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Friday, January 21, 2022

Interactive end-of-semester projects go beyond traditional exams

Snippets of songs and suggestions filled the warm air of the top floors in Lathrop Hall as the First Wave students rehearsed interpretations of their Physics in the Arts material using movement and sound to morph academics into contemporary art. While one may be able to glance away from dull physics notes on lenses, it is impossible to ignore a gigantic camera composed of people who each explain their principal purposes.

With an onslaught of research papers, a cramped back from too much crouching over textbooks now more highlighter yellow than black and white and mind-numbing hours spent studying in Memorial Library, preparing for finals can often be a grueling, isolating and boring process. But it doesn’t have to be.

 Several classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are replacing traditional end-of-semester tasks with immersive out-of-classroom experiences meant to teach both student participants and audiences within the university community.

 “This is a devising process. There are no precedents,” said Chris Walker, a professor in the dance department and artistic director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives and First Wave, a multicultural artistic program.

“Create a work of art that I can experience,” Walker tells his students. “[I should leave] the room feeling more informed about the subject matter.”

The transformation of information into a visible, experiential product helps synthesize student learning with community participation. And according to Walker, working together is key.

Tina Brown and Trevor Rees, graduate students seeking Master of Fine Arts degrees in acting and directing, agree. While helping develop a stage production of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, they said they are learning collaboratively as they embark upon a theatrical adventure of unprecedented originality.

“We’re trying to keep the heart of the story, but put it in a theatrical space so that no one feels like they’re just reading it, but actually experiencing Poe,” Brown said.

Cooperative participation can also expand upon the traditional laboratory settings of campus. The Tropical Ecology and Conservation First-Year Interest Group, whose courses center on discussion of threats to Earth’s rainforests and coral reefs, will journey via plane, bus and canoe to the depths of the Ecuadorian rainforest this winter break.

At the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, FIG members like UW-Madison freshman Joel Cryer will collect data for experiments they are currently developing. Cryer’s group is considering conducting research on variance in the insect population from the center of the forest outward.

Though the trip marks the end of the road for most students, Cryer said some groups have had their research published.

Another group, the Science History Detective FIG, combines scientific interpretation with art in a series of museum displays.

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“We unearth some of the objects on campus, the museums that not everyone knows about,” UW-Madison freshman Robin Sandner said. “[It’s] something behind the scenes of campus.”

Throughout the semester, Sandner and her classmates scoured campus archives for the class’s upcoming exhibition, “Capturing Nature: Instruments, Specimens, Art.” Comprised of everything from taxidermy and jarred snakes to a phonograph Thomas Edison gifted to the university himself, Sandner said the exhibition is a paradigm shift in how people relate to nature scientifically and artistically.

“We were all kind of entranced with these things,” Sandner said of the objects she and her classmates personally selected to research including hers, an antique inkwell.

Whether it be an inkwell, an Ecuadorian adventure, a theatrical production or interpretive choreography, there are numerous ways UW-Madison students are learning and sharing their knowledge and talents with the rest of campus to close out their semesters. These methods might not be conventional, but as Walker said, learning is all about “throwing the brain into a tizzy.”

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