Students teaching students

Jan. 20, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Ever wonder what the deal was with that one-unit class on Disney films being taught by the guy down the hall last spring? Were those fliers a joke or could students actually get academic credit for learning something fun, yet interesting, from a peer? This is just one example of a Student Initiated Course (SIC), a laid-back, discussion-based class option worthy of consideration.

SICs take advantage of one of Stanford’s most valuable resources–the student body itself. Students have the opportunity to design a curriculum and instruct their peers on a specific topic of interest.

These one- to two-unit weekly classes taught for credit/no credit cover an eclectic range of unusual–and often under-represented–subjects. This quarter, students had the opportunity to enroll in SICs ranging from “Development and Diversity in Papua New Guinea” to “Discoveries and Debates in Neuroscience Research” to an “Intro to North American Taiko.”

Jenna Gunderson ’11, an avid sports fan, co-taught a course called “Introduction to American Sports in American Society” last quarter.

“We thought that some Stanford students might be interested in learning more about sports,” she said. “We thought maybe it would get them pumped for going to different sporting events.”

Dan Bohm ’10 taught the class with her. Unsurprisingly, he’s also a big sports fan–he writes for The Daily’s sports section and has played and coached different sports throughout his life. In coming up with the idea for the class, both Bohm and Gunderson felt that providing students with greater exposure to sports and their rules, histories and roles in our society might make students more excited about attending Stanford games.

“We wanted to spread the wealth about sports to a group on campus that we thought wasn’t necessarily as interested as we were,” he said.

Janani Balasubramanian ‘12 and Matthew Miller ‘12, who are teaching a class called “The Color of Ecoliteracy” this quarter, also wanted to expose fellow students to their combined intellectual passions of racial studies and the environment. They felt that these particular passions were lacking adequate coverage in the available professor-led courses here.

“We have a lot of really great environmental studies classes and a lot of great classes on race,” Balasubramanian said. “But there aren’t that many classes that deal with both.”

Miller agreed that SICs like theirs have the potential to provide a more interdisciplinary angle to topics than the typical department offerings might.

“We feel that a lot of times classes make you fraction off your academic passions and not really deal with the whole equation,” he said.

One of Miller and Balasubramanian’s students, Rachel Dowling ’10, signed up for the class because of its efforts to synthesize two previously isolated issues.

“I decided to take this class because there aren’t any other classes that deal with this specific issue,” she said. “It addresses a unique feature of environmentalism.”

To lead a SIC, teachers-to-be are required to attend training sessions, secure a faculty advisor, fill out an application and prepare for a quarter’s worth of instruction by assembling materials, PowerPoints and discussion ideas.

According to students who have taken SICs before, their shortcomings are minimal and understandable due to the logistics of these classes; they simply don’t meet that often in any given quarter.

“For a one-unit class that meets only one hour a week, I thought that most of the drawbacks–lack of coverage of certain topics, for instance–were manageable and understandable,” said Chris Seck ‘10 who took Gunderson and Bohm’s class on sports in the fall.

Helen Kwan ’11, who took a SIC on Harry Potter her freshman year, had little to say in complaint about her SIC either.

“Maybe the biggest drawback would be a lack of potential resources that professors have access to,” she stated.

In addition to providing students with exposure to under-explored areas of interest, SICs also foster a different, more comfortable format of idea exchange within the classroom setting.

“In most regular classes, the information tends to flow one way–the professor enlightens the student with lectures and stories,” Seck noted. “In student-led classes, the experience tends to be more interactive because the age gap–and experience gap–is not so great.”

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