Education Unlocked

June 16, 2010

In its third year, Baylor's homegrown Engaged Learning Groups (ELGs) experiment has been an academic adventure for undergraduate students and professors alike. ELGs integrate some of the most attractive aspects of the typical Baylor experience into a unified endeavor. The results of this experiment could have implications on how undergraduate curriculum at Baylor is developed in the future.
Thus far, feedback from student participants has been overwhelmingly positive. A survey this spring of approximately 180 current ELG participants found that 70 percent say they interacted with their ELG faculty more than faculty from other classes, 84 percent say they enjoyed the first semester, 92 percent say living in the same residence hall has added to their ELG experience, and 99 percent say they talked with other ELG students about academic topics outside of class.
"I think we're meeting our goals, but we're still in the process [of assessing the Engaged Learning Groups]. It's still early for making any groundbreaking claims," says ELG faculty director Dr. Ian Gravagne.

What is an ELG?

An academic program run through the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Engaged Learning Groups have welcomed approximately 180 incoming freshmen each year since fall 2007. Some are discipline specific, and some are multidisciplinary. ELG students live together in residence halls and study and conduct research on topics in which they are particularly interested for three or four semesters (see page 27 for examples). The student benefits are numerous: extended time with professors, built-in friendships with other participants and frequent academic collaboration both inside and outside classes, multifaceted learning experiences unique to ELGs, and alternative ways to earn credit for required courses like religion or English, not to mention the opportunity to register for classes early each semester. By 2012, about 900 Baylor students (6 percent of entering freshmen) will have been through an ELG over a five-year period.

The plan

As part of the reaffirmation of accreditation process, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) charges all of its 800-plus colleges and universities to improve aspects of student learning. In response to that charge, a host of Baylor administrators and faculty spent two years forming the plan which would eventually become ELGs. 
"We presented the plan to SACS and had a call for topics that was university-wide. The ELGs grew out of that. This is all home-grown," says Tiffany Hogue, BA '95, assistant provost for institutional effectiveness, who co-directed the first two and a half years of the ELG program.
This plan, which builds upon Baylor's longstanding commitment to challenge students academically and provide opportunities for research and hands-on learning, provides a two-pronged approach to enhancing undergraduate education: the formation of the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement (URSA) initiative to help more students find opportunities for research early in their undergraduate careers, and Engaged Learning Groups, which are designed to help students and faculty re-imagine the possibilities for engaging one another in sustained learning experiences.
Based on the responses across campus to the call for ideas for ELG topics in 2005, when more than 150 faculty, staff and students submitted 34 pre-proposals, many at Baylor were ready for a new academic adventure and the opportunity for stronger bonds with undergraduates and deeper learning about current society issues. 
"Dr. Ken Van Treuren [mechanical engineering professor and dean for faculty development and research] and I knew that we weren't ever really going to be able to tackle the problem of energy literacy within the confines of a standard academic unit," says Gravagne, who also leads the Energy & Society ELG. "To understand energy and sustainability, it's too broad; it's not just a technical topic, it covers economics, politics, and all kinds of other things. It's also too deep in the sense that you can't get anywhere in only one semester. So we wanted a forum with many different kinds of majors that we could have for a long time. We couldn't see how that was ever going to happen, and then the ELG opportunity came along, and we jumped on that right away."
The Energy & Society ELG, now in its second cycle, has earned outside funding based upon the merits of its first two years. The Gravagne-led group earned a $145,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. 
"The NSF grant gives us the opportunity to put some more interesting and expensive equipment in students' paths, and already this second group has been able to operate and take measurements of a hydrogen fuel cell," Gravagne says.
More than 40 percent of the Energy & Society students chose to pursue a fourth-semester capstone research project, working individually on a wide range of topics, from solar photovoltaics to rooftop gardens to energy efficiency of lighting. 
"A couple looked at the use of ethanol fuels in propulsion," says Gravagne. "They were very interested in concepts of energy and sustainability and wanted to do these projects where they would have the chance to go through that inquiry-discovery process that we call research on a somewhat scaled-down level."
As both the ELG faculty director and in his third year of leading the Energy & Society group, Gravagne realizes that the ELG experiment is paying off.
"Seeing students get excited about something to the point where they are independently pushing forward their understanding of it is the ultimate reward of a professor, where we don't have to feed them anymore, but we start treating them and interacting more like colleagues," reflects Gravagne. "And that is happening in the research semester, which is very exciting."

Measuring up

Through the ELG program, the university is able to quantitatively and qualitatively measure its learning environment like never before, which in turn helps Baylor students have richer educational experiences now and in the future. 
"We're hoping that students who participate continue to report that they are more academically engaged in their classes, have more faculty-student interaction, that they connect with peers on academic topics, and are more inclined to do some undergraduate research," explains Hogue. "Those are the four goals we measure each year, and we're finding out if the ELG program is going to fully accomplish those goals." 
Hogue says that participating ELG faculty and students have warmly embraced the program, and knowledge of ELGs is spreading further around campus.
"It's a little challenging to introduce a brand-new program that crosses multiple academic units to a university the size of Baylor, so it took a little while for folks to understand what we're doing. Campus-wide understanding and awareness of the program has increased each year," says Hogue.
"What we are doing is learning a lot about the impact of pairing students with faculty for more than just one semester, about the impact of having students live together and self-selecting an academic program, and about the impact of co-curricular activities," says Hogue, who is compiling and analyzing ELG data for the report due to SACS in 2012. "What we want at the end of this five-year project is to say, 'This is what we've learned based on what is a pretty groundbreaking experiment, and this is what we propose to do for the long-term.'"