Ohio University

Search within:
A professor speaks to a group of student in a classroom

Synergies in Teaching and Learning

The following story is the second in a three-part series about projects currently being supported by the 2017 cycle of the Academic Innovation Accelerator. These projects already have made significant strides at OHIO. Each project is unique and made possible by many different teams of University individuals working together. Read the first story in the series.

by Emily Baxstrom
July 2018

Connecting the dots

As a young boy, Athan Vouzianas was unsettled by the complexities of the night sky. But as he started learning about space, he began putting together the formations—seeing patterns and constellations. In a similar way, he recently started seeing opportunities for connections and interweaving in his teaching—student learning opportunities that could go beyond his classroom.

Vouzianas is a lecturer of engineering and technology fundamentals in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. His students in the “Overview of Engineering and Technology” class complete engineering discussions, calculations, and reflections, but when it comes to putting those ideas down in writing, they struggle. At the same time, Vouzianas’s students are taking a “Writing and Rhetoric” English class in which they work on projects and papers. “I wondered, what if we marry the two classes?” said Vouzianas. “We could ask the students to write something that’s meaningful to them because it helps them in their discipline. It’s such a win-win situation.” He calls this idea Synergies in Teaching and Learning.

Vouzianas wants to tie his daily teaching and learning practice to Russ College’s slogan, “Create for Good.” “When I teach engineering mechanics, how can I enrich my teaching so ‘Create for Good’ becomes obvious through calculations?” he said. He began looking at the role of the educational system and what it should be trying to achieve.

Grounded on Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1983), Vouzianas realizes each one of his students is characterized by a multiple-intelligences profile that affects their learning. “These profiles are fluid and change based on the students’ accumulated experiences and instantaneous stimuli, so they implicate the teaching and learning process,” he said. He believes the profiles change shape dynamically by the push or pull of the different intelligences’ forces.

In an attempt to define the role of education, Gardner also suggested that educators aim to cultivate the “five minds for the future” in their students (Gardner, 2009). “I perceive the five minds for the future as forces converging to the greater good—I consider them the attributes of Russ College’s ‘Create for Good,’” said Vouzianas.

Vouzianas performed an engineering-inspired three-dimensional analysis of “Create for Good.” He suggested the notion be resolved into three main components: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), social responsibility, and liberal and fine arts.

Three-dimensional analysis of "Create for Good."
Vouzianas performed an engineering-inspired three-dimensional analysis of “Create for Good.”

“The teaching of engineering is, primarily, composed of STEM activities. To graduate engineers who ‘Create for Good,’ it is imperative that we equivalently incorporate liberal arts, fine arts, and social responsibility activities in the curriculum,” said Vouzianas. He emphasized it may seem that these activities are already built into the curriculum in the form of social sciences, humanities, and art electives the students are required to take, but these electives are mostly compartmentalized and disconnected from STEM, making it difficult for students and professors to draw meaningful connections to engineering learning and “Create for Good.” “Synergies in teaching and learning place pedagogy and curriculum at the intersection of STEM, social responsibility, and liberal and fine arts,” said Vouzianas. “This will nurture the students to become the Renaissance Engineers (not technocrats) who Create for Good.”

Creating synergies

Linda Rice, professor and chair of the English Department in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Master of Arts in English online for high school teachers, has been an instrumental partner in Vouzianas’s project. They currently are co-creating a “synergy” between their two courses: ET 2800, “Overview of Engineering and Technology,” and ENG 1510, “Writing and Rhetoric I.”

The synergy will be approached like a learning community: There will be a set number of students designated to take both courses simultaneously; the engineering course will have specific homework, projects, and assignments that bridge with writing assignments in the English course. “We still will be working on all the writing fundamentals—argument, idea development, perspective, logos pathos ethos, these kinds of crucial things in writing courses,” said Rice, “but there also will be a draw-in of specific content that engineers might realize is synchronous with what they’re learning in engineering.”

Another example of a synergy could be a course project to build a bridge that connects two properties at a community nonprofit organization. Students might know the engineering behind the bridge—they may think they can simply go in, build it, and be done. However, Vouzianas emphasizes the importance of not just using the engineering principles to build the bridge, but of really getting to know the people and how the bridge will be used. There might be certain components that end up being designed differently based on knowing more about the people and circumstances. “This very human component is such a key part of solving problems,” added Rice.

The Renaissance Engineers, a student organization founded by Vouzianas, takes into account these different connections. The group’s mission is to “Create for Good in the community by solving problems with the application of our engineering knowledge and skills.” For example, they have led workshops for local children at area libraries in which they teach kids engineering concepts through projects such as building flashlights or making silly putty, or they program a robot to interact with children with autism. There is a sense of service learning along with learning the engineering concepts.

“I think engineers should be trained not to be the technocrats who just create the technology solutions,” said Vouzianas. “We should be engineers who solve problems for the world. We’re trying to take this concept of renaissance engineers beyond just the student organization; we’re trying to graduate renaissance folks into the outside world.”

Diagram of concepts from Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences”
Diagram of concepts from Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” and how they relate to Russ College’s tagline, “Create for Good.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Ohio University is going through a transformative time; Rice noted she has seen increased value placed on interdisciplinary studies and collaboration, especially considering the current University priorities and Strategic Pathways. By establishing synergies, efficiencies are created; faculty can share resources, approach curriculum in new ways that connect real-world problem solving, collaborate with businesses and industries, and give students the edge in life after OHIO.

“As faculty, we each have our own tier and departmental requirements—we teach these classes in a very compartmentalized manner, which makes it difficult for the students and teachers to draw meaningful connections,” said Rice. “Our effort through the synergies is to tear down the barriers and make sure the humanities and liberal arts are embraced in the daily teaching of STEM.”

Rice noted this barrier removal depends a great deal on faculty—that the mindset of those involved is key in course collaboration. “Engineering is creative just as the humanities are creative,” she said. “I’m looking for how I can learn from engineers and engineering principles, just as engineers look for how they can enrich and grow their thinking through the liberal arts and humanities. The open mindset is really important on both sides so there isn’t this sense of ‘we have it and we’ll help you get there.’ We all have much that can enrich the other.”

Reaching out to other courses for collaborations allows faculty to design more meaningful activities for students; students can be exposed to additional tools and skills they need to have, viewing what they learn through different lenses. “Connecting these different colleagues gives us a way to model to our students how synergistic the world actually is,” said Vouzianas. “Students can have a meaningful learning experience and figure out how to problem solve and Create for Good.”

Gaining support

Vouzianas attributes his project gaining momentum to the 2017 Ideation Event. He attended this event with a few ideas, and after sharing and discussing topics with other faculty, they came up with a list of items that allowed them to write and submit a formal proposal for the Academic Innovation Accelerator (AIA). After the proposal was accepted, Sylvia Mickunas, project manager in the Office of Instructional Innovation (OII), began helping Vouzianas manage his ideas and processes through budgeting, creating a timeframe, arranging meetings, and more.

“Given that the tide is turning a bit in favor of interdisciplinarity and collaboration, faculty should take advantage of the opportunity posed by the next Ideation Event,” said Rice. She added that with all the things that compete for faculty’s time, it is easy to be intimidated by all of the barriers and reasons why something wouldn’t work. “We’re not drawing on a lot that isn’t already at Ohio University. You’re being given access to some resources you might not have thought you had direct access to. Don’t let the barriers stop you.”

“OII is really stirring the pot in my head,” said Vouzianas. “The AIA has stirred up my thoughts, so they start to melt together and sprinkle out; you get the smells and tastes all in the experience.”

Next steps

In addition to their short-term deliverable of a common curriculum for ET 2800 and ENG 1510, Vouzianas and Rice are working to create a framework that eventually allows more courses to partner in a similar fashion.

They have formed a Faculty Learning Community with individuals who are interested in synergy efforts. Participants are from a variety of colleges, including engineering, health sciences and professions, education, medicine, and arts and sciences. The group will meet throughout the fall of 2018 to discover the connections between the University and industries, both course-to-course and across colleges and departments. Once these synergies are ironed out, the group will clarify what training is needed. From there, the training will be shared across the institution. “Hopefully, this will become a well-oiled machine for additional faculty and staff to go through,” said Vouzianas.

“We’re not discovering anything ground-breakingly new. We are choosing and picking in a meaningful way so we can move forward in becoming a transformative institution.” said Vouzianas. “With these synergies, we should be able to look at the University mission and vision and say this is something that truly makes sense to do for our students.” 

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of innovative instructional models that fulfill the University’s promise of a transformative educational experience. OII provides a variety of services to faculty, staff, and students in support of academic units and online programs, as well as to advance initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.