Special topics classes reach students through uncommon means

A state is considered “landlocked” if none of its borders touch an ocean, gulf, or bay. It is “singly landlocked” if you have to go through just one other state or Canadian province to reach an ocean, gulf, or bay. Two states? “Doubly landlocked.”

Three? “Triply land-locked.”

Nebraska is the only triply land-locked state in the country. Ten are doubly—including Indiana.

So how does a college in a state so far from an ocean, gulf, or bay get a marine biology class?

Easy: Chris Barlow.

Barlow is associate professor of life sciences at Ivy Tech Community College’s Fort Wayne Campus. She spent spring break 2016 with a Goshen College marine biology class at the J.N. Roth Marine Biology Station, which Goshen owns on Long Key, Fla. Her goal? To figure out how Ivy Tech students can get that same opportunity.

Long Key, Fla.

Special Topics in Marine Biology is being offered to Ivy Tech students for the first time this spring semester. Special Topics classes are those that aren’t already part of the curriculum rotation, says Kim Barnett-Johnson, the College’s vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. They typically come about from student or instructor interest.

“They are things that we feel are going to be value-added to the students’ educational experience,” she says. “Sometimes they are areas that the instructor or program chair feels like, ‘Hey, if we can give our students this experience, that will only make them more valuable in the marketplace.’”

Barnett-Johnson

Take Harry Potter: The Innocence and the Experience. This English 111 class was offered for the first time at the Fort Wayne Campus in fall 2017, and it is being offered again this spring.

English 111 is a class where students sometimes struggle, Barnett-Johnson says, so Susan Howard, assistant chair in English, came up with a creative way to base a class on a popular subject.

The primary goal of English 111 is to teach students how to write academic essays, Howard says, and her students write the kinds of essays they would in any other English 111 class—it’s just that the topics are Harry Potter-specific. Students write

  • A personal literacy narrative, which is a life event related to literacy, about how they became fans of Harry Potter and why
  • A research-based paper on how Harry Potter changed the world
  • A rhetorical analysis—where students evaluate a book’s purpose, audience, content, context, and more—of a chapter from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the series
  • A research paper focused on any argument they’d like to construct, such as “What is Harry Potter’s impact on the moral development of children?”, “Is Hermione a feminist?”, “How does J.K. Rowling deal with ethnic differences between pure-bloods* and Mudbloods*?”, and “How does she address slavery through the house elves*?”

Clearly, it helps to know the Potter lore before signing up for the class, though that was not a problem for enrollment.

“I got so many emails from students who wanted to get into the class once it was closed,” Howard says. “It filled up very quickly once we advertised.”

The success of the Harry Potter class has led to more themed English 111 classes; there is also saw a class taught around the Lord of the Rings books this semester, and Howard says she knows of other instructors who are interested in teaching classes around literature in sports and dystopian literature.

The Potter class is one of the first Tiffany Fitzwater ever took at Ivy Tech. She says her advisor encouraged her to take the class because of her love of reading. She enjoyed the class because it introduced her to the books—she had only seen the movies prior—and because of the modern subject matter.

“I definitely feel like (the topic) gives us a piece of literature that students can relate to,” says Fitzwater, an engineering technology student. “Most of the people in my class are younger students, so with this novel we have, we grew up with it. I wasn’t the biggest Harry Potter fan growing up. Reading the books has kind of opened the real Harry Potter world for me. I am just in love with the books.”

Hannah Huffman took the Harry Potter-themed English class last semester. “It’s definitely not just a super easy class,” she says.

Just because the topic of Howard’s class is a modern one, Howard points out, it should not suggest that the material is easy.

“I’ve had some people suggest Harry Potter is going to be a lightweight course,” Howard says. “I think my students will tell you that the class is not just a Harry Potter fan club getting together once a week.”

Hannah Huffman, a nursing student, says this is her second time taking English 111—when she took it 10 years ago, she was just out of high school—and while being interested in the topic is helping her succeed, the class is by no means easy.

“It’s definitely not a fluff class,” she says. “The thought going into it was, ‘Oh, it should be pretty easy. I’m really familiar with the books,’ but I’m being challenged in a whole new way. Right now, we’re working on our informative paper, and I’m really struggling to find the information I thought I was going to use.”

Plus, the material covers all seven Harry Potter books—a total of 4,224 pages.

“So no, it’s definitely not just a super easy class,” Huffman says.

Barlow

Similarly, students who look at Marine Biology as an easy class where they get to spend a week in Florida will be been sadly mistaken.  Yes, Barlow and her students will spend Spring Break at Goshen’s biology station in Florida, but the trip will hardly be a vacation. The days will start with an 8 a.m. briefing about the day’s activities, followed by 2 ½ hours snorkeling, lunch, exploring a new site, dinner, and evenings spent with microscopes to identify everything they found throughout the day.

“Getting into the ocean and seeing the things you read about is so exciting,” Barlow says. “The diversity and biology of the ocean will give students this sensational experience that I’m hoping will excite them on a deep level.”

Ivy Tech’s isn’t the only marine biology class in the area—IPFW and St Francis offer one, too, Barlow says, in Costa Rica and the Bahamas, respectively—but Ivy Tech’s is easily the most affordable. The fees were about $375, which covered renting the J.N. Roth Marine Biology Station (it’s a private rental, so Ivy Tech students will be the only ones there), two snorkel trips, and a van.

“I wanted to provide a high-quality, sub-tropical field experience at a fraction of the cost of other colleges in town,” she says. “I wanted to keep the cost below the cost of a new cell phone. That was my goal.”

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