VPTL’s 2018 Grant Showcase Highlights Faculty Efforts to Advance Teaching and Learning at Stanford

| VPTL News

2018 Grants Showcase

A series of presentations at VPTL’s 2018 Grant Showcase demonstrated the breadth and depth of innovation underway in teaching and learning at Stanford while helping inform and inspire the 2018-19 cohort of VPTL Innovation Grant awardees.

New grant recipients learn about last year’s successful projects

VPTL Innovation Grants empower Stanford faculty and instructional teams to explore new directions in course, curriculum, and digital technology development and support priorities expressed by their departments, programs, centers, and schools.

The 2018 Grant Showcase, held April 27th at the SIEPR Koret-Taube Conference Center, featured a representative sample of recently completed projects and highlighted the program’s potential to drive both targeted advances in on-campus learning and faculty engagement with learners in the wider world.

While the event drew faculty, staff, and students from across campus, it held a particular interest for the 17 teams awarded Innovation Grants for the 2018-19 academic year. After hearing the talks, the new awardees joined the presenters in a series of roundtable discussions, gleaning valuable pointers to methodologies, contacts, resources, and tools that might help their new projects succeed.

A new gateway to the study of religion

Many grants support departments in rethinking their core classes. A project led by Religious Studies Senior Lecturer Barbara Pitkin and Department Chair and Professor John Kieschnick, for example, aimed to reinvent their department’s gateway class, RELIGST 1: Religion Around the Globe.

“Our challenge was to think of an engaging way of offering an elective course that would also draw students into the major,” Pitkin said in introducing their work. It also had to be a class that many different faculty members could teach, depending on their commitments in any specific year.

With both funding and input from VPTL, a faculty team designed a new class that began this quarter. It surveys six major world religions over a quarter, balancing an understanding of the tenets of each faith tradition with an appreciation of their lived cultural practices and the ways in which they are depicted in the media.

The course is already enabling students do excellent work, added Kieschinck. “Best of all, they are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of religion as we work our way through the course,” he said.

Illustrated thermodynamics

Grants also foster experiments in instructional media. A project led by Alberto Salleo, associate professor of materials science and engineering, and Petr Johanes, a Ph.D. student in learning sciences & technology design, turned to an unusual medium to provide students with a creative and engaging way to confront their own misconceptions about foundational principals of thermodynamics: the graphic novel.

“Thermodynamics presents some very deep concepts about the fate of the universe and material transformations,” said Salleo, “but really the mathematics can be pretty simple.” Despite this, it can be hard even for graduate students to grasp the sometimes counterintuitive principles behind it. And yet concepts like entropy and crystallization, it turns out, can be explained very clearly in graphic terms.

Working with VPTL staff and a visual artist from Stanford’s School of Visual Arts, the team published “The Phoenix Corps,” an interactive novel with both a compelling storyline and background information on the key scientific principles it engages.

The novel employs a modular design that allows it to be reworked by others, noted Johanes, giving it a potentially wider range of uses in other Stanford courses and beyond. More broadly, Salleo added, the project has shown that “the graphic novel is a medium that can be researched and shown to have an impact on learning.”

A pre-calculus refresher

Professor of Mathematics Brian Conrad and Lecturer Susie Kimport used their grant to develop a tool that helps calculus students succeed before they set foot in class. The pair had noticed that students bring very different levels of experience to their first calculus courses on campus. Even those with high school calculus credentials often turned out to be missing some of the fundamental conceptual and algebraic building blocks they needed to do well in their more advanced classes. “We wanted to try and figure out what could we do to address these missing pieces,” Kimport said.

Their solution was to build an online tool that acts as a mini-, pre-calculus refresher course. It features short videos explaining key concepts and an opportunity for students to work through problems in those areas to test their understanding.

Overall, the tool has proven effective when students engage with it. To help raise awareness, Conrad and Kimport have linked the refresher to the department’s online calculus placement diagnostic test (itself created with VPTL assistance). Students who perform poorly on specific pre-calculus sections now get a tailored email recommending they look at, and complete exercises in, the relevant area of the refresher. 


Raising awareness of nuclear terrorism

Perhaps the most wide-reaching of the featured projects was “The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism.” Professor Emeritus of Management Science and Engineering and former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, wanted to raise awareness of and present options to mitigate the risk of a nuclear terror attack. The result is a five-week, public online course developed by Perry and his non-profit foundation, the William J. Perry Project. It ran as a TA-supported online class in the fall of 2017 and remains available in self-paced form to learners around the world.

The course breaks new ground in a number of ways, noted David Perry, education director for the William J. Perry project. It features a rich array of expert contributors including academics, politicians, scientists, and civil servants. It also depicts students taking part in model seminars and deploys non-traditional media content such as animated “explainer” videos to provide greater depth of technical knowledge.

Above all, the project stood out in its core aim of incentivizing civic engagement by participants.  “That’s not typically the kind of thing you see in an academic course,” Perry said, describing the team’s goal of encouraging learners to mitigate the danger.


Facilitating information literacy

The final presentation detailed an effort to help Stanford students think critically about the information they absorb. Recent researchhas revealed that despite unprecedented access to online content, students often struggle to accurately judge the credibility of information, observed Kamran Naim, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education. To address this, Naim and Professor John Willinsky, director of Stanford’s Science, Technology and Society program, designed a new class aimed at helping students navigate an increasingly challenging media environment. “It’s getting harder to tell what’s true, what’s biased, and what’s outright deceptive,” Naim said.

With the aid of their VPTL grant, they developed what became STS 151; The Future of Information. The course prepares students to navigate the “post-truth” world by developing the diagnostic, data-mining, and fact checking skills they need to be critical information consumers. It also helps them understand information flows in a modern research landscape where peer-reviewed publications compete for attention with pay-to-play journals.

During the class, students work together as news story fact checkers and take deep dives into the structures of specific news organizations to understand the social, political, and financial forces that help determine their editorial points of view. 

Looking to the future, Naim reported, “We now have support from VPTL to take components of the course and develop them into online modules that will be licensed to other users and can be modified and adapted for use in other courses at Stanford.” 


Student voices help drive innovative teaching

The event ended with a reflection on the value of student input. “Ideally, all of us who are teaching think about how student voices can help us shape our work early on in the process,” said Petra Dierkes-Thrun, assistant vice provost for strategic initiatives at VPTL, noting the role students had played in the development of each of the projects being highlighted.

Johanes explained that former students in Salleo’s thermodynamics class were invited to offer feedback at multiple stages in the creation of The Phoenix Corps. “That influenced how we ended up producing a lot of the final product,” he said. He added that it was important to be transparent with students about the learning goals, especially when you are trying something new and unusual. Because he and Salleo were clear about the intentions behind their project, their students were very receptive to working with the new approach to teaching the subject.

Religious Studies teacher Barbara Pitkin said that focus groups with students who had taken earlier iterations of Religion Around the Globe really helped refine its development. “We involved our grad students, too,” she said, “since they would be TA-ing the class.”

“It’s a privilege to support these faculty- and department-led projects through the VPTL Innovation Grant program,” said Andy Saltarelli, senior director of instructional design, research and evaluation for VPTL, at the event’s conclusion. “Today’s presentations are excellent examples of how faculty are exploring new and creative ways to engage students and help them succeed—and I think they’ll be an inspiration to our 2018-19 grant awardees.”