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FPA prof wins top prize at MIT

05/21/2014

Above, DesignShop workshop participants at MIT.

This semester is barely over, but the 16 students signed up for Dr. Lisa Donovan's "Museum Studies" course this September soon will start work on the class as they weigh in on its design. The course model, to be piloted at MCLA in the fall, and which they will help to develop, will go on to be used by MIT and Brown University.

"We're looking for a prototype that could be pilot-tested, critiqued, and then shared," said Donovan, MCLA fine and performing arts associate professor.

Its genesis happened at the recent DesignShop workshop at MIT, where Donovan won one of three top prizes for "Syllabuild," a web-based platform she developed with her team - which included a career services administrator and a student from MIT, a mechanical engineer from Wisconsin and a facilitator from Brown.

Their ideas won them a first prize of $1,000. With that, they will bring Syllabuild to life at MCLA, where the project will bring together the perspectives of students, employers and faculty.

Because Donovan (pictured on the far left, with her team) teaches a diverse group of students - including those in arts management, music, theater and art - it can be a challenge to meet everyone's needs and interests, she said. Over the summer, she will invite those enrolled in "Museum Studies" to comment on its syllabus, and to identify other resources they may want included, as well as their interests and background experiences.

As a result, she'll discover who they are and what they need from the class.

Employers, too, will be invited to weigh in and identify marketable skills they're looking for in an employee, "And we will map them to our assignments," Donovan said.

 For example, "We do a lot of 'real world' projects in arts management. In the middle of one class, I was teaching on 'Digital Storytelling.' Students had to contact organizations for case studies. It was frustrating. Not everyone got back to them. There was no step-by-step progression as in a regular class where you could control some of these factors.

"At the end of the semester, they were astonished at some work-arounds that they developed to get the case studies done. We had a conversation about ambiguity and setting a path when there is none.

"As I was talking about this in our small group at MIT, the career services person said, 'This is the exact skill that employers say they are not seeing.' If you're doing real world work and applications, that's a natural skill set. In a typical college classroom, that doesn't necessarily happen. How do we build more of that in and build the skill sets that our graduates need?"

By allowing students to engage in the course before it begins, "It will change their view of their relationship with the class, so they feel like are co-constructing it with us," Donovan said.

Students in the next few weeks will be invited to take a look at her design. Similar to a web page, they will see various images and can click in to see her syllabus, as well as comment boxes with prompts to respond to.

She'll also work with officials at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary and other area museums who will do the same, with a different set of prompts.

The expected result? "It will shape the course in powerful ways," Donovan said.