crucial. Blair Schneider, the program director of TRESTLE, has been coordinating this week’s activities with that in mind.

“We will be asking participants to take on some challenging questions during their time in Lawrence,” Schneider said. “How can we sustain the momentum we’ve built up over the last three years? What will it take to keep departments focused on improving student learning? How do we keep all this going? Everyone involved with TRESTLE has been energized as they have shared ideas and rethought their classes. We want to make sure that energy continues.”

As part of the institute, several KU faculty members are opening their classrooms so that participants can see the results of course transformation. Those instructors are from geology, chemistry, biology, civil engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science. Participants will also have opportunities to see active learning classrooms that KU has created over the past few years.

Open textbook workshop

If you haven’t looked into using open resources in your classes, you should. Open access materials replace costly textbooks, saving students millions of dollars a year even as they provide flexibility for instructors.

Two workshops at KU Libraries in October will help instructors learn how to adopt, adapt and even create open resources for their classes. Josh Bolick, scholarly communication librarian in the Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication and Copyright, will the lead the workshops as part of Open Access Week, an international event aimed at increasing awareness of open access materials.

Bolick’s workshops, “Open Textbooks and How They Support Teaching and Learning,” will be held from 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Oct. 19 and Oct. 23 in Watson Library, room 455. You can register here.


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

Data analytics holds great potential for helping us understand curricula.

By combining data from our courses (rubrics, grades, in-class surveys) with broader university data (student demographics, data from other courses), we can get a more meaningful picture of who our students are and how they perform as they move through our curricula.

Sarah LeGresley Rush and Chris Fischer in the KU physics department offered a glimpse into what we might learn with a broader pool of university data at a departmental colloquim on Monday. LeGresley Rush and Fischer explained analyses suggesting that a shift in the way an early physics class is structured had led to improvements in student performance in later engineering classes.

Chris Fischer works with students in General Physics II.

That reference to engineering is correct. Engineering students take introductory physics before many of their engineering classes, and the physics department created a separate class specifically for engineering majors.

A few years ago, Fischer began rethinking the structure of introductory physics because students often struggled with vector mathematics early in the course. In Spring 2015, he introduced what he called an “energy first” approach in Physics 211, focusing on the principle of energy conservation and the use of more applied calculus. The other introductory class, Physics 210, maintained its traditional “force first” curriculum, which explores classical mechanics through the laws of motion and uses little applied calculus. Both classes continued their extensive use of trigonometry and vectors, but Physics 211 adopted considerable material on differentiation and integration, which Physics 210 did not have.

LeGresley Rush, a teaching specialist in physics, joined Fischer, an associate professor, in evaluating the changes in two ways. First, they used results from the Force Concept Inventory, an exam that has been used for three decades to measure students’ understanding of concepts in introductory physics. They also used university analytics to see how students in the two introductory sections fared in a later physics course and in three engineering courses.

In both analyses, students who completed the revised physics courses outperformed students who took the course in the original format. The biggest improvements were among students with ACT math scores below 22. In every grouping of ACT scores they used (22-24, 25-27, 28-30, and above 30), students who took the revised course outperformed those who took the course in the traditional format. Those on the lower end gained the most, though.

Sarah LeGresley Rush

They next looked at how students in the two sections of introductory physics did in the next course in the department sequence, General Physics II. The results were similar, but LeGresley Rush and Fischer were able to compare student grades. In this case, students who completed the transformed course earned grades nearly a point higher in General Physics II than those who took the traditional course.

Finally, LeGresley Rush and Fischer used university data to track student performance in three engineering courses that list introductory physics as a requirement: Mechanical Engineering 211 (Statics and Introduction to Mechanics) and 312 (Basic Engineering Thermodynamics), and Civil Engineering 301 (Statics and Dynamics). Again, students who took the revised course did better in engineering courses, this time by about half a grade point.

“Why?” Fischer said in an earlier interview. “We argue that it’s probably because we changed this curriculum around and by doing so we incorporated more applied mathematics.”

He pointed specifically to moving vector mathematics to later in the semester. Vector math tends to be one of the most difficult subjects for students in the class. By helping students deepen their understanding of easier physics principles first, Fischer said, they are able to draw on those principles later when they work on vectors. There were also some changes in instruction that could have made a difference, he said, but all three physics classes in the study had shifted to an active learning format.

Fischer went to great lengths during the colloquium to point out potential flaws in the data and in the conclusions, especially as skeptical colleagues peppered him with questions. As with any such study, there is the possibility for error.

Nonetheless, Fischer and LeGresley Rush made a compelling case that a revised approach to introductory physics improved student learning in later courses. Perhaps as important, they demonstrated the value of university data in exploring teaching and curricula. Their project will help others at KU tackle similar questions.

The physics project is part of a CTE-led program to use university data to improve teaching, student learning, and retention in science, technology, engineering and math courses. The CTE program, which involves seven departments, is funded by a grant from the Association of American Universities. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning has provided data analysis for the teams.

A helpful tool for finding articles blocked by paywalls

A Chrome browser plug-in called Unpaywall may save a bit of time by pointing you to open access versions of online journal articles ensconced behind paywalls.

The plug-in, which is free, works like this:

When you find a journal article on a subscription-only site, Unpaywall automatically searches for an open version of the article. Often these are versions that authors have posted or that universities have made available through sites like KU Scholar Works. If Unpaywall finds an open copy of the article, it displays a green circle with an open lock on the right side of the screen. You click on the circle and are redirected to the open article.

It’s pretty slick. Unpaywall says its database has 20 million open access articles. It was integrated into Web of Science last year and is now part of many library systems.

Scott Hanrath, associate dean of libraries, said KU Libraries integrated a version of UnPaywall into its system in late 2016. If the “Get at KU” database doesn’t find a match for a source that libraries has access to, it tries the UnPaywall database as an alternative and provides a link if an open version of the article is available.

The Get at KU function is especially helpful in online searches, and the additional database opened even more options for finding articles quickly. I added UnPaywall to my search toolkit, as well. It seems like a useful addition, especially when I’m off campus.

You can read more about Unpaywall in a recent issue of Nature.


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

Robin Wright has a clear vision of the future of education.

Understanding that future requires a look 6,000 years into the past, though. It requires an assessment of the technological wonders that have promised revolution over the years. It requires an understanding of literacy rates, which have reached 90 percent worldwide. It requires a look into the chemistry of the brain, which reacts to emotion and stress but also to action and interaction. It requires a look outward at the students in our classes. And perhaps most important, it requires a look inward at who we are and who we aspire to be.

Robin Wright spoke about the human side of teaching and learning in her keynote address at Thursday’s Teaching Summit.

Wright made it clear that if we can do that, we, too, will have a clear vision of education’s future. (More about that shortly.)

Wright, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday. She shared with the summit’s 400 participants some of her research into active learning and student development, along with personal experiences in teaching undergraduate biology courses. Some of those experiences involved her own challenges as a teacher, including times when students simply weren’t understanding what she was teaching.

“This is where I made a big mistake,” Wright said. “If my students weren’t performing well, I just worked harder. That wasn’t a problem for them; they weren’t working harder. I wasn’t putting the burden on them.”

That is, she wasn’t following the key principles of learning. Here’s how she described those:

  • Every brain is different.
  • The person who does the work does the learning.
  • You can only make memories by connecting them to older memories.
  • People almost always learn better when they work together.
  • Making memories requires repetition, feedback, elaboration and sleep.

Until students do the hard work that learning requires, it doesn’t matter how many times instructors go over course material or how much effort they put into making classes active and engaging, Wright said. Mastery requires time and effort.

Don’t get the wrong idea from that. What instructors do has an enormous impact. Teaching and learning require concerted efforts by both students and instructors. That effort works best with human interaction, though. That was the message that Wright delivered again and again: that in a technology-fueled world, the human elements of education are more important than ever.

“The most important way we can be human is to teach,” Wright said.

Wright’s keynote address and workshops she led later in the morning tied into the summit’s theme, Teaching the Whole Student. That theme evolved from recent research suggesting that a holistic approach to education helps students succeed. We can’t just teach content. Nor can we throw students into that content and expect them to learn on their own. Rather, instructors and universities must engage students in education and help them gain a sense of belonging; support them in their educational endeavors and help them overcome barriers; and provide mentoring from staff members, faculty members and students’ peers.

Wright takes a question from Candan Tamerler, professor of mechanical engineering.

After the summit, Wright said that her message would not have been well received just a few years ago. Even now, critics berate universities for coddling students and encouraging hypersensitivity rather than pushing them to harden themselves for an unforgiving world. Wright steered clear of the political hyperbole, grounding her arguments in science, history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Even so, she acknowledged her role as provocateur as she made a case for what education is and what it could be.

Naysayers have tried to displace in-person education for centuries, she said. The first known correspondence course – one for shorthand – was offered in 1728. In 1906, a correspondence degree program in Pennsylvania attracted a million people but had a graduation rate of 2.6 percent, about the same as today’s massive open online courses. Thomas Edison promoted the phonograph as a great educational tool. Broadcasters did the same with radio and then television. MOOC creators promised a revolution – one that fizzled before it barely started.

Despite all these other opportunities and all the new technological tools that have emerged, we still have in-person education. Furthermore, Wright said, 90 percent of the world’s population can read and write. More and more of that population has access to the Internet and its vast universe of information, meaning that people can learn just about anything and anywhere on their own. And yet year after year, students and instructors still gather in classrooms to learn.

Why? she asked, quickly providing her own answer: Because the way we learn hasn’t changed since the days when people gathered around campfires, shared stories, and helped each other understand the world.

“Our brains are still the same as they were 6,000 years ago,” Wright said. “We still learn in the same way, the same basic way. That has not changed at all.”

Teaching to hundreds of brains

Wright explained the importance of brain chemistry and the role that stress, emotion, and sleep play in our ability to learn. She touched on social theory as a means of explaining learning, and the way that such factors as pedagogy, classroom climate, focus, motivation and metacognition influence individual performance. Our growing understanding of those factors continues to improve teaching.

“The challenge, though,” she said, “is how do you teach a whole class about mitosis when you have 400 different brains you have to interact with?”

That is, the same strategy doesn’t work for everyone.

“People look at things in different ways because their brains are different,” Wright said.

That’s where the human aspects of teaching must take over.

“We have to consider the whole person as a living, breathing, complicated, annoying, wonderful human being,” Wright said.

To emphasize that, Wright told of a high school teacher who once told her she was a good writer. Decades later, Wright still remembers that praise fondly, and she urged attendees to make the most of human interaction with their students.

“If you can do one thing to improve the effectiveness of your teaching and your learning, it’s to give people a chance to interact,” Wright said.

Adding a human touch to education also helps shape the future, she said.

“Being able to put your arm around a student and say, ‘You are really, really good at biology. I think you could have a career in it.’  That has enormous, enormous impact,” Wright said.

That doesn’t mean we should shy away from technology. Not at all. We should use it to its full potential to personalize teaching and learning, she said. In the end, though, the future of education lies in its humanity.

“There’s power in you as a living human being interacting with other human beings,” Wright said.

That power has kept education alive for millennia. And if Wright’s vision is correct, it will propel higher education into the future.


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

Student motivation is one of the most vexing challenges that instructors face. Students can’t learn if they aren’t engaged, and serious classroom material often fails to pique the interest of a generation that has grown up with the constant stimulation of smartphones, social media and video on demand.

Some instructors argue that motivation should be up to students, who are paying to come to college, after all. Most certainly, instructors can’t make students learn. Students have to cultivate that desire on their own. Instructors can take many steps to stoke that desire to learn, though, by drawing students into subject matter and into learning in general.

student sleeping
Photo by Cassandra Hamer, Unsplash

In a pedagogy class I’m teaching this semester, students and I worked through some of the steps we can take to motivate students. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it touches on concrete steps that any instructor can take to draw students into class material and into learning.

Find links. Helping students make connections among seemingly unrelated topics deepens their thinking and expands their ability to learn. By tying their interests (say, music) to more challenging subject matter (the workings of the brain, for instance, or American history), we can motivate students to further their exploration and broaden their learning. As John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking write in How People Learn, helping students understand the usefulness of a subject can improve learning, as can making sure material is neither too difficult nor too easy and providing opportunities to share with others.

Vary class time. Approaching class in the same way every time lulls students into a routine that can lead to their tuning out or shutting down. Put yourself in students’ shoes: They may have three or four classes in a single day. That alone makes concentration a challenge. Things like breaking a 75-minute class into three or four small topics, playing a short video or audio clip at some point, or even having students stand up for a minute or two can break a routine and refocus attention.

Give students choices. We all need some sense of control over what we do and how we do something. Giving students choices on project topics, readings or quiz questions gives them at least some sense of control and ownership.

Use hands-on activities. Evidence is clear that active learning, in which students engage in discussions, work on problems, or take on questions in groups, is a far better means of instruction than lecture. All instructors need time to explain things to students, but the real learning begins when students engage with material in authentic ways.

Move around the room. Moving about the classroom or encouraging students to move about and talk with classmates can help maintain students’ attention. This also helps instructors get to know students better.

Encourage students. A few words of encouragement can go a long way in keeping students engaged. Remind students that learning takes time and that their peers struggle, as well. Don’t resort to false praise, but point out good elements in students’ work and help them build on those elements.

Make individual connections. Show your humanity and help students understand who you are as a person. That doesn’t mean befriending students, but learning their names, remembering faces, and talking to students about their interests and aspirations helps personalize the learning process and helps draw students into that process.

Use humor. Instructors don’t have to be stand-up comedians, but displaying a sense of humor makes them more relatable, diminishes anxiety and sends a message that learning can be fun.

Use games. The gamification of learning has grown considerably since the turn of the century, but games that help students learn have been part of learning for as long as there have been games. So using a game strategy in a class doesn’t require great technical know-how. For instance, I have created “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint to help students learn grammar, and crossword puzzles to help them practice research skills. Those strategies require preparation, but I’ve found them very effective.

There are many other approaches to engaging students. Some require prep time and trial and error from instructors, but many others require little more than an open mind. We’d love to hear the strategies that work best for you.


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.

Students try to assemble a Lego creation after instructions were relayed from another room.

By Doug Ward

Here’s some sage advice to start the semester: Don’t be a jerk.

That comes from a student who will be an undergraduate teaching assistant for the first time this spring. Actually, he used a much more colorful term than “jerk,” but you get the idea. He was responding to a question from Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning, about things that undergrad TAs could do to set the tone in classes they worked in. More about that shortly.

Lyles’s workshop on fostering an inclusive classroom climate was one of half a dozen sessions offered for 94 undergraduate assistants in STEM fields this week.  Other sessions focused on such things as grading; team-building and communication; sexual harassment reporting; and expectations of undergraduate teaching assistants.

Molly McVey, workshop organizer, checks in students at a training session for undergraduate teaching assistants.

The workshop was organized by Molly McVey, a teaching specialist in the School of Engineering. McVey organized the first such workshop a year ago after the number of teaching fellows (the name for undergraduate assistants in engineering) increased from four to 25. The school had no formal training program, so McVey created one.

Other fields, including math, have their own sessions for undergraduate assistants. The program McVey started is unique, though, in that it brings together student assistants and instructors from a variety of disciplines. In addition to engineering, students at this week’s session came from biology, physics, and geography and atmospheric sciences. Department representatives had time to speak with students in their specific disciplines, but the overarching goal was the same for everyone: to help undergraduate assistants in STEM fields better understand their role in the classroom.

McVey added another element this time, based on experiences with the previous two training sessions.

“We realized that we really needed to get the faculty in the room, too,” McVey said. “Some of the things we were communicating to the teaching fellows, faculty needed to hear, as well, so that everyone was on the same page.”     

Students assemble Lego creations at the workshop.

The need for undergraduate TA training has grown as active learning in STEM fields has expanded over the last several years. These TAs perform a variety of duties, but their primary role is to move about large classes and help students with problem-solving, discussions and questions. Instructors choose the TAs from among the students who have taken their classes in previous semesters. That way the TAs know the subject matter, the class format, and the needs of fellow students.

Undergraduate assistants have been instrumental in improving student retention and learning in such fields as engineering, geology and biology. Many other factors have been involved in those improvements, but the assistants provide key support as instructors shift courses from lecture to hands-on class work. They offer additional eyes and ears in large classes, and they provide additional contacts for students who might be reluctant to speak up in large classes.

The training sessions this week helped undergraduate assistants understand some of the challenges they will face. Lorin Maletsky, associate dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, led a workshop in which teams of students assembled Lego contraptions using instructions from teammates who listened to descriptions in a different room and then raced back to explain – or try to explain – the appropriate steps. The scene was occasionally comical as students dashed in and out, gave colleagues blank looks and grimaces, and tried to put together pieces based on sketchy directions.

The exercise was eye-opening for those involved, though, in that it simulated the challenges that students face in trying to understand information that instructors provide in class. Sometimes that information is clearly understood. Most of the time, though, it comes through in patchy and incomplete ways as students struggle to grasp new concepts.

Students consider questions posed by Ward Lyles (in the background)

Maletsky offered another analogy between the Lego exercise and teaching: Good teaching requires instructors and students to bring together many pieces, put them in the right order and create a coherent whole.

“That’s not easy,” he said.

In the diversity workshop that Lyles led, participants grappled with questions of student motivation, preconceived ideas, student perceptions, and class climate. Toward the end, he asked the undergraduate assistants to think about things they could do to help foster an environment that encourages learning.

The student who told his fellow participants not to be jerks said he spoke from experience. An undergrad TA in a class he took in a previous semester was pompous and unapproachable, souring the atmosphere for many students in the class. He vowed to approach his job in a more appropriate way.

Other participants offered these suggestions:

  • Relate your own experiences so that current students better understand how you learned course material.
  • Call students by name.
  • Find something unique about each student to help you remember them.
  • Pay attention to student struggles.
  • Be an ear for instructors and listen for potential problems.
  • Work at leading students to finding answers rather than just giving them answers.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

 It was excellent advice not just for undergraduate assistants, but for anyone working with students.


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

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

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.

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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

Mannequins have been a part of health care training for decades. As Matt Lineberry of the Zamierowski Institute for Experiential Learning demonstrated recently, though, those mannequins have become decidedly smarter.

Lineberry, director of simulation research, assessment and outcomes at the Zamierowski Institute, spoke with faculty members and graduate students in the educational psychology department in Lawrence, explaining how health care simulation has evolved into highly sophisticated mechanism for gathering data about students’ performance in a variety of medical settings.

The Zamierowski Institute, part of the University of Kansas Medical Center campus, expanded immensely with the opening of the new Health Education Building this fall. It now has spaces where students practice emergency room care, intensive care, operations and other aspects of medicine in realistic settings.

Mannequins are a key part of the learning process. The most sophisticated models, which cost about $100,000, simulate lung sounds, heart sounds, cardiac arrest and a variety of ailments. Students can use ultrasound, feed in catheters, deliver electric shock for cardiac arrest, and administer medication. Software that works with the mannequins gathers dozens of types of data and can even measure the type and dose of medication injected into the simulated patients.

Joseph Chapes, an e-learning support specialist at the Center for Online and Distance Learning, uses ultrasound on a smart mannequin as Vanessa Schott of the School of Nursing feeds in a catheter.

Students also work with actors who take on the roles of “standardized patients” for practicing interpersonal skills. Actors also play family members and colleagues to help doctors and nurses gain experience with interaction. In some cases, the actors wear gear that simulates injuries.

As students work, cameras capture video from many angles. That allows students and instructors to review students’ responses and interactions.

Lineberry said the training had helped cut down on response times in emergencies. He gave an example of a highly trained team of student doctors and nurses who went through a cardiac arrest simulation at the center. For defibrillation to be effective, he said, it must be administered within two minutes of a heart stopping. The team took about seven minutes to administer defibrillation, though. That was eye-opening, Lineberry said, but it demonstrated the value of having hands-on training in a setting where patients aren’t at risk.

The center’s approach has become common not only in health care but in other fields that have adopted augmented and virtual reality. For instance, Case Western Reserve’s use of Microsoft’s Hololens has transformed its teaching of anatomy. Augmented reality has provided architects and engineers new ways of creating and testing prototypes. A digital rendering of Pompeii by researchers at the University of Arkansas has provided new insights into ancient culture. And K-12 schools have found that virtual reality field trips improve students’ retention of information.

Those are just a few of the ways that educators have been using technology to enhance learning and understanding. As with the mannequins, that technology will only grow smarter.

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New studio opens in Budig Hall

Information Technology and the Center for Online and Distance Learning opened a new studio in Budig Hall this semester. The studio provides expanded space for creating instructional videos. It includes a green screen for recording video and a lightboard, which allows instructors to write on a pane of glass as they work through problems or provide demonstrations for students.

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.