Instruction at the Leading Edge
In September 2016, Tom and Lisa Blumenthal P ’19 endowed Barnard’s Fund for Innovation in Teaching (FIT) to encourage professors to push the boundaries of traditional instruction and to test new ideas in education, all with the aim of enhancing students’ learning experiences. To date, the Fund has underwritten seven projects, many of them with outstanding results.
One of these projects belongs to Associate Professor of Environmental Science Brian Mailloux. He’s used FIT funding to create videos for his hands-on, “flipped-classroom” model of pedagogy in his Big Data for Python course. (Python is a complex computer programming language.) Rather than delivering in-class lectures on programming, Mailloux now asks his students—who come to the course with no programming background—to prepare for class by reading the course packet or watching a series of instructional videos he developed about each session’s fundamental principles. The students then work on coding activities during class in order to learn with an instructor present. “They are learning by doing,” he explains. With FIT’s generous support, Mailloux was able to purchase a new computer and software to create the instructional videos his students use and to launch a new podcast series next year that will help students develop a firmer grasp on the material. The students like the reverse classroom setup and find that it’s an effective way to integrate coding into environmental science. “I use examples that are pertinent,” he adds. From tracking atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over time to mapping sea-surface temperature levels, Mailloux uses data directly from his own research or from other environmental scientists so his students can learn how to analyze real data, much as they would while working as professionals in the environmental field.
FIT has also underwritten other work in computer programming. Lisa Son, associate professor of psychology, and Rajiv Sethi, professor of economics, will use their second FIT grant to build a new Coding Fellows Program, modeled after Barnard’s highly successful Writing Fellows and Speaking Fellows peer-mentoring programs. (For more about the Speaking Fellows program, see our "Elements of Eloquence" article in this issue.) The pair will offer two new, FIT-funded courses as well: Coding Markets and Coding Cognition. The Coding Fellows Program, set to begin in the 2019-2020 academic year, will provide computer-programming training to a group of advanced students who will then commit to working with their peers as they seek to incorporate coding into course projects and research.
“The FIT has enabled us to demonstrate that coding is not a niche skill,” Sethi says. “It’s something everyone at Barnard can develop, in much the same way we expect students to develop writing and speaking skills.” This funding is “fostering an environment in which students can become truly independent in their own learning, in their lab courses, or beyond Barnard,” Son adds. “This program shows they’re here to learn and learn for the long term.”
The idea for the Coding Fellows program grew out of a 2016 course that Sethi and Son designed and offered also using FIT funding: Computer Programming for Behavioral Sciences. Created for students with little or no programming background, the courses were designed for students who want to learn how coding is used to conduct research in economics and psychology. Thanks to FIT funding, Barnard is now among a handful of colleges in the nation to offer coding to economics and psychology students.
Courses like Son’s and Sethi’s also instill in Barnard students the confidence to create, design, and watch what they build as it goes into practice. “Coding is very difficult learning,” Son explains. “But by the end of the semester, the students can’t believe how confident they’ve become and how much they’ve learned. Because this course is taught at Barnard and is primarily for women…it’s counteracted any kind of anxiety with any kind of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] learning that women sometimes experience,” Son explains.
Projects supported by the Fund have encouraged bold risk-taking based on sound reasoning, but they have also adhered to the Blumenthals’ philosophy that learning should be fun. That was the idea Biology Professor Brian Morton had in mind when he developed a smartphone teaching app for his Molecular and Mendelian Genetics course. “My students seemed to really enjoy using their phones, so I figured an app made sense,” he says with a hint of humor. He had already begun work on the app when the FIT funding came through. The financial support enabled him to develop the app further. The end result: “They love it,” he says. The Gene Tutor App was initially developed to be a study tool with content that was tailored to the way Morton teaches his course. Built to be user-friendly, the app includes study materials he wrote. Morton realized the next step would be to turn the tool into the equivalent of a textbook, making it a central component of the course.
“The FIT grant will allow me to further develop the app as a full-fledged pedagogical tool, which has never been done before. It will be the first in the field of genetics to serve as an actual course tool, not just as a supplement to a course,” he adds. To ensure wide applicability and usage, the app’s elements will be created in collaboration with Jennifer Mansfield, associate professor of biology. The two professors have noticed that the app has already helped students improve their problem-solving skills. In its expanded form, the app will be a virtual tool for hundreds of science students on campus and will also be available to thousands of others at colleges and universities across the country through Apple’s App Store and Google Play. For Morton, building and developing the Gene Tutor App has been a diverting and interesting experience. His students appreciate his tailored content, especially the practice questions: “To make things more engaging, I asked my former students to send me their pictures. So when current students work on multiple-choice questions, they get these playful pictures as a kind of feedback—a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Now the app is kind of a time machine! It’s like a history of the course.”
It is the future of courses as well. As Morton and his colleagues have demonstrated, with the generous support of Tom and Lisa Blumenthal, learning at Barnard is increasingly cutting edge and fun. •
Born in Dhaka and raised in Brooklyn, Jenn Chowdhury ’06 is a writer and storyteller.