The first assignment, for the General Education course on “Primitive Navigation,” was for students to start at the John Harvard statue in the Yard, walk due west for what seemed 20 minutes with no tools or aids including a watch or phone, and see where they ended up. Probably students had an inkling this wasn’t going to end well. They would end up all over the greater Harvard Square area, knowing they were “lost.” So what?
The professor, John Huth, had filled his course with innovative assignments that students enjoyed and certainly weren’t used to. Another assignment required them to spend hours tracking the sun, but for some students this was vexing: why spend the time when a simple physics principle, or just reading the answer in a textbook, could solve the problem in minutes? Many students were reporting on their evaluations that their exposure to ancient ways of thinking about time and navigation was transformative. But not everyone grasped the relevance of the assignments, and Huth saw a chance to improve them, starting with a better articulation of their underlying rationale.
For one week in July, as part of its summer-long mission in support of the College’s General Education program, the Bok Center's Learning Lab devoted itself to working on Huth's assignments. First Huth came in, and the team, led by Bok’s media, literacy and visualization director Marlon Kuzmick, performed its collective “diagnosis” as Huth talked through his course goals, followed by a brainstorming session. Said a member of the team, Taylor Vandick, a 2016 graduate of the College, “We talked about how there’s a greater goal to this exercise than just getting lost. There has to be an experience at the heart of it.”
That experience seemed to be about how the human mind, in the act of being lost, creates biases. By the Friday of “Huth week,” as it became known, student testers went out on a modified form of the assignment, where the Learning Lab witnessed such behaviors as a tester heading down a Harvard Square passageway certain that “it was there just for him as a sign he was headed West,” and another one, seeing that she was being filmed by the Lab, assumed that she must be on the right path. The “mental maps” the testers drew as part II of the exercise were, in a word, idiosyncratic: one was Harvard Square just by some street names; while another map was the Square by its coffee shops. The maps all contained mistakes of selection and proportion. Students were then given real Cambridge maps and a pack of sticky stars, the kind an elementary schoolteacher might distribute, and told to stick them on their route marking a significant moment or feeling they remembered from that spot. Afterwards the five student testers were bustled into the Learning Lab’s media room for the team to capture their reflections on camera, and Kuzmick asked them about parallel experiences of dislocation. “We’re trying to elicit how it’s like being lost in other walks of life,” said Vandick. “Which is what General Education as a whole is after, that larger thing.” When they reported the story of their week’s experimentation to Huth, successes and failures alike, it prompted scores of imaginative ideas and new directions from the professor himself on where he might take his course.
The Bok Center’s Learning Lab opened in 2015 to work on these sorts of pedagogical problems—opportunities, really—brought to them by faculty. It’s easy to think that something called the “Learning Lab” would be mainly about media and technology, some shiny new thing on the digital frontier that traditional scholars would be wary of approaching. But the solution for Huth’s assignment was about as low-tech as it comes: a sealed envelope for students to take to the John Harvard statue that contained a sheet of written instructions and a small notebook.
The Lab operates from newly-designed space on the 3rd floor of the Science Center that allows for a studio, shrouded in black, whose centerpiece is a large, high table where anything—photos, props—can be laid out, built, and discussed while everything is recorded. Interviews, such as those with Huth and the student testers, are conducted in this room. Many of those brainstorming and interview session videos are put on Vimeo, a sprawling informal archive of whatever innovation and experimentation the Bok Center is working on. “That space in there” is what Kuzmick says is Bok director Robert Lue’s name for the room; Kuzmick himself calls it an “artist’s or designer’s studio with a video studio wrapped around it, a space for making, with cameras there to capture it.”
Before the reconfiguration, which also resulted in a large open or community space immediately outside the studio where anyone can bring a laptop and a chair with wheels and roll up to an impromptu meeting, “We used to set up every shoot from a standard classroom,” said Moira McCavana, another recent College graduate who started interning at the Bok Center in her freshman year. “It was like a cooking show.” The remodeled space was better, more spontaneous, less intrusive or glaring: the sense that you could work with new faculty partners and barely realize the filming was taking place.
Kuzmick’s team works project-by-project, driven by faculty request for whatever problem needs addressing in a course. For the 2016 spring term, Egyptology professor Peter Der Manuelian had his own request for Learning Lab support. To help students engage deeply with a collection of artifacts and consider the relationships between them, he asked students to create a virtual museum exhibition by choosing from among 100 objects from four Harvard museums. Compared to the Huth course, this was a huge undertaking. The 100 models or artifacts had to be collected, logged and scanned. 130 students needed instruction in the 3D computer modeling program, a task that fell on Kuzmick, who offered nine one-hour sessions of the same material, and furthermore had one of those sessions (taped, of course) reduced to a 27-minute refresher video refresher on the course website. “I felt I needed to teach this in person,” Kuzmick recalled. “Teaching involves eyes and ears and watching someone do something. I had to move around the room and show them how.” Finally the Learning Lab hosted a four-hour hackathon for students to complete their museum assignment. “We needed more computers for that one. I was scrounging up machines six, eight years old, reinstalling their operating systems. But the student work was great.”
For Kuzmick, a key lesson was that none of this, in its current form, was sustainable: not him teaching nine hours each time, nor creating his own computer “pop-up” lab. “If we don’t figure out ways to scale, it may just be a prototype. But each time we learn something about teaching and learning. It might not be publishable research, but really this work is about harnessing student excitement.”
Learning Lab staff and faculty together have discovered that art-making is among the best ways to call forth that student excitement and creativity. For their course “The Biology of Plants,” OEB professors Missy Holbrook and Elena Kramer offered an option, using Learning Lab resources and sustained assistance from one its fellows, for students to make objects pertaining to the sporophyte stage of the plant life cycle (which Kramer describes as where “a little part becomes the dominant part”), and then record a 3-minute video “artist’s statement.” “Objects” that now comprise part of the course archive include a rap video based on a tune from the hit musical Hamilton, and, from a Classics concentrator, a fragment of Greek “papyrus,” burnt at the edges and containing a poem in classical style on the different plant forms. Kramer reported herself stunned by the “depth of understanding about the science” to produce these kinds of projects, and was gratified at how the experience allowed Holbrook and her to relate to students “as something more than Harvard students but people who have these crazy talents you didn’t even know.”
For Kuzmick, presiding over this “student enthusiasm machine” and working with faculty in several disciplines throughout the academic year and the summer, the July “Huth week” was the first time the process they’d been refining for one year was “really going according to plan.” Soon summer would be over; some of Kuzmick’s fellows, including his two recent College graduates, would depart, but many new ones will join, including special Media, Literacy and Visualization fellows (graduate student counterparts to the longstanding Departmental Teaching Fellows), and the rate of innovation will take on a new speed and direction. “The Bok Center is really about knowledge production,” Kuzmick says, “and furthermore the Bok has institutional memory. Peter Der Manuelian, Elena Kramer and John Huth don’t know what we’re doing with each other, but we know. The Learning Lab is part of building up the Bok Center to get Harvard classrooms talking to each other.”
Read about the 2015-16 Learning Lab projects here.