New Class Structure Offers First-Years Experiments in Learning

Mary Margaret Robison-

First-year Collaboratory participants applied to the program’s limited spots during the summer of 2017 and developed close relationships with one another and faculty members. Photo by Suzanne Churchill

In the past year, a new program for first-year students has revolutionized interdisciplinary learning. The Collaboratory program combines intimate student-faculty relationships with classroom innovation to give students an intellectual community that crafts success.

In its inaugural run last semester, fifteen students participated in the program, along with four professors from the Biology, English, and Writing departments, as well as the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies Department. The faculty involved included: Dr. Annie Merrill, who taught Introduction to American Literature; Dr. Barbara Lom, who taught Experimental Embryology; Dr. Shelley Rigger, who taught Revolutionary Literature and Politics; and Dr. Suzanne Churchill, who taught Revolutionary Writing.

Its creators hoped the program would not only provide a set schedule for fifteen selected students, but also provide an opportunity to demonstrate the congruence between arts and sciences, a hallmark of a liberal arts education. The faculty behind the program connect their fields across classrooms to give students a holistic learning experience. 

Churchill spoke to this; “Students might apply what they learn about writing in WRI 101 to their essaying in ENG 110, write about what they are studying in BIO 103 in their essays in WRI 101, and adopt the technologies they learn about in CIS 150 to projects in BIO 103.”

Additionally, coordination between the faculty allowed students to schedule Design Thinking workshops and Group Skills activities that applied to their studies and future goals.

Ellie Enichen ‘21 said the collaboration between faculty left her feeling as though “the professors desired not just to teach us, but rather learn with us.” 

Enichen and Cole Moore ‘21 both explained that all Collaboratory learning was discussion-based. Enichen said this allowed students to “learn from your peers,” and that she always walked away from discussions feeling she had “gained new, valuable insights.”

Additionally, students were encouraged to not only apply their education in sciences to the arts, but also to the outside world.

Daniel Thomas ‘21 stated that the students were encouraged to “apply our own meaning to text(s) as we look deeper into the political, social, economic, and environmental aspects of each text.”

Another crucial aspect of the Collaboratory program was the fluidity of the classroom. Students embarked on travel experiences that gave real-world context to what they were learning within Davidson. The group traveled to: Charlotte, to learn about North Carolina’s racial history; Boston, to learn about transformative American authors and visit the African American museum; Savannah, to bring southern literature to life; and to Washington D.C., to talk to researchers and explore museums and monuments.

Thomas said these trips were his favorite parts of the program, as the connection to what was taught within the classroom was always relevant in travel.

Moore spoke of the wonders of bringing the classroom to life, as he said students “were able to teach each other what we learned and retain much more knowledge than we would in a traditional classroom.”

The student-faculty relationship within the program assisted in aiding the learning experience as well. Within this 15:4 ratio, Churchill described an intellectual community in which “people were excited to learn and explore new ideas together,” and even furthermore, “encourage students to guide their own learning,” “get out of their ‘comfort zones’,” and “embrace failure.”

Thomas also spoke of this intimacy, saying that professors embraced the new program themselves and have been excited to learn alongside students. Additionally, Thomas described a weekly anonymous forum in which students could express how their weeks went. Students were allowed to discuss any topic of choice, from personal stressors to academic qualms.

Because the program was in its first semester, students were unsure what to expect from the Collaboratory. Thomas reflected, however, that the reality of the program exceeded all expectations he previously held. He was exhilarated by the “utmost respect” faculty gave students, and how they sought to “help each of their students to the best of their abilities.”

Moore also spoke that he was surprised at the “extremely close relationship” he was able to foster with his professors that aided his development throughout the program.

In addition to a new way of learning and close relationships with professors, students were able to take away many valuable lessons from the Collaboratory program. Moore said Collaboratory has taught him to “listen to what everyone has to say” and to “engage in respectful and thoughtful conversation” because through that “you can gain a tremendous amount of insight.”

Thomas also explained that he has learned valuable lessons, especially in the power of teamwork. He said, “The program fostered a community of support and intellectual curiosity—qualities that are integral to all students.”

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