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Faculty’s summer assignment: prepare for the fall semester

09/08/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Magy Seif El-Nasr, associate professor with joint appointments in the College of Computer and Information Science and the College of Arts, Media and Design works in her office at Northeastern University on Sept. 8 2016. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

This fall, associate professor Thomas Vicino is teaching one of his favorite courses: “Urban Policies and Politics.” It’s an elective in the political science major and urban studies minor in which students analyze the political, administrative, economic, and social dynamics of urban areas. As Vicino put it, “We look at the historical evolution of how cities get built and how government actors respond to how cities grow and change.”

Vicino has taught the course for the past eight years, but that hardly means he wasn’t busy preparing for it this past summer. Each time he tries to reinvent the course and bring topical issues into the fold. “Students are certainly interested in what’s going on with the presidential election, so there will be a number of opportunities there,” he said. “I’ve spent the summer thinking about how the election is shaping up and how to integrate relevant policy issues.” Housing and immigration are among the key issues he and his students will examine.

Vicino described his process: After letting the dust settle from the previous semester, the first order of business is revisiting the syllabus, the learning outcomes,  and the students’ feedback. Next, he said, comes planning the schedule. “I know what topics we want to cover, but you have to think about what you want to achieve on a week-to-week and day-to-day basis,” he explained. He added that this also involves finding on campus symposia and lectures and building the schedule around the ones he thinks are important for students to attend. “You’re trying to make sure there’s a good rhythm and the semester has a good flow,” he explained.

Like Vicino, professors across the university have spent the past few months—and in some cases longer—developing new courses or updating ones they’ve taught before. This process involves everything from assessing past iterations of those courses, to making sure the curriculum is up to date with the latest industry research, to preparing new assignments and experiments, to scheduling field trips and speakers.

Associate professor Magy Seif El-Nasr, who holds joint appointments in the College of Computer and Information Science and the College of Arts Media and Design, spent the summer designing a new course called “Game Analytics.” It’s part of the interdisciplinary Master of Science in Game Science and Design program, and the goal, she said, is to give students a practical understanding of the game analytics process from data processing to analysis and reporting.

Seif El-Nasr said the course is in many ways the first-of-its-kind; while industry is increasingly seeking professionals with game analytics expertise, this training is largely taking place in-house, not at universities. This summer, she built the course’s curriculum from scratch. “I involved a lot of industry people to look at the curriculum,” she said.

You’re trying to make sure there’s a good rhythm and the semester has a good flow.
— Associate professor Thomas Vicino

In the College of Engineering, Thomas Webster, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, teaches “Design,” the senior capstone course. This semester, students will be required to add a practical component to their capstone projects that until now have been mostly theoretical. For example, he explained, if students say they want to develop an environmentally friendly power source for planes, they’ll be challenged with getting into the lab and finding out if they can create such a reaction that could work—not just mapping out how it would happen.

“That is pretty unique in chemical engineering curricula,” said Webster, who is the Art Zafiropoulo Chair in Engineering. He’s spent the summer looking back at students’ past capstones and obtaining more resources to support his students in their efforts.

Thomas Webster, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, teaches “Design,” the senior capstone course. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Thomas Webster, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, teaches “Design,” the senior capstone course. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Jesse Hinson, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Theatre, is teaching three courses this semester: “Introduction to Acting,” “Improvisation for Entrepreneurs,” and “The Professional Voice.” All three are now part of a new interdisciplinary minor in professional presentation designed to prepare students to be confident, creative speakers.

Hinson said he spent the summer reflecting on what aspects of the courses did and didn’t resonate with students when he taught them last year. The schedules he’s developed for his courses, he explained, are “subject to change” so to speak. As he noted, teaching theater is very fluid and you can’t just move on from a topic to keep with a rigid schedule if students need more time to practice or discuss techniques.

Hinson said he plans to spend the first three or four weeks of his courses “establishing a sense of ensemble” with his students. “We succeed or don’t succeed based on our teamwork,” he explained.

Teamwork, in fact, is a critical element for how some faculty used the summer to prepare for their courses. Auroop Ganguly and Stephen Flynn are co-teaching a graduate-level interdisciplinary course, “Critical Infrastructure Resilience,” for students in engineering as well as policy and security studies. It’s a core course in the MS in Security and Resilience Studies program that examines, through the lens of resilience, how best to safeguard the critical foundations that provide transport, communications, water, energy, and other essential functions in the face of disasters, growing urbanization, climate change, and globalization.

In past iterations of the course, students have worked with the Massachusetts Port Authority and been presented with real-life critical infrastructure challenges it faces. This semester, students will also now collaborate with a local startup, risQ, to help develop solutions to these resilience challenges. Ganguly said much of the summer has been spent finalizing the schedule of site visits and students’ presentations in coordination with these outside entities.

Ben Schmidt and Ryan Cordell, assistant professors of history and English, respectively, are co-teaching a new undergraduate course they’ve developed, “Bostonography: The City through Data, Texts, Maps, and Networks.” The course will use Boston as a case study for integrating computational methods with the social sciences and humanities to provide new insights into major cultural, historical, and societal questions as they relate to and extend beyond the city of Boston. Both Schmidt and Cordell’s interests lie in the digital humanities, and they are core faculty members of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.

One aspects of developing the course, Schmidt said, is that next year it will be taught by political science faculty members, so a key focus has been developing a course structure that will allow for a seamless transition. “Both Ryan and I are historically minded, so it was important to talk to the social scientists and faculty in other disciplines about their approaches and methods to teaching,” he said.

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