Immersive Learning: What it looks like and why it matters, Part 2

Immersive Learning: What it looks like and why it matters, Part 2


April 1, 2016

A few months ago, I shared some of my thoughts on the ways that student learning and faculty research are intertwined at a research university like the UA. I argued for the importance of an immersive learning environment, particularly in classroom and curriculum design, and tried to show why the collegiality of the university environment and faculty members' technical expertise in research methods are important contributors to student learning.

In this post, I would like to continue that discussion by examining the links between faculty research and what we have called student engagement at the UA. My aim is to show why the professional expertise that faculty develop in particular content areas, coming from their training and research endeavors, is critical for student learning. If immersive learning in the classroom prepares students to deal with the complexity of the world, engagement experiences test and deepen that knowledge, and faculty expertise is profoundly important to that process. In short, the point of this post is to demonstrate why student engagement benefits from faculty research and why it is important for students to learn by studying with faculty members who are working at the forefront of human knowledge.

Student Engagement – Immersive Learning in New and Varied Settings

As I have written previously, the UA's 100% Engagement initiative has a specific goal of providing every student the opportunity to apply what they have learned in formal settings like the classroom in the less regulated, the more dynamic, and the more unpredictable environments that they will encounter throughout their lives. The role that faculty knowledge and research play in this learning process is crucial, and at the UA it has borne wonderful impact for our community and opportunities for students and graduates.

One recent example from the UA's College of Optical Sciences illustrates the impact in the lives of students: Brian Wheelwright, a Tucson native and optical engineer, graduated from the UA with a Bachelor of Science in optics. During his undergraduate career he worked in two labs, one curating an antique optics collection and another through the space grant program. After graduating Brian worked for a defense engineering firm before returning to the UA for a PhD in optical sciences. In that program, he had one of the UA's premier faculty members, Roger Angel, as his advisor. Known for innovating the unique mirror construction that has helped make the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab a world leader in giant mirror construction, Dr. Angel is also one of the driving forces behind REhnu, the company developing solar power modules that I discussed in my December blog post on the UA innovation ecosystem.

Dr. Wheelwright's success is an example of what we should seek to achieve with every student: During his time as a PhD student, he generated 4 patents in the area of solar optics, doubling the efficiency of solar energy gathering. While his dissertation focused on this same area of research, Dr. Wheelwright's deep understanding of specific areas of optics that inform solar energy collection technology has many other applications. It is based on this experience and expertise that he now works at Oculus, a tech company that recently released the Oculus Rift, a Virtual Reality headset that has the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with computers in much the same way that REhnu's technology has the potential to revolutionize the solar power industry.

Learning at the Forefront of Knowledge: Does it Really Matter? – (Yes, it does)

Brian Wheelwright is just one example of the talent developed here at the UA because of the immersive learning possibilities available. His story demonstrates the great benefits that can come from students working with faculty who, as I have described it before, are on the leading edge of human knowledge. But why exactly does this matter? Why is deep knowledge and exploration important for student learning? As academics we sometimes take for granted that research drives teaching—a point I do not question—but it is important to show (rather than tell) why mentoring relationships and engagement experiences are so important and why it is crucial that faculty are themselves still continual learners. 

The UA's College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture (CAPLA) is a wonderful example, in part because of its history as a professional college. CAPLA students have always had hands on learning opportunities, with a studio-based curriculum, materials lab where students and faculty can work on projects alongside one another, and hands-on capstone projects for both courses and degree programs.  As a result, CAPLA's placement rate for graduates is perennially at or above 90%, an admirable outcome to say the least, and one that has been further bolstered in qualitative terms by the recent intensification of CAPLA faculty research. This intensification, from a low of around $600 thousand in expenditures in 2013 after the Great Recession to double that amount in 2015 is an impressive and important indicator of CAPLA's ability to find new partners. This uptick also implies new knowledge being created that can then be imparted to students and used in many different communities. However, this model for the transmission of knowledge is not the only way to understand the impact of research on student learning. This is because, in addition to creating new knowledge or new ways of doing things, academic research often adds a consideration of the modes of thought or methods of understanding that inform professionalized innovation. In this regard, CAPLA faculty members' work has been especially impressive in recent years.

I want to share two examples:

  • Student learning emerges through faculty members' deep understanding of the relationship between academic discipline and professional practice. Research drives not just what students learn, but how they come to think and approach the challenges of life and work, both in terms of professional practice and the values it reflects. Here, the work of Assistant Professor Chris Trumble, of the School of Architecture (SoA), provides a useful case study, and other recent projects illustrate that this is an ethos of collegiality and collaboration permeating the SoA.
  • As with the impact of individual faculty research, programs and curricula also can emerge from and respond to the confluence of disciplinary knowledge, professional practice, and community need. Here, my example will come from the development of CAPLA's Sustainable Built Environments degree program, an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to design that draws on the UA's other strengths in areas including environmental sciences, philosophy, public policy, and many others.

The Design-Build Pedagogy: Embracing Messiness to Create Beautiful and Pragmatic Structures

A licensed architect and UA faculty member, Chris Trumble's research on structures in nature and their use as sources of design principles directly influences his frequent design and building courses. 

For instance, Trumble is currently teaching a studio that is part of a multi-university project, “Thinking While Doing: Connecting Insight to Innovation in the Construction Sector.” Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the project is made up of three intertwined stages, the first of which is the construction of a gridshell structure at the UA and three other universities.

Here at the UA, the gridshell is being built on the west side of the CAPLA building, as a new entry and gathering area for students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the College. Throughout the process, Professor Trumble is focusing on two goals: 1) getting students to experiment with new design techniques based on the nature of functionality in design and on functional precedents in nature itself, and 2) emphasizing the relationship between design and construction, so that, rather than designing a full structure and then making the reality as close to that design as possible, he teaches students to pursue a recursive process known as design-build, in which designing and building a structure inform and influence one another.

The importance of this philosophy of design-build has to do with the history of architecture as a profession. Trumble's courses and student engagement projects emphasize integrated project delivery, a model in which everyone involved with a given project has a place at the table from the beginning to the completion of a project. In the past, where only owner, architect, and contractor would be involved in planning discussions, now subcontractors, neighbors, and many other stakeholders have a role in planning and, critically, in the reevaluation of planning and design as the build process goes forward. Architects are forced to deal with the messiness of actually building a structure, and their design work becomes much more holistic and reflective of the build process as a result. Trumble says that only 4% of architectural firms use this approach, but 80% want to.

Collaboration and the Disobedient Structure

The Thinking While Doing project has the potential to fill the need for students capable of working in this new model, and Professor Trumble's deep knowledge of the relationship between designing and building a structure—knowledge based in experience as a working architect and scholarship and teaching as a faculty member—will help to make this potential a reality. By participating in the grant project, students are able to see the value of collaboration that involves many components and stakeholders, each of whom embodies a particular skillset and area of expertise.

The project's design helps further this outcome as well. Trumble calls the gridshell a “disobedient structure,” and the one at the UA particularly so because it is being built out of steel rebar rather than wood due to the area's climate. This construction means that the gridshell is initially planned and then assembled flat on the ground before being raised into place for welds to be completed at the joints of the various bars that form the grid. The complication—which is also an incredibly valuable teaching opportunity—is that as the gridshell rises into place, the joints move around and the precise measurements made initially must be reevaluated. Thus, students learn that there are real consequences for their decisions at the initial design stage, and that even if they are as accurate as possible, circumstances from the build process may force unexpected changes. As a result, students gain appreciation for the complexity of the build process and all people involved, encouraging their understanding of how the different professions, skills, and perspectives must come together to complete a successful project.

The Value of Studying and Learning from Experience 

This stage of the Thinking While Doing project is valuable alone, and the experiential learning opportunity that it provides is exactly the kind of thing that the UA and other public universities need to promote for graduates to be successful. However, there is further potential in part because Trumble's students are going through this specific learning process as architecture shifts from an era focused on digital design methods to a new, as-yet undefined moment in which digital design is just one tool and integrated project delivery is a promising approach but not the only one. The potential for students to be leaders in this new moment in the profession's history is tied to the Thinking While Doing project's investment in the experiential nature of inquiry itself. Trumble's work reminds us that empirical research, which is the basis for the modern scientific method and many of its scholarly counterparts, is rooted in observation and experience. Studying experience and learning from it grounds the academic enterprise as we know it.

Thus, the learning process of these students drives the second stage of the grant project, when the methods and outcomes of the four different university teams will be used to create a database of best practices that can be compared and applied in different settings, including a summer-long project in which the four university teams will come together and build a fifth gridshell. Taking things a step further is the third stage, where human ecologists are using a process known as discourse analysis to examine the decisions made during the construction of the five gridshells and better understand the nature of collaborative decision making at the heart of the integrated project delivery approach. With this interlocking design, the three stages of the Thinking While Doing project reinforce one another's impact in several important ways:

  • Students' experiential knowledge of the integrated design-build process will provide important insights when they are practitioners after graduation.
  • Students' work provides the basis to study both teaching practices and collaborative processes for building new structures.
  • The insights gleaned from the project will guide future courses.
  • Because they have experience and will be more comfortable with the messiness of the design-build process, Trumble's students also are more likely to be comfortable with working at the frontier of knowledge and method.

As Trumble puts it, his students will be in a position to be agents of change, helping the 80% of architectural firms that want to use integrated project delivery move to that approach. These students will also be better prepared to deal with new uncertainties as the profession and the world it helps to shape continue to change. Thus, participating in faculty research does not just give students the most up-to-date knowledge so that they are at the forefront of capability when they graduate. It also them experience creating new knowledge and then applying it, experience they can use in an academic or other professional settings.

The School of Architecture and Collaboration, Not a One Man Show

While exemplary in the best sense of the word, Professor Trumble's work is not the only example of student engagement that has grown out of faculty members' professional expertise at the School of Architecture. Two other current project highlights how this approach to collaboration can have such valuable impact.

  • First, in a recently completed project, licensed architect and SoA instructor, Brad Lang led students as they worked with leaders of the Navajo Nation to learn about the Navajo Code Talkers famous for their bravery and unique efforts in World War II. They then collaborated to design a museum and center that will honor the Code Talkers' service and help continue their legacy. The impact of students' work is extended by the fact that the Navajo Code Talker Association is using the work done by CAPLA to fundraise for this center. The project is an example of how the UA's location in Arizona, its historic leadership in American Indian Studies, and the innovation of faculty members can create unexpected student engagement opportunities with real impact. 
  • Second, as part of the upcoming five-year update to the UA's Campus Master Plan, Courtney Crosson, also a licensed architect, is working with the UA office of Planning, Design, and Construction while teaching a studio course focused on sustainability. The course asks students to design a Net Zero Energy + Water District on the UA campus, an area that will generate an amount of energy and water equal (or greater) to the amount used on site. Comprising 5 buildings of varied use in the heart of the UA's campus, the district will integrate students' work, daily life, and recreation in a site that will be a living laboratory for sustainability and environmental regeneration. Through this course and others that will follow, students will help give shape to the University's future and they will gain valuable experience dealing with the complexity of planning in the multifaceted context of a major research university. With the entire Campus Master Plan, UA leaders are asking deeper than common questions about the relationship between the campus infrastructure and the goals of the Never Settle Strategic Plan. Thus, the value of student involvement for the UA's planning and design team is that students have four years of accrued observations from living and studying on campus, and because of the distinct perspective they have on the University, they will bring deep and unique insights to the professional team that would not be available with traditional focus group or committee evaluations.

The Sustainable Built Environments Program: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Multiple Scales of Design

Tracing the connections between teaching practice and changes in the profession demonstrates how faculty members create unique student experiences through their research and scholarship. CAPLA's Sustainable Built Environments (SBE) program illustrates how this same dynamic can emerge in the formation of a new program.

Launched in 2012, the significance of the SBE program is rooted in the UA's identity as a research university, much like the UA's undergraduate STEM initiative. One important difference is that the STEM initiative's innovations come from its participants' application of research skill to study student learning, while the shifts in pedagogy with the SBE program are rooted in faculty members' (inter)disciplinary knowledge of the design professions and related areas of inquiry.

The SBE program offers several programs, both in person and through UA Online. Prior to the SBE program's approval, CAPLA had only the Bachelor of Architecture undergraduate degree program (and several graduate programs), and College leaders—including the program's director, Ladd Keith—wanted to offer an innovative degree that considered different scales of design: individual buildings, communities, and landscapes. The SBE program brings together the three disciplines that make up the College to better understand the relationships between those scales of design and then apply that understanding to design challenges posed by climate change, resource consumption, and many other contemporary issues that designers have to face.

The SBE program is also distinct in its relationship to the science of sustainability. Focusing on design as a pragmatic exercise, the SBE program's approach requires that students question their own assumptions about sustainability and the impact of designs and structures on the built environment. For instance, while many of us would assume that because a new bus line will offer more options for transit and more seats, it will increase ridership, cut down on traffic congestion, and help improve air quality as a result, the pragmatic element of the SBE program's curriculum requires that students approach this kind of question with a more holistically. A student or graduate from the program might broaden their view to consider the entire transportation system, focusing on what investment in transportation would be most appropriate, whether bus lines, light rail, bicycle lanes, improved pedestrian sidewalks, or other options. In doing so, they would evaluate cost, traffic reduction, increased economic vitality, reduced pollution, and public health improvements. To bring together this complex set of variables requires that students collect and use evidence to illuminate the situation and make an informed decision. 

Combining this methodology of evidence-based design with the multiple scales of analysis means that SBE practitioners will be able to better address the challenges created where different elements of the built environment intersect and overlap. SBE students will, for example, be able to analyze how a home built with sustainable design principles should interface with citywide infrastructure like a power grid. They will also be able to determine how that home should be positioned within the landscape of a particular lot to best harness the daily arc of the sun for heating in the winter or utilize rainfall runoff as a resource. This scalar flexibility means students will be prepared to lead whatever versions of the design professions emerge in the years to come. It also means that the applications of their professional knowledge have the potential to bridge with many other areas that faculty did not anticipate when they created the program. For instance, many SBE students have become involved in urban agriculture at the UA. With the particular skill set that they have gained from the SBE program, they can discern and track the interaction of different components of the built environment and are able to take important leadership roles in groups like the Compost Cats or projects like the UA Community Garden. Along with the ingenuity of students, this potential comes from faculty leaders understanding the current limits of their discipline's knowledge base and then designing a program that responds creatively to extend those limits through the confluence of research and teaching.

Integrated research and teaching, the modern research university, and public impact

CAPLA is just one college. Other examples of this interaction between research and teaching abound at the UA and at other public research universities. Thus, when we say that funding higher education provides an enormous return on investment, it is not just dollars into state economies. Harder to enumerate, but equally important is the continued capacity for our society to understand accurately and rigorously the serious challenges we face so we can address them through truly collaborative approaches to shared work. Both the individual examples of faculty research and teaching in the School of Architecture and the Sustainable Built Environments degree program in the UA's College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture achieve this more ineffable impact, and they are profoundly impressive examples of what the University and our peers should be working to achieve every day with students, through research, and in our broader communities.

The history of faculty professionalization that I discussed in my September blog post is crucial for this impact. Without the unique specialization of knowledge, and the close ties between research and teaching that faculty professionalization have enabled, the impact that we need from public universities would not be possible. At public research universities like the UA, students are not just learning content that is on the furthest limits of human knowledge, they are learning what it is like to work at those frontiers. As a result, they know how to push boundaries, to question received assumptions, and to create new and innovative solutions to the challenges they face, whether they work outside the academy or pursue careers as teachers and scholars.