Cindy Fair, Tony Crider, Haya Ajjan and Jean Rattigan-Rohr shared their innovative scholarship, insights into teaching and approaches to community engagement at Elon Talks: Faculty Voices.
Four faculty members showcased their expertise on Friday in a series of “TED Talk”-type presentations that celebrated the people, resources and connections that make Elon a strong community.
Kenn Gaither, associate dean of the School of Communications and professor of communications, moderated the event, which was part of the celebration of the inauguration of Connie Ledoux Book as Elon’s ninth president.
Watts-Thompson Professor of Public Health Studies and Human Service Studies
“The experience truly changed the trajectory of my life”: The power of undergraduate research
The relationship that teacher Annie Sullivan formed with Helen Keller, who was left both deaf and blind after an illness when she was a baby, had an impact on Cindy Fair.
In her presentation, Fair referenced an iconic moment in the movie about Keller’s life, “The Miracle Worker,” when a young Helen standing at a water pump with her teacher first understood the sign for water. “Her understanding of the world profoundly shifted that day,” Fair said.
That water pump scene is an accurate depiction of Fair’s undergraduate research mentoring process, she said. “When I begin to work with my own students, I encourage them to be open to ‘water pump’ moments—moments when there is unexpected enlightenment and awakening,” Fair said.
Fair, who in her own research examines how children with pediatric HIV transition to adolescence and young adulthood, has mentored several Elon students with their own undergraduate research. She referred to her “happy place” as the intersection of her scholarship, research and the teacher-mentor relationships she shares with her students.
When Fair was working with Jamie Albright ’13, she was studying the reasons why young people living with HIV did or did not want to have children. At the same time, Albright focused on the reproductive health information that doctors shared with that same population.
Albright interviewed a 19-year-old woman and during a routine question—how many children do you have?—the woman burst into tears. The woman went on to share that she had become pregnant at age 15 and gave the baby up for adoption, a story she had never shared with anyone outside of her family. At the end of the interview, the woman thanked Albright for allowing her to share her story. It was in that moment that Albright realized she had a “gift and interest in helping people tell their stories as a way to heal from trauma,” Fair said.
Albright is now a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia and will propose her dissertation next week. “It is such an honor to walk alongside students as they begin to take ownership of a question and make previously unmade connections at their own metaphoric water pump,” Fair said. “I can imagine how Annie Sullivan felt as she watched her pupil take the world by storm.”
Professor of physics
“Taking Games Seriously,” or learning from scenarios and immersive play
They might be fun but games are being taken seriously in education.
Tony Crider has been using them in his classroom for more than 10 years as a form of experiential learning.
He started using Reacting to the Past games in 2007, which involve students working in teams to debate big ideas that emerge from classic texts by Plato, Confucius and Galileo. “Think of it as Model UN on steroids and with a time machine,” he said.
Crider discovered by studying his own students that these “games” had a serious impact on who speaks in a class and how often. “Anyone who’s taught or even been in a classroom knows that some students are prone to talk less and often and there are one or two students that talk a lot,” he said. “Over the course of a well-designed Reacting to the Past game, both the number of people who speak and the number of things said increases day by day.”
Another thing that Crider and his colleagues learned from these games in the classroom is that competition matters to students. If one team was certain to win and another to lose, both sides quit preparing for class. “The driving factor was the competition,” Crider said. “The instructor’s job is to keep it interesting.”
In 2012 Crider started co-teaching with Anthony Weston, professor of philosophy. They taught a class together about the scientific and philosophic ways humans look for extraterrestrial intelligence. In part one of the final exam given in that class, students were confronted with a black 8-foot monolith and four video cameras in an empty room.
“What would you do?” he asked the audience gathered in the Great Hall at Global Commons.
“They touched it,” Crider said. “They took selfies with it. They knocked on it to see if we were inside.” Part of the class then scouted campus looking for a second monolith. A few remained behind to look for clues.
“After 90 minutes, they knocked the monolith down and treated it like a conference table,” Crider said. “With no prompting, they started to ask and answer questions that would make a teacher proud.”
What did we learn in this class? How has this class changed us as people? Do we actually believe in aliens now?
Throughout their work in the class, students realized that sometimes humans aren’t very kind to others they deem inferior. “And they promised themselves not to be like that,” Crider said.
In part two of that same final exam, students entered a backyard with three chickens, a table, three barbeque chicken pizzas, three-cheese pizzas and a bowl of sunflower seeds. “When faced with a ‘planet’ of chickens, nearly all of them quickly ate the chicken pizza and ignored the sunflower seeds, which could be eaten by humans and chickens alike,” he said.
Considering lessons learned in the classroom and conversations they shared about how humans treat life forms they deem inferior, Crider expected a different outcome. “I was hoping they would not eat alien pizza in front of the aliens,” he said.
Regardless, Crider said experiential assessment is important for instructors. “We should always try to figure out not just what students say they learn but what they actually learn,” he said.
Associate professor of management information systems
The growth and impact of the Center for Organizational Analytics
Are we preparing our students for the future?
Haya Ajjan said it’s a question that professors must continually ask. One way that Ajjan has strived to offer this preparation is with a multi-disciplinary innovative curriculum for analytics. “I wanted to bridge the gap between the theory in the classroom and practice,” she said.
Elon offers analytics programs, from computer science to math and statistics to media analytics. Ajjan decided students could benefit from all the programs working together.
“Those programs had the potential for a lot of synergy and I was confident that if we could all get together, we could learn from each other,” she said.
But she wanted there to be a hub that would connect them all to make collaboration seamless. She proposed creating a center for analytics and worked to recruit 11 corporate sponsors and analytics faculty.
“Today we have 18 faculty and 17 students working on seven real projects that solve real problems,” she said. “The work enables us to bridge the gap between what we do in the classroom and what students do with our clients.”
Students from computer science, math and statistics, business and media analytics are all working together to come up with solutions to problems. “It is amazing the ideas that come through when students from multiple disciplines look at the same problem using their different lenses,” she said.
Students have worked to improve data processing time for insurance companies from three days to three minutes. They have analyzed Internet of Things data to help restaurants predict food illness outbreaks before they happen. They have collected more than 72 indicators to build a snapshot for global engagement of citizens in North Carolina.
“The quality of their analytics work is inspiring, excellence acknowledged by all our clients, including Ben Martin, the chief officer of advanced analytics at Hanes Brands, who has described how impressed he has been by how quickly the students reach high-quality decisions,” Ajjan said.
The collaboration and hands-on learning that has occurred because of work with the Center for Analytics, which launched in spring 2016, has had a significant impact on students.
“My students always tell me that when they go for job interviews, they are not just talking about classroom experiences,” Ajjan said. “They are highlighting the positive impact their work has had on our partners and sharing the feedback they have received from executives of those companies or from government leaders in North Carolina.”
Executive director of community partnerships, director of the Center for Access and Success, and professor of education
Higher education and the pre-K-8 space: Is there room in which to grow?
Statistics tell us that children who come from low-income households often struggle in school.
As founder of the “It Takes a Village” Project at Elon, which uses a collaborative approach to help children in the community who are struggling to read, Jean Rattigan-Rohr understands that the work they do in the program is in response to two questions: How can we help? And what might we be able to do together?
“We have asked and over the years, friends, colleagues, students and community members have responded with great enthusiasm and in significant numbers,” she said.
The program grew from its original concept and in addition to reading, children are participating in Science in the Village and Music in the Village. In the spring, Engineering in the Village will be added to the mix.
A new faculty member had asked Rattigan-Rohr how she could get involved. “She couldn’t imagine how the little time she could spend would make a difference,” Rattigan-Rohr said and gave a compelling example as a counter argument.
This past summer, Brandon Sheridan, an assistant professor of economics, taught Economics in the Village to a group of fifth-grade students. The children created their own business—a lemonade stand—developed their own advertising and marketing plan, figured out how much they could charge per cup to make a profit and voted to donate the $750 proceeds to a charity.
At the start of the program, students were asked what steps they would need to take to be a millionaire. Hard work, get a good job and “put your money in the bank so you don’t lose it” were among their answers. At the end of the two-week session, Sheridan asked the same question. The answers—buy and sell stocks, start a business, become an owner of a company and put your money in the bank to earn interest—were very different.
“Look at the difference in the discourse,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “It’s as if these ideas, concepts and language did not exist for these students until they were in the program.”
Sheridan is teaching the same course this fall. This time it’s to a group of fourth-grade students and their parents.
“It is difficult for schools to do it all when the need is so deep and so wide,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “But this I know: When institutions, such as ours, decide to come along side classroom teachers and school systems and lend a hand for students who, for whatever reason, find learning to be daunting, we can make a difference.”