In 2020, April Hiscox and a colleague went to a quilting convention. She left the convention inspired and filled with new ideas, but not for a quilt — for the classroom.
The inspiration came during a history presentation that used quilting to talk about women in science. Hiscox and her colleague loved the idea of incorporating art into other subjects and thought, "Why can't the same thing be done with science?" With funding from the College of Arts and Sciences teaching incubator, she designed and piloted an introductory geography course called "Making Geography." The course centered on a semester-long collaborative quilting project.
"There was no written work. Students had to write small paragraphs — like an artist statement — about their final projects to present, but they had to figure out how to present all these different geographic concepts via fabric. And it worked out well once they warmed up," says Hiscox, who was awarded the 2023 Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award.
Like many of her colleagues, Hiscox views education as a conversation between professors and students. It's not just getting in front of the room and doling out knowledge; it’s also students telling their professor what they're learning and would like to learn.
"Everybody has almost the entirety of human knowledge accessible whenever in their pockets now," she says. "My job is to teach students how to think scientifically and how to translate that into assessing things in their lives."
She found the best way to do that job involves getting creative and using nontraditional teaching methods. These unconventional methods sometimes see her take her students outside the classroom and into the field — literally. In fall 2019, she partnered with the South Carolina Honors College to bring a group of honors students to a meteorological field in Wisconsin. The students experienced how a field campaign is run and collected their own data.
"Being in the classroom is being in a sterile environment," she says. "It is an entirely different experience than being out in the middle of a forest or a lake or in a cornfield and having to make something work. There are so many problems you can encounter. Seeing them work and see larger-scale instruments we wouldn't have access to normally is important for understanding those concepts in that class."
In many of her courses, she offers students the opportunity to design their final projects. They have fully embraced this nontraditional assessment and expressed themselves by writing raps, making coloring books and even a board game based on a hurricane.
"These students had learned something, but it wasn't being tested in a traditional multiple choice or essay type exam. They needed to express it in these other ways where they were also having fun doing it," she says.
Being unafraid to experiment and go off script in her lectures is hallmark of her pedagogy. She recognizes that different things spark interest in students, and every individual is a product of a different set of experiences and learning styles.
"Sometimes the best learning happens when a student asks a kind of off-the-wall question, and you can answer that in a way that still gets the class material in there but more is interesting than just being lectured at over time.”