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Redefined Center: Better Teaching, a Provost Grant

Annual conference shares faculty innovations


Janelle Heineke says the upcoming Instructional Innovation Conference will showcase “a lot of innovative things” in BU classrooms. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

What do Satan, the Red Sox, and the Archangel Gabriel have in common?

They’re all teaching aids in Adnan Adam Onart’s class on Islam at Metropolitan College.

Onart will join other professorial standouts at the second annual Instructional Innovation Conference on Friday, March 26, to explain how creative connections like this kindle students’ passion for learning.

The conference comes as the sponsoring Center for Excellence in Teaching is segueing to a new name and Web site: the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching, reflecting a mission reboot to focus on tech-enhanced teaching innovation.

Among its tasks, the rechristened center will administer a new grant competition, funded by the Provost’s Office, to inspire creative changes in introductory undergraduate classes.

The conference, open to anyone at BU, drew 141 attendees last year.

“We know that there are always a lot of innovative things happening around teaching at BU,” says Janelle Heineke, faculty director of the center and a School of Management professor and chair of the operations and technology management department. “We thought it would be a good idea to have an opportunity for BU faculty to share their ideas.”

Speakers were chosen after submitting proposals detailing innovative classroom techniques. Those selected “had the broadest implications for other courses” and had been road-tested in classrooms, Heineke says.

Onart, a MET lecturer, teaches Panorama of Islamic Ideas: Faith, Reason and Ideology, an evening class drawing many working professionals. His challenging question: how to teach the complex Sufi view of Iblis (Satan), who in Muslim tradition was condemned for disobeying God’s order to prostrate himself before Adam — even though that defiance fulfilled another command, to bow only before God.

To probe this conundrum, Onart takes students to a local watering hole — figuratively.

He has them write a dialogue, set in a Fenway sports bar, between Iblis in a Yankees cap and Gabriel in a Sox shirt. The supernatural duo must debate Iblis’ choice and, as an aside, determine whether being a Yankees fan invokes supernatural retribution.

Other speakers will share techniques for simulating real-world experience in the classroom.

Robert Cadigan, an associate professor of applied social sciences at MET, and Stephen Soreff, a lecturer with MET’s Prison Education Program, teach empathy for drug addicts in their Drugs and Society course. They ask students to abstain from a favorite diversion — coffee drinking, smoking, text messaging — for two weeks, analyzing the effects in a daily journal.

Or how about giving students a taste of the future by running them through a job interview? James Wolff, an associate professor of international health at the School of Public Health, and Monita Baba Djara, academic services coordinator for the SPH international health department, do just that as part of their course Designing and Managing Programs for Maternal and Child Health in Developing Countries. They adapt a real job description for a health coordinator and conduct interviews, a “practice-based” tool imparting such skills as researching an organization and demonstrating expertise.

The newly renamed and refocused center reflects new realities.

“Traditionally, the center served as a repository of information for faculty seeking improvements or details about best practices,” says Victor Coelho, associate provost for undergraduate education and a professor in the College of Fine Arts. But new technologies, from e-portfolios to mobile devices, are spawning “innovative pedagogies and different types of learning strategies,” he says. The new center will design instructional methods and help faculty implement them.

The recently released One BU report recommends that the center use grants and workshops to jump-start new teaching and assessment strategies in courses. With the center redesign, “we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” says Coelho.

In addition, a new grant competition, RULE (Redesigning the Undergraduate Learning Experience), funded by the Provost’s Office, seeks to seed innovations in high-enrollment undergraduate classes. Future RULE grants may be available for other courses, Provost David Campbell says.

Successful proposals will get up to $30,000 a year for as many as three years, according to Coelho. The number of grants will depend on the applicant pool. “If we had 10 great proposals, we would probably fund them,” he adds.

The grants “will require the commitment by a department to design, develop, and maintain the new version of the course over many years, along with building in an assessment module,” says Campbell. An information meeting for all deans and department chairs on April 2 kicks off the application process. Grant winners will be notified by November 1. Information is also available here.

The second annual Instructional Innovation Conference runs from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. on Friday, March 26, at the Metcalf Trustees Ballroom, ninth floor, One Silber Way. Reserve a space by e-mailing here by March 23.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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