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Yvonne Abraham

Innovative teaching gets boost at Harvard

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / April 19, 2012
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Chances are, if you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars to send your kids to Harvard University, you don’t want them to wind up in prison while they’re enrolled.

Unless they’re in Kaia Stern’s class, in which case, going to prison is a requirement.

In 2008, Stern and another Harvard sociologist approached Boston University’s longstanding prison outreach program with a bracing idea: What if, instead of just delivering classroom lectures about incarceration, Harvard taught a class on the topic inside the medium-security state prison in Norfolk? And what if the Harvard juniors in the class enrolled alongside students in the BU program (who are actually incarcerated)?

The prison and the state Department of Correction said yes, and now, Harvard affirms that verdict: The program won a grant this week to expand, part of a nearly $2 million bonanza for innovative teaching ideas that will benefit 47 projects university-wide.

The money comes from a recent $40 million gift from Gustave and Rita Hauser, longtime supporters of the university who are prodding it into updating its teaching tactics. It is part of a broader move by many universities to expand beyond dry classroom lectures.

There’s plenty of enthusiasm for the move at Harvard, judging by the 255 applications that came in for this round of grants.

Some of the 47 winners - chosen by a nine-member faculty committee - rely on technology that barely existed a few years ago.

There’s a “virtual dissection’’ course at the medical school, for instance, and a social media project that will use “badges’’ to illustrate how well students are progressing through course work.

There is also a visually striking archive of digital news reports, photos, videos, and other documentation of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster. The project’s chief creator, historian Andrew Gordon, envisions using the archive as a teaching tool, allowing teams of students to curate their own digital collections and post them on the web rather than submitting traditional research papers.

There is even one project dedicated to saving the lecture, or as the project’s title has it, “our oldest teaching asset.’’ Don’t get rid of it, argues education professor Robert Kegan: make it better. With the grant money, he will attempt to do that with his own lecture-based course.

But science historian Peter Galison, whose lectures are popular at Harvard - he teaches a wide-ranging course on Einstein - said he was planning to drop the lecture format entirely because “it isn’t addressing students in a way that makes the best use of the skills this generation has.’’

Instead, he will use his grant to redesign his course so that students watch two short videos a week whenever they like, then use their classroom time to work on virtual experiments and group writing projects.

The videos, he hastened to add, would be appealingly produced - not just his old lectures, delivered and “filmed from the back of the room.’’

Though many of the projects aim to revamp or expand specific classes, at least one is trying to flesh out an entirely new area of scholarship: the science of teaching.

“We’ve measured quite a lot about student learning, but we haven’t done the same, especially in cognitive neuroscience, specifically for teaching,’’ said Vanessa Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate in education who is working on the project. “We’ve been disregarding the fact that teachers, like students, are individuals with different brains.’’

So Rodriguez will use her grant to lay that scholarly groundwork, starting by interviewing master teachers, both at Harvard and in elementary, middle, and high schools.

“What are they focusing their minds on when they teach?’’ she said. “We don’t know, because no one has ever asked.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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