Students find a variety of lessons through experiential learning

Reading and writing about other cultures and social interaction came easily to Iva Dimitrova, a third-year anthropology student at the University of Georgia. It was the idea of going out and interviewing strangers in the field—anthropology in practice—that really scared her.

But after spending a semester in the field in Costa Rica last fall, that fear turned into confidence, she said. Things came into focus when she helped conduct an oral history project about Costa Rican grocery stores. Dimitrova got to practice skills she had only talked about in class, and she loved it.

“Finally, after two years of studying I get to see how it all comes together,” Dimitrova said. “It gave me the confidence to see that this is what I like, and I wanted to do it.”

Not every college student gets to have this kind of clarifying experience, but UGA is considering a strategy to direct students toward similar practical learning opportunities, at home and abroad, through a proposed experiential learning requirement for all undergraduate students.  The goal is to nudge students toward getting better prepared for work or graduate education and becoming more confidence in their abilities.

“Each experience… would help students connect foundational knowledge to real-world challenges, hone critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and build confidence and civic responsibility,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead in announcing the proposal during his State of the University address in January.

The plan is moving through the faculty governance process and is expected to be voted on by the university council later this year. Details are still being worked out, but, in the initial proposal, the requirement could be met with an internship, a research project or a study-abroad trip.

Nationwide, employers have been complaining that recent college graduates are unprepared for the workforce in areas like communication, teamwork and problem-solving, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Employers said they were more likely to consider recent grads who had “participated in an internship, a senior project, a collaborative research project, a field-based project in a diverse community setting with people from different backgrounds, or a community-based project:” all hands-on learning opportunities listed in the experiential learning proposal.

If approved, the experiential learning requirement would set UGA apart from its peers, said Tom Jackson, the university’s vice president for public affairs.

“The program will give students an experiential opportunity that is matched by few large public research universities in America and without adding to the number of credit hours needed to graduate.”

Jackson said there are a lot of “what-ifs” that will be worked out in the planning process. And one challenge could be finding enough experiential opportunities for students, especially for those in the humanities. After all, where do a history, English or anthropology majors find experiential learning opportunities relevant to their disciplines?

Toby Graham, the head librarian at UGA, said campus libraries already offer a variety of research and hands-on learning opportunities for students through internships and fellowships. They could offer even more if needed, he said, which would be a win-win for students and researchers in the university’s digital and special collections librarians.

“We have seen in the past that these have been great experiences for students, and they also bring some great people in the library,” Graham said.

Mikala Bush, a fourth-year psychology and public health double-major, said she gained valuable experience as a student worker at the Peabody Award archives, which is housed in the UGA Richard B. Russell Special Collections Libraries Building. Bush helped organize a screenings and exhibit for the Peabody Decades project last year, searching for video clips through the Peabody Awards archives centered around the 1960s.

Compared to a class assignment, Bush’s role in Peabody Decades project gave her more control over her learning experience.

“In a class, most of the time, you can’t pick the syllabus, the curriculum or the subject,” she said. But that’s exactly what she did for her screening project.

After Bush graduates in May, she’s hoping to join the Peace Corps. She thinks her experience researching and then facilitating an event like Peabody Decades will be useful if she gets a spot overseas.

For Dimitrova, her experience in Costa Rica helped clarify her career goals. She has added a second major in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication so she can work toward becoming an anthropological documentary filmmaker.

Dimitrova said she supports an experiential learning requirement because some students like her, who can be timid about finding learning opportunities, need to be pushed toward the kind of experiences that enriched her education.

“Everything seems so daunting,” she said, “until you actually do it.”


Students of history: Role-playing pedagogy engages students with history, complexity

The giddy energy circulating through the auditorium of the college lecture hall made the “People, Parasites and Plagues” class feel more like an elementary school play than the large science course that it was.

While delivering speeches about a cholera outbreak, some students—including some of the women—are sporting fake moustaches and employing accents that sound like they just finished watching a Harry Potter movie marathon.

The students are offering hypotheses for the outbreak. Some blame “bad air;” others claim the disease is spreading through blood. Both the outdated and reasonable arguments draw a mix of cheers and jeers from classmates, including some shouts of “pish posh” and “hogwash.”

Big science college lecture classes aren’t supposed to use fake moustaches and bad English accents. They aren’t supposed to be silly, either. But in this student-led role-playing game re-enacting—or really reimagining—the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in London, the classroom definitely is engaged.

The fun and game have a purpose, said Julie Moore, a professor of infectious disease in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine.

“The exercise for the students is to really explore these different historical view points of disease,” said Moore. “It’s an opportunity for students to really understand the basis for this kind of (scientific) controversy and gain an understanding of how our concepts of disease have really changed over time.”

The game is part of a pedagogical strategy called Reacting to the Past, which places students in the role of historical figures at a pivotal moment in history. In each of these games, there are arguments to be made, compromises to be struck and decisions to render.

Reacting to the Past has been around for decades. But now the teaching strategy is undergoing a revival in UGA classrooms—especially in science, technology, engineering and math courses—as a way to get students to think more deeply about complex material.

Naomi Norman, Meigs Professor of Classics and director of UGA’s Reacting to the Past Program, said Reacting to the Past creates “a very dynamic classroom,” where students not only participate but get emotionally invested in the material. Norman recently was named UGA associate vice president for instruction.

Reacting to the Past pedagogy originated in the history department of Barnard College, which may explain why many of these games revolve around the kind of events you learn in high school social studies classes, like Plato’s Republic or the French Revolution. However, increasingly games examine historical debates in science and health care policy.

For each game, instructors assign roles. Students must research historical figures, write speeches and collaborate—or conspire—with other students outside of class. The students’ goal is to “win” the game in class, or have their historical figure’s goals realized.

Sometimes the instructor gently prods the class to keep conversation moving and encourages students to negotiate deals with other classmates in and out of class. But mostly, the instructor lets the students lead and watches the game unfold.

One lesson from Reacting to the Past is that history does not always repeat itself. Sometimes the Loyalists win the day in revolutionary New York City; sometimes Octavius fails to become Caesar Augustus; in the case of the game in Moore’s class, sometimes London government officials don’t replace the pump that led to the cholera epidemic.

“It’s the clearest way I know to show history is not linear,” Norman said. “It could be different.”

But Reacting to the Past is more than a lesson in historical perspective.

Fausto Sarmiento, a geography professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said the game also helps students learn how to construct an argument.

“Intellectually, students are encouraged to fight with ideas,” he said.

Sarmiento, who was named a UGA Reacting to the Past Fellow in 2014, is teaching an Honors geography course this fall that will use a game based on the Copenhagen Accord, an agreement made among nations in 2009 to lower emissions in order to slow climate change.

Students won’t just play the role of scientists; some will be politicians and economists vying for a voice in climate change policy.

“In the real world, environmental policy isn’t only made by scientists,” Sarmiento said.

The appeal of historical role playing, whether it’s in a science or humanities course, is that it allows students to grapple with complexity.

“They face a problem with no clear answer, and they have to work with different people and come to a solution,” said John Burney, vice president for academic affairs at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska. “To get beyond just memorization of facts, Reacting is a powerful tool.”

Burney is chair of the Reacting to the Past Consortium, a collection of 38 member institutes, including UGA, that share information about the pedagogy and develop games.

Back inside the Veterinary College auditorium, class time has ended. In a typical class, students would probably be rushing out the door to the next class. But in this class, even as students remove the fake moustaches and ditch the English accent, students are still talking about cholera and still trying to find an edge to win the game.

Alumni Association’s executive director ushering in new era of giving

Meredith Gurley Johnson’s entire adult life has been spent studying at or working for UGA—and oftentimes both.

Johnson, executive director of the UGA Alumni Association, graduated from the university’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences in 2000. She’s also working on a master’s degree in adult education in the College of Education.

As an undergraduate student, Johnson wanted the kind of career path that would let her “make a difference.” While still studying for her bachelor’s degree, she took a full-time job in the central development office where she learned about the connections between students, alumni giving and the university’s success. That’s when Johnson found her life’s work in higher education advancement.

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Eradicate word misuse in infectious disease story

Dan Colley, director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging, visited our Health and Medical Journalism class on April 16 to give some helpful tips to reporters covering infectious disease news stories.

During the talk, he listed terms often misused by journalists—such as virus, bacteria and worms. These words often are used as if they were interchangeable.

Journalists also confuse drugs, which typically treat a disease, and vaccines, which usually are taken before you contract a disease (although this isn’t the case with rabies).

Another set of misused terms are the ones referring to how well public health officials are dealing with an outbreak.

Control, elimination, eradication and extinction describe how much sway public health have over an infectious disease.

–       Control means they haven’t gotten rid of the disease, but they’re keeping it in check.

–       Elimination means they have gotten rid of an infection in a defined geographic area.

–       Eradication means the disease is gone, and there is no need for surveillance.

–       Extinction means the disease is “really” gone, not to return.

As for extinction, Colley said, “I don’t know what that means in the days of Jurassic Park.” Scientists are cloning and reviving once extinct disease in the labs—so it’s doubtful whether any infectious disease has a good chance of becoming extinct. Even eradicated diseases, such as small pox, are still kept in high-security labs.

The problems with misusing the words, Colley said, are that it confuses the public and it kind of ticks off the experts.

Journalist likely tend to misuse words for two reasons: 1) ignorance or laziness (it’s not that hard to look it up or ask and 2) to avoid word repetition.

Good writers love word variety and using the term vaccine in two consecutive sentences feels repetitive. It seems easier to just drop the word “drug” in there for variety’s sake. But being factual should always take precedence over style.

While Colley has published thousands of articles in academic journals, he estimates maybe five people read each article (probably an understatement). Whereas journalists’ stories about these infectious disease have the potential to reach millions (probably an overstatement).

Hyperbole aside, journalists have a responsibility to accurately inform readers about serious public health issues like infectious diseases.

“Don’t screw it up,” Colley told us.

Cold Leads

Thanks to a grueling, but rewarding course in graduate-level Mass Communication Theory (JRMC 8010), the American Psychological Association (APA) will always be synonymous with a style of academic citation that I find unnecessarily confusing.

But an assignment in my Health and Medical Journalism course offers me graver view of the APA. The assignment was to write a 700-word article about what patients need to know about talk therapy for depression. We were working with an editor from WebMD, and our assignments needed to be in the style of article that would appear on the website. I have to be careful about what I reveal about the assignment because everything about WebMD, including instructions for writing at a fifth-grade reading level, are proprietary.

What I can say (I think) is that I needed two expert psychologist to be sources for this story. I immediately went to the APA website to find their public affairs contact information. It was a bank holiday so I left a message. A few days later, I managed to get public affairs representative who promised to send me a list of names of prominent psychologists who had agree to talk with the press.

There were eight names. I Googled them all to figure out who knew what and how to reach them. One of the people no longer worked for the clinic the list said he did. He had quit at least five years prior, according to the woman I spoke with on the phone.

I was having hard time finding another name, one listed as W. Alonso from Cambridge, Mass. After several tries with the name, I finally came up with Anne W. Alonso—and an obituary. Dr. Alonso, a well-respected psychologist at Harvard and Mass General, died in 2007 APA had sent me a name for someone who had been dead for seven years.

In the end, I wasn’t able to interview any of the names on the list—most ignored my emails and phone calls completely, and others begged out, saying they didn’t have time or weren’t experts on the topic I was writing about. But APA did give me some help. The Meninger Clinic in Houston, which no longer employed the psychologist on my APA list, did offer me another expert, allowing me to complete the assignment with an hour or so to spare.

Breaking point

Even as someone who spends a lot of time paying attention to health-related news, it’s not always real to me the kind of devastating impact that poor health and injury can have on individuals and families. I can pity these people in the abstract without actually people able to place myself in a similar situation.

But everyone once in a while, it becomes real again.

Less than two weeks ago, my mother-in-law broke her hip. She was walking back to her office from her lunch break, turned her eyes away from where she was going, tripped on a curb and took a nasty fall. It took almost a week for the pain to get bad enough for her to go to the doctor who gave her the surprising diagnosis. A broken hip and she’s not even 60. Now she can’t walk without a walker. She can’t take care of herself at her own house without family members to help. She can’t drive to work.

The news of her mother’s surgery—only a couple of hours notice—sent my wife out of town to Hendersonville, N.C. to play the role of caretaker. And in a matter of days, my cozy home will be occupied by my temporarily crippled mother-in-law. Despite the inevitable inconveniences, I’m happy to help.

What jumps out at me in all of this is not only how fragile our health is, but also how lucky my family is to be so insulated from the worst of this. My mother-in-law has the flexibility to take a leave absence at her accounting firm—just days before the tax deadline. By no means will this won’t be easy for, and she’ll be working her ass off from her computer at my house, but she works for a company with paid leave. My wife has the flexibility to take off of work at a moment’s notice to take of her mother. This wasn’t easy for her either. Making up work has been an arduous undertaking. But all of this leaves me feeling very lucky that a family injury is not going to leave a family member in financial ruin.

My wife’s mom still has a long road to recovery: weeks and months of physical therapy and tons of work to make up. But she has the health insurance to cover it, the financial security to weather this and the family to support her. All of this good fortune, makes it a little easier to understand more concretely that not everyone around me has these resources.

The Fruit Cup Incident

I was shooting video at the Athens Mercy Health Center, a free faith-based clinic, in March to get some B-roll for class project. After chatting with some of the volunteers—local doctors, nurses and students—and sitting in on their nightly prayer before things got busy, I was ready to get some footage of patients.

One of the coordinators helped me find a few patient volunteers who were willing to let me capture footage of their medical exams. One woman, who I’ll call Mary, was nice enough to let me intrude on an exam that she needed to have in order for the clinic to give her a free prescription drug.

While in the exam room, the nurse in training, a local student at Athens Tech, pricked Mary’s finger to get blood drawn to test her blood sugar levels. Mary has diabetes. The blood sugar reading was very high. The student asked Mary if she had eaten anything recently that would have triggered the reading. Mary didn’t remember eating recently. The student nurse pricked another finger for another reading. Still high.

I was getting uncomfortable and feeling like I was intruding. I wouldn’t use any of the sound for the finished product in my video, but I still felt like I had no place listening in to the patient’s confusion about her blood-sugar reading. A few minutes earlier, I needed to leave another exam room because a patient meeting with a dermatologist was trying to talk around some sort of skin rash she was had on her derriere. But I hung around with Mary a little longer out of curiosity, concern and a need to get good enough footage to leave the clinic so I could get dinner. Unlike Mary, I felt like my blood sugar was dipping.

The nurse was considering asking for help and maybe even getting an insulin shot when Mary finally remembered that she had a snack before she got there. It was a fruit cup—she curled her hand into a little ring to show how small the cup would have been. All of the sugar from the juices had apparently shot up the levels of Mary’s blood sugar. The crisis was averted, I guess.

I don’t want to draw too much out of the experience because I don’t know much about diabetes or whether an apple would have been any better for Mary’s blood sugar than the fruit cup. But the little incident reminded me of having fruit cocktails as a kid—that soft, sugary fruit from a can. Until Mary brought it up, I forgot that I used to consider those snacks healthy.