Transformers

The world unfolds for undergraduates thanks to the talents of award-winning faculty.

Patrick Bahls integrates the art form of origami into his honors classes.One blank page could become a student-designed fitness plan for an older adult. It might contribute research on local housing in Asheville. Perhaps it will outline a survey asking alumni what their undergraduate research meant to them. It could be the start of a novel, poem, movie script or any other original creation. Or the student might crease, fold, bend, shape, and create origami designed to be part of a portable, sturdy refugee shelter. These are a few of the transformative learning experiences offered by five award-winning teachers and scholars who regularly venture beyond the traditional classroom: Patrick Bahls, Leah Greden Mathews, Dwight Mullen, Peter Caulfield, and Kathie Garbe. The results enrich student lives, often while serving the community and broadening teachers’ own academic experiences.

The transformation starts with a blank piece of paper, indicative of the ideas and the possibilities. It’s all about “getting students to step outside their disciplines and getting them to think in ways they would not have thought before,” says Bahls, associate professor of mathematics and University Honors Program director.

He applies his own brand of breaking out of traditional modes of thinking. Bahls has authored a book that might seem unusual for a math teacher (Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines); he regularly teaches poetry in class (sonnets and sestinas can be very mathematical); and, most recently, he brings origami to the classroom.

“Origami lends itself to mathematics, but also art, history, aesthetics, philosophy [and] more,” he says. The honors program is “highly interdisciplinary,” so an origami class “is perfect for UNC Asheville,” says Bahls. “The interplay between the disciplines takes you [places] you wouldn’t expect.”

The 2015 UNC Asheville Distinguished Teaching Award-winner describes origami, for example, as “a dilettante-ish interest until a few years ago, when I realized it could be a fun class. … I wanted to see what the students would do with it.” In constrained classroom exercises, students may make one fold in a piece of paper then pass it to the next person, or they “just keep folding without stopping and see what happens.” Whether writing a novel without using the vowel “e,” or drafting a letter to a friend as a way to explain the mean value theorem, “constraint can be very liberating,” says Bahls. 

Students also work in small groups to research a topic—origami robots, refugee shelters, or paper that unfolds into a cascading dress. “The experience of doing research to learn something—instead of doing it to confirm something or fulfill a class requirement—is, in itself, transforming,” he says.

Classroom to Campus to Career

Leah MathewsOf course, doing research to confirm a hypothesis can be transformative, too. “We’re really interested in … the perception of the value of undergraduate research,” says Mathews, professor of economics and Interdisciplinary Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South. By “we,” she means the students and researchers who have created a survey that explores that perception. Together, they have gathered responses and are analyzing the results this semester, Mathews explains.

Such projects allow undergraduates “to see how economists do their work and how economics relates to the real world,” Mathews continues. Students also “get involved with the community in ways they might not otherwise engage. [They] see connections between the campus and community.” In the end, undergraduates also get a chance to understand the world around them by applying what they’re learning in the classroom, she says.

“It’s the most fun part of my job,” Mathews adds. That enthusiasm is evident to her students, colleagues and the entire UNC system, earning Mathews the 2015 Award for Excellence in Teaching from the UNC Board of Governors. She also received the Southern Economic Association’s Kenneth G. Elzinga Distinguished Teaching Award in 2015.

And Mathews—who triple-majored in economics, French and international affairs in her undergraduate days—notes the multifaceted, interdisciplinary aspect of each project, which helps create “a great alternative learning environment.” She continues, “In class, the teacher nudges you in a certain direction, but research … can take you to unexpected places.”

That focus on place is Mathew’s specialty, along with environmental economics—evaluating cultural heritage, water quality, scenic beauty and other things not easily associated with monetary value. 

Exploring data on the value of a liberal arts education is a similar real-world issue, one that the latest student-driven survey project may illuminate. “We already know from cross-institutional research and previous studies that students regularly report that undergraduate research helps them with writing skills, critical-thinking skills, presentation skills, and for many, [it’s] seen as excellent preparation for [graduate school] and their careers,” says Mathews.

About 800 alumni responded to the undergraduate research survey, she mentions. Mathews hopes to share the results before the end of 2015. “I would like to think that [data] will show that students find tremendous value in their undergraduate research.”

The City as a Research Lab

Dwight MullenFinding that inherent value can also come as a result of working in the community, as Dwight Mullen, professor of political science, has discovered during almost a decade of teaching a lab course on “The State of Black Asheville.”

“It would have been impossible to predict what the students were going to do,” he says. “From the first time we offered it in 2007, every class has had students go on to graduate school and pursue the areas they had researched in these projects. To turn your career into it was something I didn’t expect.”

“Taking them into the community—taking them to the village—is an absolute necessity for their education.”—Dwight Mullen

His students have pursued undergraduate research on topics that include racial inequality, public education, the criminal justice system, and income disparity. They’ve also turned the course into an annual public event and expanded it to study “The State of Black North Carolina.”

“They had to cross that divide,” Mullen says of students’ cross-cultural education. “Practically, they could see that closing the disparities gap began by closing their own cultural gaps.” This spring, through professional development leave and partnerships with HBCUs across the state, Mullen will further develop the project.

The 30-year veteran of UNC Asheville’s faculty, who was named a recipient of the 2014 UNC Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching Award, also reflects on the changing state of the university. “I had considered a successful legacy for UNC Asheville to at least leave a mark that we, the group of faculty I first came in with, tried to fundamentally change things—by race and by gender—from how we first found it,” says Mullen.

“Now I’m beginning to believe that it’s not just that we tried to change it, but that it has changed, because of who we are when we came into this faculty and who we became when we decided to stay,” he says. “For a very long time, I thought the effort would be all that would be here to show that we tried to do it. Now I think this institution is fundamentally changed because we were here, which means that the education has fundamentally changed.”

Part of that evolution has come from bringing the campus to the city around it, starting with students. “Taking them into the community—taking them to the village—is an absolute necessity for their education. It’s not an option. They have to do it. It’s unfair to expect them to graduate and to be functional in a diverse society without exposing them to it as undergraduates.”

In the process, says Mullen, students “inevitably see things that I haven’t seen before.”

Novel Ideas 

Peter CaulfieldTransformative community connections and creative conversations have also been a goal for Peter Caulfield, professor of literature and language and the 2014 Distinguished Teaching Award winner. “My favorite metaphor for what we do as teachers is the concept of a conversation,” he says. Almost 20 years ago, while on sabbatical and researching a novel, Caulfield visited an area Head Start. He became a regular volunteer that semester for the program and later launched the Head Start Holiday Party, a campus event for community youngsters. Now in its 18th season, the celebration has become one of UNC Asheville’s favorites.

Creative work also infuses Caulfield’s teaching and contributions to UNC Asheville. For a few years, he has been working on a novel set in the 1960s in Vietnam, based on his experience. Now entering phased retirement, Caulfield says he’ll revise the manuscript yet again next spring. “There’s something about writing a novel and putting all that work into revising it. You are talking to students [as] someone who has done it. You are talking from a place of understanding.”

It’s no surprise, then, that early in his nearly 30 years at UNC Asheville, Caulfield helped establish the university’s writing program, first called Writing Across the Curriculum and now known as the Writing Intensive Program.

With more than 4,000 students across those three decades, his own pedagogical approach continues to evolve. His curriculum vitae encompasses courses from literature to humanities.

“When you teach literature and you teach it over and over again for years and years, you get to know certain pieces of literature,” says Caulfield. “There are poems I have read and taught many, many times. They’ve become part of my emotional and intellectual being. I’ve come to a deeper understanding of them. They teach you things and they say things about the human condition—everything from something like war to love. I think of them all the time. ... Because of all of the years of doing that, their wisdom is embedded in me.”

This fall, Caulfield has been focused on the classroom, and while the papers and pages continue, his method of feedback has changed and developed through the years. The self-described Luddite often sends audio files back to each student with line-by-line feedback on first drafts and completed papers.

“I tell my students that all of human history is an ongoing conversation about many essential elements of the human condition. My role is to help them enter more fully and capably into that ongoing, never (so far) ending conversation … about literature, about history, about social and political ideas, about various philosophical issues.”

Whether interpreting a poem based on their own experiences or exploring a research project “I would never imagine,” says Caulfield, “my students always surprise me.”

Real World to Real Needs

Kathie Garbe“There’s so much learning that can take place when undergraduates are placed in real-world situations,” says Garbe, associate professor of health and wellness and recent recipient of the university’s 2015 Community Connectors Award and the Champion for Students Award. “It pushes them out of their comfort zones, [but] like birds pushed out of the nest … they take it and fly,” she says.

Garbe pairs undergraduates with local health-and-wellness organizations. The YWCA, YMCA and Children First are just a few of the more than 100 local groups she’s worked with in recent years. “All civic engagement experiences are meant for student learning and skill development while they work to meet the very real needs of our community partners. Students select the organization they are interested in contributing to and learning from; often it aligns well with their own career interests,” she says.

“It’s very rewarding to see all kinds of students—shy or outgoing, confident or hesitant—develop skills and become leaders.” —Kathie Garbe

This semester, undergraduates are working with 22 organizations while learning leadership skills, seeing social policy applied in the field and, in the process, accomplishing much more, Garbe explains. Students might, for example, have to develop a fitness program for an older adult in the Wellness Activities for Seniors in Asheville (WASA) program, she says. That elder could be a homemaker who has never been in a weight room or started an exercise regimen; or it could be a 70-year-old woman who competes in triathlons. “What student could keep up with her?” Garbe jokes, adding on a more serious note that the right pairing of student with project population and organization makes a big difference in producing good outcomes for everyone involved.

Active in a number of community-wide initiatives, Garbe says that with internships and community projects, students “learn to relate to people and make a difference in their lives.” It’s “very rewarding” to see all kinds of students—shy or outgoing, confident or hesitant—develop skills and become leaders. 

In these and many other ways, the work connects to her passion for collaborative partnerships and symbiotic relationships between students and participants, college and community, she emphasizes. Participating organizations “help the students learn, and we help with a [community] project. … Through these student-community initiatives, the university continues to develop stronger partnerships and supportive relationships with our surrounding community—all while our students are growing and learning.” 

Longtime local journalist Margaret Williams will complete her MLAS degree at UNC Asheville next spring.