UMD Innovation Grants Help MAPP Faculty Create Culture, Engage Students and Build Connection

By Maggie Haslam / Sep 4, 2020 / Updated Sep 8, 2020

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Screenshot of ARCH virtual class where student holds up a model.

View the Architecture Program all Studio Pin-Up.

Each fall, roughly 150 undergraduate students pack the light-filled Great Space to learn about architecture history from Assistant Professor Juan Burke. Flanked by studio drafting desks and pin-up walls of with student drawings, Burke presents architectural marvels from around the world on a giant flat screen as he contextualizes the social and cultural shifts of civilization through the built environment.

For Burke, it’s about connection: how the world became increasingly connected by trade, colonialism and technology; and how students can connect to world history through the study of architecture. But when the class was pivoted to online teaching, it caused Burke to reconsider what it meant to connect students with the curriculum.

“In a large class like this, students benefit from just being together, and also from the energy of learning in the Great Space,” says Burke. “I worried about students passively listening to a lecture alone through a computer screen and how isolating that could be.”

So, this fall, Burke and Assistant Professor Joseph Williams, who teaches the first section of the course in the spring, introduced a hands-on element: a drawing journal. Once a week, the class meets online to sketch together, with Burke leading on an iPad, where he points out different design notions and building technologies. The journal will be a fundamental part of the students’ final grade but, more importantly, it flips the script on an otherwise passive course requirement.

The revised class was the result of a UMD Innovation Teaching Grant, one of five awarded to the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation by the Office of the Provost to help revolutionize course content for the online environment.

“We wanted to engage our faculty in the process of reimagining their instructional strategies for the Fall 2020 semester,” said Marcio Oliveira, Assistant Vice President, Academic Technology & Innovation. “We also wanted them to integrate learning technologies to facilitate learning in both virtual and in-person environments. We thought that the best way to achieve this was to invest in our faculty’s creativity by asking them for new and feasible ideas about how to deliver high-quality accessible instruction moving forward.”

According to Oliveira, UMD was the only institution in the Big Ten that engaged faculty in such a large and unprecedented effort.

One grant allowed Professor Madlen Simon to work with colleagues at the Robert H. Smith School of Business to devise a joint philosophy for enhancing project- and team-based learning for two like-minded courses: a gen-ed course on design thinking taught by Simon and a business course on product development. With team-based games and exercises, storytelling and group projects, Simon is working to foster the sort of human-centered skills—like listening with empathy, recognizing identity and celebrating diversity—that will build a solid foundation for future coursework at Maryland and, later, in professional practice, regardless of the discipline.

“It’s very much bound to the idea of multiculturalism,” said Simon, “recognizing and respecting diverse cultures and hearing diverse voices. It’s really about creating an inclusive classroom, and by extension, a more inclusive practice. Having the grant gave me the opportunity to spend the summer thinking about those things and how to make them happen.”

Another grant secured by Research Professor Uri Avin will integrate different technologies to enhance the URSP fall planning studio, which uses the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, as a real-world case study of 20th and 21st century master-planned communities. Piloted over the summer with a student-based project in Baltimore City, Avin has adapted the traditional two-and-a-half-hour studio class into shorter, topic-related sessions, with break-out rooms for team-based work and client meetings. Borrowing tested technology and techniques from online successes across campus, the studio will provide opportunities for the same group interaction, idea exchange and project management and delivery as an in-person format.

"We were committed to delivering a practical real-world experience to our students, where they can engage with stakeholders and apply the concepts they've learned in the field to a specific planning challenge," says Avin. "An online environment doesn't lend itself to the informal, organic conversations that sitting around a table can offer, so we will be integrating a number of exercises to break down those digital barriers and create more authentic interactions." 

While Avin, Simon and Burke looked to adapt specific courses, other faculty leveraged the funding to create more widespread impact within programs. Historic Preservation Program Director Dennis Pogue, along with Associate Professor Jeremy Wells, doctoral student Paula Nasta and Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow Michelle Magalong are developing a Preservation Education Toolkit to help historic preservation faculty deliver curriculum and teaching methods that are both engaging and relevant. Centering on five core courses this fall, the team has integrated alternative teaching methods and technology to deliver for an online environment; but, more importantly, they have assessed course content relating to issues of diversity, equity and justice to determine how each course can address such issues in the historic built environment. 

“The Black Lives Matter movement has sent shock waves throughout the country, and the field of historic preservation certainly bears its share of the responsibility in enabling the continuance of institutional racism,” says Pogue. “This important moment has spurred us to be self-reflexive, and to work to ensure that we are doing all that we can to promote diversity and inclusion in our teaching, in our program, and in our field.”

A proposal by Clinical Associate Professor Julie Gabrielli and Clinical Assistant Professor Brittany Williams picked up on extensive work conducted in the spring to reimagine architecture studio, by translating some of the more nuanced influences on learning outcomes, like studio culture and the hundreds of touchpoints students encounter each day, and what methodologies could help replicate them online.

“We really had to deconstruct how we teach studio, because a lot of what we do is based on what we see on peoples’ desks,” said Gabrielli. “We can’t do that online, so we have to anticipate.”

Having a tool box of software, digital forums and pre-recording content, says Gabrielli, is new territory, but it provides a framework for instructors and students. It also offers a certain level of flexibility in the programming; with online studio, practitioners from around the world or colleagues from across campus can drop in for quick talks or a master class. Students can attend virtual site visits or re-watch recorded tutorials.   

“We created a really tight structure that we can play within, so it’s just a question of orchestrating spontaneity both academically and culturally,” says Williams. “We’ve been talking a lot about how we can best recreate the communication aspects of studio–how to get two students who would normally be sitting next to each other in studio, to share ideas or recreate the conversations that happen over pizza after the lecture series—as the full spectrum of communications engagement.”

The work conducted by Gabrielli and Williams, in collaboration colleagues Michael Abrams, Jamie Tilghman, Lindsey May, and graduate students Jemimah Asamoah and Leah Clark, will shape five mandatory undergraduate and graduate courses and the master’s thesis. The team also worked with an advisory group comprised of colleagues from other Big 10 universities. Their efforts will impact over 200 students, close to half of the fall enrollment.

The secret sauce, according to Williams and Gabrielli, is less reactive planning and more listening to students and colleagues.

“That’s the secret to success for a meaningful student experience,” says Gabrielli. “Not just coming up with an idea and moving forward and not looking back, but taking pitstops along the way and meeting students where they are. We are really committed to providing a valuable, equitable experience.”

“Until we can gather together again, we will continue to devise creative, innovative solutions to bridge the distance,” says Interim Dean Donald Linebaugh. “The Innovation Grants provided us an incredible opportunity to create some truly exceptional coursework for our students.”