W.Pa. colleges find new ways to bring classes to life
By Rachel Weaver
Published: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Washington & Jefferson students travel to another dimension to learn philosophy. Robert Morris scholars use music to study mathematical concepts. Point Park students learn how to sell out venues.
Western Pennsylvania colleges are exploring ways to make learning engaging with classes beyond the scope of traditional education. The classes often fill up fastest and are the most popular with students, educators say.
“Why should colleges have these ivory towers between disciplines when there are so many shared ideas between them?” said Heather Pinson, Robert Morris University professor of communications and media arts.
Pinson teaches a class with math professor Monica VanDieren called Math, Music and Art in which students apply theories of each discipline to study four themes: symmetry, finite and infinity, improv, and searching for truth and self.
Pinson admits the concept is complex, but students appreciate the class, for which one of their required textbooks is a graphic novel — a novel in which the story is told with artwork, typically comic book art.
“The idea of the classroom is changing,” said Joe Douglas, 21, a senior actuarial science major from Greenville, Mercer County. “Ten years ago, it would be someone standing there telling you the information. Now, it's much more interactive. All classes are transitioning to that.”
During a recent class, Pinson played piano and taught students the mathematics behind chords: Each note is separated by one half-step, totaling up to 12 for an entire scale. Each student was assigned a note and, while standing in a circle, they held a piece of string to make triangles depicting each chord.
This triangle could be rotated or flipped by applying recent mathematical discoveries to the treatment of the musical notes, Pinson said. Students can maneuver points of the triangle over the diameter of the circle to create a new chord.
“You have to be able to work with others and be innovative and be problem-solvers,” she said.
Andrew Rembert, a Washington & Jefferson philosophy professor, teaches The Twilight Zone, which requires students to watch episodes of the popular 1960s television show, then delve into its themes of time travel, what it means to be human, eternal life and fear of the unknown.
Many students take it as a way to fulfill one of three required humanities courses. No matter their majors, students flock to the class. Rembert has to set aside a few slots for freshmen so that upperclassmen can't get first bid on all the spots.
“You think outside the box and learn more in-depth concepts,” said Turner Rintala, 18, a freshman from Philadelphia.
In a recent class, Rembert delivered a lesson on nuclear weapons and the fear of their use during the time of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. A viewing of a “Twilight” episode titled “Third From the Sun” followed.
“It's about what constitutes a human being,” Rembert said. “The series was very in tune with the kinds of issues that were on people's minds.”
Fans of Johnny Depp and history alike flock to Molly Warsh's Global History of Pirates class at the University of Pittsburgh. The class is so popular, it will be open to 80 students in the fall, double this semester.
“It's been super fun,” said Warsh, a history professor. “It's an easy sell. They all grew up with ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.' ”
Students learn about much more than Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow. They talk about the role pirates played in the building of empires, the later struggle of merchants and their allies to eradicate piracy and how the culture persists today.
“It's always really fun when you hear the students say, ‘Holy smokes! This still exists!'” Warsh said.
In an age of rising tuition, classes that cross disciplines help educators prepare students for careers that might not even exist yet, RMU's VanDieren said.
“They have to be able to adapt and be creative,” she said.
The average in-state tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate at a four-year public institution in Pennsylvania was $12,079 in 2011-12, up 6.6 percent from the year before.
At Point Park, students are analyzing the workings of ticketing systems used in the sports, arts and entertainment industries in a class simply called Ticketing. They're learning from industry veterans Jason Varnish, box office manager of Consol Energy Center, and Anthony Dennis, director of sales at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
The class is the brainchild of several Point Park alumni, who told their former teachers how valuable such a class would be. Students go to Consol Energy Center and learn about its operation and are required to work a Playhouse event.
“You can only learn so much in the classroom,” Varnish said.
Chris Vella, 22, a senior sports, arts and entertainment management major from Oakland, said he thinks the class will give him a one-up when applying for a job.
“You get the relevant knowledge of working in the field,” he said. “It's something you can write on your resume.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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