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Educational innovation at CALS: An Inside UW interview with Brad Barham

After Brad Barham finished his term as chair of the University Committee, he looked around the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and realized someone needed to help advance the college’s engagement with the chancellor’s initiative on Educational Innovation. Barham, professor of agricultural and applied economics, has spent the last two months talking with department chairs and other CALS leaders about what they’re considering, as well as what they’re already doing, on this front.

Inside UW: What have you learned about Educational Innovation within CALS?

Brad Barham: One department that’s been innovating successfully for some time is the Department of Food Science. They’ve developed a number of professional short courses, everything from custom candy making to dairy chemistry. These short courses are aimed at industry professionals, but undergraduate and graduate students are involved in them in various ways. Sometimes they facilitate exercises, help with logistics or may also be participants in the classes. It’s a real integrated industry-campus experience. Students end up with networks and job possibilities out of the connections they make, and industry people love it because they not only get exposure on campus to the faculty and training, but they also get to engage with students and feel part of the UW experience. These professional training courses are reflective of the spirit of Educational Innovation and they are already well down the pike as a major food science enterprise.

IUW: What kind of a response are you getting?

Barham: It’s varied. One issue I’m going to bring back to the CALS leadership is that Educational Innovation may require us to think deeply about how to coordinate across faculty and departments in the college and campus. This need could dovetail also with strategic planning process that is occurring this year.

One example of faculty innovation has been on getting students directly engaged with complex global issues through short ‘study abroad’ trips that are often connected to regular classes. Dairy science professor Michel Wattiaux has been innovating in this area this for some time, taking students to Mexico to study issues of sustainable dairy production in diverse ecological locales. Other faculty are pursuing similar complex global issue in other contexts, and they often struggle with the logistical, administrative demands of organizing these initiatives. Increased assistance from CALS administration might help here to help scale up this approach.

Another example that cuts across the whole campus is finding a better way to manage the teaching, advising and other needs of biology students than we have so far. Everyone recognizes that’s been a big area of discussion, but for students in CALS and L&S, it is certainly a front-and-center issue for educational innovation. Moreover, without resolution of the organization of biology majors, other initiatives are hard to put on the board for many CALS units because they will not be sure what resources they have to work with, and how much work they will have to do to respond to the students they have now.

A third example of much needed cross-department coordination is that many departments want to expand professional certification programs and educational workshops that could in turn lead to professional master’s programs. The College of Engineering and the School of Business have done this for a long time, using weekends, evenings and summer programs. I could see that being done for environmental and conservation professionals with CALS departments like soil science, forest and wildlife ecology, and agronomy working together. Probably no single unit can carry this forward, so it will take a coordinated effort. Across departments, those initiatives can be challenging, but they could be rewarding at many levels if well designed and executed.

It is also fair to say that some CALS units are saying, “We can’t imagine doing more than what we do now without increased resources or letting go of something we do now.” Indeed, that is part of the challenge, really thinking about whether the status quo of what we do needs to be reassessed. In my own home department, agricultural and applied economics, we’re looking at our undergraduate and graduate curriculum to see if we can make those work in a way that is more effective for students and may free up some resources for other things if we have courses we can consolidate or eliminate because we don’t see them as central or if the enrollments are low.

IUW: Why is there a need to rethink how education is being delivered?

Barham: This is a great time to do this. There have been a lot of changes in pedagogy that people have experimented with and proven that they can make the classroom and overall learning experience more effective. There are gains to be made by coming in to the 21st century and not using Power Points as an old-fashioned chalkboard, but having students use class time in a more engaged way by getting materials in their hands ahead of time. Perhaps students arrive most days and take a quiz to make sure they’re prepared to do the interactive work on the course material. That would be a nontrivial change of culture for teachers and students alike to ‘invert’ the classroom, study material at home, start class with quizzes, and move onto interactive engaged learning exercises. There are going to be some bumps in the road, but the time is right. There are many faculty and departments with the potential to make innovations. It is my hope that if they understand that if they generate some savings in current resources, generate new resources, and/or enhance learning outcomes that they can capture those rewards and make use of them. That’s something we’re not as used to at the university on the teaching side, but we do know how to be entrepreneurial. Just look at our research track record if you have any doubts about that. It would be great to see faculty, departments and colleges unleash some of that entrepreneurial energy in their Educational Innovation efforts.

This change of culture that the chancellor and his administration are trying to introduce and advance will take time and people really have to understand and take seriously the incentives that are out there. I believe that if they do, we will see important changes that improve our fiscal situation and the quality of learning outcomes we provide.

IUW: What have you learned as you’ve incorporated this yourself?

Barham: I’ve done a lot to try to change the way I teach to bring more student engagement through small group exercises and presentations and stopping to have them talk to each other on key questions rather than just plowing through my lecture material. It’s pretty rewarding as a professor to do it but I have mostly done it in classrooms with 35-50 students. If I had to do that in a class with 150 students, I’d need a lot of help. If you’re going to focus on engaged learning in the classroom with large numbers of students, you need more teaching assistants or other professional facilitators in the mix. This in turn means that we need to think about different ways of organizing some of our classes to achieve that type of engagement. Again there are examples across the campus. In CALS, we have engaged-learning oriented freshmen courses with lots of teaching support. To scale up this model across the college and campus poses significant organizational challenges. I believe we can address them if we work closely together and continue to learn from one another.