If you read the syllabus of an Introduction to Sociology course, you’ll notice we have ambitious goals for our students. We not only want our students to understand sociological theories, we want them to use these theories to meaningfully analyze their everyday experiences, interactions, and observations and draw greater meaning from them. How can we encourage this type of engagement in an introductory sociology class? I have realized that the key is by guiding students to think innovatively through a self-directed research project where the students are the drivers of their learning process.
In his TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson, author of the book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, states, “We are educating people out of their creativity.” By asking students to make the study of sociology meaningful to their own lives, they begin observing their environment and perceive the choices they make through a greater sociological lens. Creativity is fostered and developed when students’ curiosity in the world around them is tapped and nurtured through the use of creative, hands-on projects.
For my Introduction to Sociology course, I developed an intensive, hands-on assignment that gives students the opportunity to experience sociology at work. This project asks students to reflect and relate real-life issues to the ideas and techniques discussed in the classroom lectures. It probes students to choose a topic relevant to their lives and analyze it based on the theories that they have learned throughout the semester. It’s a semester-long, self-directed project that puts the students in the drivers’ seat and enhances their learning experience.
By allowing students to choose the topic themselves, students become invested in the research and the theories become meaningful as they relate them to their own lives and interests. In the past, students have selected, researched, and presented on widely varied topics, such as the symbolic meaning behind African-American women’s hair, how Halloween costumes encourage gender stereotypes, video game industry’s gender bias, minimum wage, transgender people and bathrooms, tattoos and society, and the media’s influence on society’s perception of beauty.
The first part of the project follows a fairly standard research paper approach. Students must write a research paper that not only supports their view, but also incorporates opposing viewpoints. Students learn to search and evaluate peer-reviewed academic articles to support their observations, as they are required to incorporate at least two peer-reviewed academic articles in their paper. They then have to interpret the social problem from the selected sociological perspective and suggest a social policy to improve or lessen the social problem.
Once they complete their research paper, students move to the second part of the project. This is where they get to tap their creativity. Students amalgamate their research and synthesize it into a video or infographic, which they present to the class and post online. I’ve compiled a list of free technological tools that students can use to create infographics and videos: http://orithirsh.weebly.com.
Millennials are mass consumers of technology, based on the findings of the 2014 Pew Report. Rather than simply consuming mass media, the project asks students to leverage and apply their knowledge for academic purposes. The technological portion of the independent study acts to engage the students as well through the purposeful integration of technology. The fascinating part of this project is not the research itself, but how students transition of consumers of information to creators and explainers, sharing their new knowledge with their peers.
A study by Chavez-Eakle in 2009 on creativity found that “the basic components of the creative process” incorporates “generating new possibilities, experimentation, exploration of the limits of reality and fantasy.” By asking students to problem-solve and explore the possibilities of how to change the world around them, we foster and nurture their potential and ask them to apply this kind of analytical and creative thinking in other areas of study.
This type of creative project can be applied in other subjects and in all levels of education. This project teaches students how to pursue an inquiry on a topic of their choice and guides them to think through it using a sociological lens. By giving students assignments that require problem solving on self-selected topics, it inspires curiosity and fosters the type of creative thinking we expect from our future leaders and innovators.
Student videos and infographs can be found on my class’s website under “project-based learning.” http://orithirsh.weebly.com/project-based-learning-introduction-to-sociology-spring-2015.html
Chávez-Eakle, R. (2010). The Relevance of Creativity in Education. Retrieved January 13, 2016, from http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Journals/spring2010/therelevanceofcreativityineducation/
Hirsh, O. (2013). Introduction to Sociology SOC 3100 – W65 . Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://orithirsh.weebly.com/
Purcell, K., & Rainie, L. (2014, December 8). Americans Feel Better Informed Thanks to the Internet. Retrieved January 13, 2016, from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/12/08/better-informed/
Robinson, K. (2006, February). Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en
Orit Hirsh teaches at Kingsborough Community College, which is part of the CUNY system.