Paper airplanes swoop through an Apfelbaum hall classroom one fall day in 2018. A passer-by might think a spontaneous airplane battle has broken out. Instead, students in the macroeconomics class of professor Olu Onafowora are learning about absolute advantage—how resources help determine a country’s exports.
In this case, the resource is paper. Representing two countries, one group of students makes paper balls and the other folds paper airplanes. At the end, they negotiate a trade of their products.
“We learned about competition and specialization on a hands-on level rather than just out of the textbook. That was probably my favorite lesson,” says Hannah O’Hara ’22, a luxury brand management and marketing major.
“It’s something they are going to remember,” Onafowora adds. “We already went through the theory, but now they’re putting it into practice and reinforcing what’s been taught.”
Onafowora isn’t the only professor at Susquehanna finding new ways to engage students. As a new generation enters college—with a different way of learning than millennials and other generations that came before—Susquehanna is responding with innovative curriculum changes, teaching methods, living spaces and more.
“I have won awards for my teaching, and I don’t think the way I used to teach is good enough anymore. Students are different even from five years ago,” says Matthew Rousu, professor of economics and dean of the Sigmund Weis School of Business.
Dave Ramsaran, associate provost of institutional effectiveness and student and faculty development, is keeping close tabs on the educational needs of this generation.
“Learning styles are very different than the traditional lecture style. The majority of these students have operated only in the digital age, including all of their learning from kindergarten to high school,” Ramsaran says of the generation known as iGen or Generation Z.
“We have to respond with swiftness and mobility, and we can’t just keep doing it as we’ve always done. Not everything we try will work, but we still need to try.”
Ramsaran and other Susquehanna leaders have looked for guidance from many resources, including iGen by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. It’s one of the first books to look closely at the generation born after the mid-1990s. Research on iGen—the youngest of whom are still in elementary school—is far from complete. But it can’t be disputed that, for better or worse, this is the first generation to grow up entirely in the era of smartphones, spending twice as much time online as teenagers a decade ago.
The curriculum needs to allow people to start at different places and end up at the same place.
—DAVE RAMSARAM, ASSOCIATE PROVOST
Leveling the Playing Field
One of Susquehanna’s newest endeavors—and the reason Onafowora has incorporated paper airplanes into his curriculum—is already showing promise. The economics department is taking the unique approach of having its faculty collaborate on an inclusive teaching initiative across all sections of an introductory economics class.
Inclusive teaching incorporates practices to support accessible learning for all students. That means not only active learning but also strategies outside the classroom to create a supportive learning community. While academic standards remain the same, experimenting with new methods helps to reach all types of learners at different levels of readiness.
“The higher education model assumes that we just pour more onto a high school education foundation, but the unevenness of that experience means they don’t all start at the same place. The curriculum needs to allow people to start at different places and end up at the same place,” Ramsaran says.
“There’s a lot of research showing that working in teams, even on analytical subjects, can be enormously beneficial,” says Rousu. “When you have teams, a student isn’t going to get stuck for an hour on an algebra mistake. In a group, they might struggle for five minutes and be able to get past that together.”
Students in introductory economics classes are now required to attend tutoring once a week. While they don’t need to engage with a tutor, they need to be present. Regular tutoring can help students through these make-or-break courses that many business majors, including O’Hara, find challenging. She credits tutoring with helping her maintain high grades in the class because she always knew where to turn with questions.
While it’s too soon to tell if inclusive teaching will result in better grades—Onafowora is still crunching that data—he saw that studying together changed the classroom environment. His students were looser and livelier, willing to go out on a limb to try to answer a question. The tutors reported the same thing about the nightly study sessions.
According to Twenge, members of iGen are sometimes hesitant to speak out and open themselves up to potential criticism—thanks to the often harsh nature of the social media they’ve been raised with. Teenage social life today is lived out mainly online for everyone to see, but being part of a familiar group, like a study group, provides a safety net.
Living In A Learning Community
Going away to college is often not easy, and it can be especially bumpy for a generation that is increasingly connected, yet more isolated. Today’s teenagers interact constantly, but often from the comfortable solitude of their bedrooms on their electronic devices. They spend twice as much time online as teenagers a decade ago, according to Twenge.
Closer to their parents and more averse to common risky teenage behaviors, iGen members often encounter adult experiences for the first time as college students far from home. Living-learning communities are helping to smooth the transition and are a high-impact practice—those that have been widely tested and shown to be beneficial to college students, especially those from underserved backgrounds.
While these communities are nothing new in higher education or at Susquehanna, next year’s first-year students, the Class of 2023, will see the most living-learning community options in the university’s history.
During a trial of living-learning communities in 2018–19, some business and honors students were housed together, with one group enjoying the experience so much that they requested to be in a class together the following semester. O’Hara was part of one such community, first meeting her Reed Hall neighbors when they were assigned to the same O-Team group and later sharing classes. Upon walking into her classrooms for Global Business Perspectives (GBP) and Macroeconomics, instead of the usual first-year experience of seeing only strangers, O’Hara was welcomed by a sea of familiar faces.
“As soon as we sat down on the first day, we were talking to each other. We’re always out in the common room—because Reed has the best common room—playing pool, playing games and studying,” she says. “I’ve loved every bit of it.”
In fact, she and a group of friends are choosing to form their own living-learning community next year based on their interest in games, which she says they play every night.
“College is a difficult transition for anyone. Living in a community like I do makes it so that we all have something in common right away. I’ve found other business majors, and, since I’m going to be taking business classes throughout my time here, I’ll always know people going into them,” O’Hara says.
The experience also brought a new dimension to GBP, a mandatory first-year business class in which students do in-depth market research on a real company and cap it off with a team presentation to business executives. The company this year was fast-food chain Sonic Drive-In. Since many of the students had never been to a Sonic, their living-learning community took a field trip to Harrisburg to get a behind-the-scenes look.
“If you’ve never been to Sonic, it’s kind of hard to imagine a drive-in restaurant and Sonic’s extensive customization options. We got to know, better than any other group, why our suggested improvements need to be made,” O’Hara says.
Real-World Problems, Real-World Solutions
This kind of real-world experience gives students a level of insight that can’t be achieved behind a desk.
iGen members come naturally to a hands-on approach, in part because of the invention of YouTube.
“High school students and younger teach themselves by going to YouTube and seeing whether they can do something themselves. Whether they know it or not, they’re learning by doing,” says Laurence Roth, Degenstein professor of English, co-chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing, and director of Jewish & Israel studies.
The Office of the Provost sent a group of faculty to the WPI Project-Based Learning Institute to study how to encourage others to implement project-based learning in their classrooms. The group, which included Roth, decided to define project-based learning as studying an issue for at least two weeks, developing a solution—often with a community partner—and presenting the solution in some sort of public forum.
“Students immediately see the relevance of what they’re studying. It puts them into the world they want to be in,” Roth says.
Emma Fleck, associate professor of management, matched her entrepre-neurship students with clients and tasked them with creating something for the client, such as a website, marketing materials or financial projections for projects.
“A few students were able to discuss the project with prospective employers and were hired because they already knew how to work with clients,” Fleck says.
Project-based learning is only one way Susquehanna is helping students deepen their knowledge through active exploration.
Real-world projects are integral to many liberal arts subjects—whether creating a journal in a publishing & editing class or leading a biology research project. Many departments also have a long-standing culture of active projects. For instance, the political science department has participated for years in a mock European Union in Washington, D.C., and often runs mock wars and peace negotiations on Smith Field. It’s not a big leap from this to a truly project-based approach.
Susquehanna is helping cultivate hands-on learning before college—enhancing its summer pre-college program offerings for high school students from five weeklong experiences to 13. High schoolers can now join the only pre-college publishing & editing program in the country, build a mini Mars Exploration Rover in SU’s popular engineering program, or spend a week splashing through the Susquehanna River and the area’s plentiful streams to study ecology.
Several Susquehanna students have attended Stanford University’s Innovation Program to learn how to help inspire innovation back on their home campus. Their ideas have included seminars for women of color and celebrating internationalization.
“It’s nice to see innovation that’s not purely from a perspective of technology. Instead we’re looking at how we can change what’s not working and think about the needs of the future,” Fleck says.
The university’s award-winning GO program, about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, is the ultimate get-out-in-the-world learning experience. But students don’t have to go that far—the Center for Environmental Education and Research, an 87-acre tract immediately adjacent to campus, gives students invaluable hands-on opportunities. They can help protect trout streams with the Freshwater Research Institute, grow food in the campus garden for donation to area food banks or learn about renewable energy at the 14-acre solar array.
While capturing student attention in new ways, this more active learning also helps cultivate soft skills that employers seek. LinkedIn recently found that nearly 60 percent of employers look for soft skills such as leadership, communication, collaboration and time management. A recent study commissioned by Cengage found that the most in-demand talent among employers was listening skills (74 percent), followed by attention to detail (70 percent) and effective communication (69 percent).
“This kind of innovation is essential to maximize the benefit students get from a liberal arts experience. SU prides itself on delivering an extremely high-quality traditional liberal arts education, while also prioritizing practical, marketable skills for its graduates,” says Matt Duperon, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning.
New Programs Match Student Interests
A slew of new programs created in the last five years are targeted at connecting the traditional broad liberal arts education with clear career pathways. As children of the Great Recession, iGen members often look for clear career paths when choosing a college and a major, Twenge writes.
These newer programs include bio-medical sciences, sports media, environmental studies, business data analytics, public policy, publishing & editing, a master’s degree in education and a combined engineering program with Columbia University. Susquehanna offers some new applied minors as well: professional and civic writing, applied language studies, museum studies, public policy, arts administration and data science analytics, as well as minors in Africana studies and leadership.
The biomedical sciences program points students at medical school, reshaping the science coursework of a traditional biology major by incorporating the breadth of learning that medical schools are seeking—including psychology, sociology and writing.
Though new students aren’t locked into this path. Overlapping requirements with biomedical sciences, biology, neuroscience and ecology make it easy for students to move between them if their interests change—and they’ll still be prepared for any number of science-related careers, according to Peggy Peeler, professor of biology.
Roth helms publishing & editing. One of the first of its kind at any undergraduate university in the nation, it bridges the gap between the traditional English literature major and Susquehanna’s booming creative writing program.
“It was a challenge that I needed to turn into an opportunity. The English major was seeing a decline as the creative writing major increased. This area wasn’t being covered by anybody, and it was an obvious candidate,” Roth says.
Since publishing & editing was introduced in 2015, the English programs have more than tripled the overall number of majors, who are often double majors in creative writing or other programs too. Roth credits being in the right place at the right time while making the right investments. The dedicated Letterbox lab is state-of-the-art, and the high school publishing & editing summer pre-college program is creating a valuable pipeline of prospective students into the major. Susquehanna is strategically located near the trade publishing capital in New York City and the strong printing industry in southern Pennsylvania.
“Publishing & editing is often thought of as just a career-oriented major. That’s because people understand what you do with it, and it’s true, there are so many careers in the business of literature, from book design to publishing to library and information sciences,” Roth says.
While Susquehanna is focusing on career-oriented choices, it’s not at the expense of providing a robust liberal arts education.
“We’re merely innovating the delivery of it,” Roth says. “We still give students the theoretical and critical background to reflect deeply on what they’re doing and why.”
Prominent education reformer John Dewey believed that teaching and learning should be matched to the educational needs of the time—and even if Dewey couldn’t imagine the rise of technology and smartphones back in the early 20th century, his words still ring true.
“You don’t dumb it down. You don’t throw out things that have proved they work,” Roth says. “It’s a great time for innovation because everything about higher education is changing. We can either be afraid of that or create something that brings students here.”
“This kind of education is incredibly empowering and all the more necessary for equipping our students to pursue the best kind of life for themselves and their communities,” Duperon concurs.