Arizona State University Experiences Education

I spent a couple of days at Arizona State University in Tempe a few weeks ago, working with faculty and staff on experiential education. It’s an interesting institution, committed on the one hand to an extensive curriculum of online degrees, and on the other to making the on-campus experience more engaging and effective.

Their online coursework just received a big bump from Starbucks, which announced this week that the company would fully fund the tuition for any employee who enrolls in an ASU online degree program. It’s great for employees, but also a boon for ASU by increasing tuition income at a time when Arizona universities are experiencing cutbacks by the state’s government.

Considering ASU’s online focus, it was gratifying to discover they also have a deep commitment to on-campus learning, with the administration, faculty and staff enthusiastic about implementing a more experientially focused curriculum. Some great ideas came up during my visit, during brainstorming sessions that built on the work I presented from our SFU Semester in Dialogue.

One concern of ASU, and many U.S. state colleges, is that they are required to admit almost any applicant from their state as long as they have met very minimal standards. Many freshmen arrive unprepared for university, both academically and in their maturity levels, so that retention of these students during their first year or two is a real issue.

We came up with an idea for a mandatory first-year course, “Who Do You Want to be in the World 101,” to address this problem. The course would begin with a research-based exploration of values, using novels, magazine/newspaper articles, movies, online videos and other social media as a stimulator for students to reflect on their own core values and the outcomes they hope to generate out in the world based on those values.

Their assignments at this stage would include written reflections and oral presentations, providing opportunities for faculty and their fellow students to provide feedback. Students would then revise their pieces, thereby building communication skills while improving their writing and speaking skills.

The second half of the course would be implementation, with an assignment to do a values-driven project with outcomes that contribute positively to the community. For example, a student with a core value of helping others might decide to focus on poverty, and work to establish a clothing exchange or help build housing for the homeless.

Students could work individually or in small groups, and again at the end of their project they would present their work and receive feedback, possibly in a forum open to anyone from the university or community. The hoped-for end result would be that participating students would move into the rest of their university education more confident, with a clearer idea of why they were in school, and improved research, writing and speaking tools that would serve them well in university and beyond.

Another interesting idea that emerged had more to do with the internal approaches ASU administrators and faculty members were applying towards curricular reform. I spoke with a number of Arts faculty who described experiential learning methods they used with their dance, painting, sculpture, theatre and other classes, but which hadn’t gotten much traction outside the university arts community.

It occurred to them that ASU’s strategizing around learning models might benefit from bringing arts-based approaches into the usually staid and formal meetings that characterize university committees. They’re going to approach the administration about sponsoring some more artistic explorations of proposed teaching and learning models, to better walk the talk around experiencing education.

One final thing that impressed me about ASU was the capacity of the administration to implement new ideas in a big way. A few years ago the university decided that traditional departments were old school, and they eliminated this level in many faculties and encouraged faculty members to regroup along interdisciplinary lines. They amalgamated many departments into larger schools, and every few years faculty either confirm that their current alignments are working or realign in fresh new combinations.

I can imagine myself as a bee biologist aligning with faculty interested in dialogue, agricultural policy, environmental conservation and dance, and then shaking that up every few years.

Arizona is a politically conservative state, so it was enlightening to find such an innovative and paradigm-busting institution in the midst of a conservative mindset. But then, Arizona’s deserts are like that as well: startling and surprising when you get beyond the superficial.

“The Bees” by Laline Paull

There’s a new novel out that’s climbing the bestseller charts, The Bees by Laline Paull, with worker bee Flora 717 as its main character and a fast-moving plot that reads like a Stephen King thriller.

Paull’s book is reminiscent of Watership Down, the classic 1972 novel that follows the lives of rabbits that talk and exhibit human feelings. As a novel The Bees isn’t bad; it’s an enjoyable read although the plot becomes increasingly unlikely as the author struggles towards the end to find her way out of the book.

Beekeepers might have a harder time with The Bees than civilians reading the book, partly because from the bees’ point of view we’re seen as the enemy. And Paull’s writing exhibits a blend of fact and fantasy that gets in the way of a knowledgeable reader’s experience.

She makes extensive use of poetic license, defined as the “freedom to depart from the facts of a matter when speaking or writing in order to create an effect,” certainly legitimate practice for a novelist. Still, her depiction of bees has the annoying tendency of being based in a sophisticated understanding of bee biology, but then her novelist’s license unnecessarily warps the biology to fit the plot.

Take caste, for example. Flora 717 herself is a sanitation worker, and in real life most bees do clean the hive or dump trash out the door early in their lives. But in Paull’s book the lowly regarded caste of “Flora” bees do nothing but clean for their entire lives, and other higher-ranked castes are similarly locked into a single task for life.

I doubt any task ranks as higher or lower for colony survival; the word “caste” is commonly used by beekeepers when talking about worker tasks, but not in the ranked way that it’s often applied to human societies. Further, Flora 717 herself is depicted as an oddity in that she also spends time as a nurse bee and later a forager, a typical pattern in honeybee division of labor but not usual in Paull’s imaginary hive.

Another intriguing aspect of honeybee biology that Paull gets partly right is that colonies are made up of genetic subgroups, since the queen mates with many drones. Each subgroup or patriline has subtly different probabilities of performing particular tasks, so there is indeed some genetic specialization, but in The Bees an individual bee’s genetics is her destiny whereas in real colonies worker bees exhibit considerable task flexibility depending on what work the hive needs performed at any given time.

Paull also writes in a partly knowledgeable way about laying workers, indicating correctly that they occasionally arise in the hive and lay male eggs that if detected are destroyed. She also writes accurately about how laying workers can be identified and attacked if recognized by their distinctive odor. But then she commits the error of having a laying worker produce a female egg that she herself hides from the other bees and rears into a queen, an event far outside honeybee reality.

There are two segments of the book that depict human impact on bees. One, that I appreciated, was her description of the grey film her bees encountered in the field and brought back to the hive, obviously referring to pesticides.

It was particularly tragic to read of bees I had come to know dying in the book. Like most beekeepers, I’ve lost many bees and entire hives to pesticides, and it was easy to empathize with the panic and grief depicted from the bees’ point of view.

But I balked at her hive’s perception of beekeepers as marauders robbing the bees of their hard-earned honey. Perhaps Paull’s description of the emotions bees would have when we remove honey would be accurate if bees do indeed have emotions, but she neglects the part where we take only surplus honey, leaving the bees enough to survive and thrive.

And if bees had conscious awareness like those in The Bees, they would understand that we beekeepers provide housing, medical care and other services in exchange for honey, a pretty even deal.

Paull isn’t a beekeeper, and her book was intended to portray the foibles of human societies using honeybees as a lens more than as an accurate biology text. And she is following a long tradition in which writers impart moral values to honey bees that we desire to emulate. Hard work, collaboration and valuing the collective over the individual come to mind.

I just wish she had let her imaginary bees be just a bit more like real bees, and that her grains of truth had been expanded to pebbles or even large nuggets of honeybee reality.

Now that would have been a book honeybees would have appreciated, if they could read, that is.

Highways BEE Act

There’s new legislation just proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Act (BEE Act), designed to improve the lot of non-voters: wild bees and managed honeybees. The act was introduced by two representatives who co-chair the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus, one from Florida and the other from California, both important states for agriculture in general and beekeeping in particular.

The BEE Act focuses on improving habitat for bees and other pollinators along about 17 million acres of roadside rights-of-way, a huge opportunity to provide enhanced forage and nesting sites for beneficial insects. The concept is not old; managing vegetation along roadways to enhance nectar and pollen-producing plants and reduce disruptions of nesting sites has been proposed by bee-lovers for many decades.

The bill proposes two components, reduced mowing and enhanced plants for pollinators, which together would create habitat that not only would support bees, but also would benefit monarch butterflies, ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. Farms nearby would profit through improved pollination services.

These benefits are no-brainers for bee and wildlife lovers, but the Act also notes that the proposed roadside habitats would significantly reduce mowing and other costs for the state Departments of Transportation responsible for roadside maintenance.

So why am I disappointed? As they say in Texas, the BEE Act is all hat and no cattle, lacking legislated actions that would affect change. The Act encourages but doesn’t insist, allocating no new funding and limiting implementation to those state Departments of Transportation willing to participate.

I suppose the charged political environment in the US precludes legislation that requires state action, and perhaps the BEE Act’s polite reminder that we can, indeed, do things to save the bees is better than nothing. But I grew up in an era when more was expected of government than platitudes and recommendations, and can’t shake my fundamental belief that the reason we elect officials is to act when faced with overwhelming evidence of problems and feasible, affordable steps towards solutions.

It’s a simple equation: bees need diverse and abundant nectar and pollen-producing flowers to survive and thrive. The millions of roadside acres available for vegetation management would provide a substantial resource at a time when wild bees are becoming scarcer and managed honeybees are dying.

Bees are just one more victim of America’s political paralysis, collateral damage in a system with diminished capacity to act for those endangered by our extensive terra-forming of the globe.

Without teeth to enforce and funding to implement, the BEE Act provides the illusion of action while bees continue to decline. It’s the worst kind of tragedy, one that is preventable and about which we are doing way too little.

Culture Change

Universities are funny organisms, self-describing with language like “innovative” and “cutting edge,” but in practice being quite conservative in maintaining their internal status quo. Curriculum is particularly slow to change, with faculty perpetuating the style and content of their own teachers, graduating students who join the workforce with similar mindsets in each generation.

Culture change that alters traditional disciplines is unusual, but occasionally the sun, moon, earth and stars align and a new learning paradigm emerges with earthquake-like force, potentially shifting how graduates practice their craft.

I came across one such paradigm-shifting program the other day, Narrative Medicine at Columbia University (http://www.narrativemedicine.org). Their goal is to replace impersonal and high-turnover patient care with careful listening and empathic attention, but it’s the method that’s most interesting: the students read fiction in order to understand that astute diagnosis is about stories.

Through literature, the students improve in their narrative competence, learning to weave initially disconnected details together into a full tapestry of a patient’s health that leads to more accurate diagnoses. Responsiveness to patients also increases with improved awareness of the character, plot and setting behind their illness, just as empathy for characters in a novel increases as we proceed deeper into the story.

My curiosity piqued, I began seeking out other examples of culture-busting university coursework, and soon a friend sent me The Senior Reflection: When Art Meets Science at Stanford University (http://www.stanford.edu/~suemcc/TSR/index.html). This Biology Department course offers students the opportunity to do a creative project that connects a scientific subject with the arts.

One student wrote and performed a compelling prose poem about his conservation work with elephants, while a second created a mixed media sand art performance exploring the precarious position of frogs threatened with global extinction. A third student composed a jazz piece, “Improvising Infections.” Since the course began in 2011, dozens of students have used the creativity of art to explore their scientific interests while engaging the broader community outside of university.

It’s difficult to assess whether these and a few other university programs I found are curricular outliers or trendsetters, but their scarcity suggests that culture-busting coursework is still far from becoming a movement.

There is an educational crusade going on today, but it’s happening outside of traditional universities, through a growing cornucopia of social enterprises providing discipline-bridging programs in tune with today’s rapid evolution of how work is viewed.

One of the leaders in this new model is the Asheville, North Carolina group Mycelium (http://mycelium.is), whose tag line asks the questions “Is your education getting in the way of your learning?” They offer 12-week sessions in which participants, who are called “Change Makers” in their lexicon, identify their own project or life question and explore it through a custom-designed learning program.

Their Journey includes clarifying their question, raising funds, mapping out the skills and network needed to address their issue, three-day retreats with fellow Journeyers, and a tailored set of relevant workshops offered at various sites across the United States. An extensive support universe provides feedback, including a personal coach, a personal advisory team, a practice group in which to try out ideas, and Curated Connections to People in the Mycelium Network (capitals are theirs, not mine).

All is available for $4400, discounted slightly if you sign up early or with a friend, a fairly reasonable fee considering that a semester in a typical US university will cost five times or so the Mycelium fee. And they promise results: after 12 weeks, Change Makers will leave activated to do their project and connected to a community that can support their plan.

Once you get past the self-consciously hip jargon of Change Makers on a Journey with Curated Connections, the world of social enterprise education is more vibrant and imaginative than the more staid education offered through universities.

But both have value; students benefit from the knowledge transfer that universities do well, but need a change-making journey through which to find their own unique voice in the world.

A wise university would note the growth potential in these change making social enterprises and incorporate similar models into their undergraduate curriculum.

One Change Maker who participated in Mycelium, Kate Morales, summarized well where this potential sweet spot between education and learning at a university might reside: “My biggest insight was finding a learning structure that worked for me — something between the rigidity of formal school and the unsupportedness of wandering.