For over a decade, Weinberg professor Franziska Lys has enhanced her higher-level German classes by assigning students project-based finals in which they immerse themselves in the study of German culture. From shooting broadcast news-like reports in Chicago to conducting research projects in Hamburg, Frau Lys has worked with Media and Design Studio (MADS, formerly Multimedia Learning Center) to prepare her students for the challenge of these immersive assignments while making sure that the work they’re doing does not take away from the true focus of the course – learning German language and culture.
This year, Prof. Lys embarked on a new two-quarter course where students delve into a timely issue – the integration of refugees into German society. Lys’s students were able to see this first-hand by travelling to Berlin over spring break and conducting research on a topic of their choice to present through a new website created for the class, NOTUNTERKUNFT, named for the shelter where many of the refugees are attempting to resettle.
Spring Break in Germany
From 2014-2016, MADS supported a similar Lys class set in Hamburg but the focus was broader and not through a common lens (of the influx of refugees into Germany). But unlike previous versions of the course, this time I was able to travel with the class to Berlin and provide on the ground support to the students to help shape their project ideas into something that they would be able to accomplish on their own with the technologies available to them.
I left for Germany a week earlier than the group (during Finals Week of Winter quarter) with two students who wanted to get a jump on their interviews/research. In a trip like this there is a delicate balance to be maintained – Franziska, myself and Jan Behrs (another German professor) were there as mentors, not chaperones. The students handled themselves with great maturity and were focused on the task at hand – meeting and speaking with the refugees. They would come back from interviews invigorated and wanting to learn and experience more.
The main challenge for the students was to be flexible with what form their projects were taking. In the first quarter of the course, students proposed their topics and plan of action for when they arrived in Berlin, but sometimes things just do not work out as planned. One student had to scrap his entire project because he could not get anyone to speak with him about the topic he wanted to address. Others, realizing their initial hypothesis didn’t have legs, had to retool what they thought they would present. Due to timing and circumstances in their lives, some refugees had to cancel or were extremely difficult to get a hold of. Privacy was much more of an issue for the interview subjects so great care needed to be taken to honor their requests. Prof. Lys was there for it all, to guide and suggest ways to re-approach topics.
Most students have a working understanding of “the internet,” “websites” and “video” – they can make something by playing around and figuring it out because what is true is that they aren’t afraid of technology (generally speaking) and the technology is intuitive enough. But the moment something becomes collaborative, their ability to vocalize what they want or their knowledge of how to make things happen using digital tools diminishes (digital native label not withstanding).
The students had an array of different project in mind – a comic strip, a documentary, a play, and essays with different presentations of media. One of the biggest differences between MADS support for Frau Lys’ previous Hamburg courses and this new Berlin course was that this time her students worked collaboratively with us to build the Notunterkunft website instead of just providing content to be linked. Choices were made by Franziska and Matthew Taylor (MADS IT Director) and Sergei Kalugin (MADS Developer) about the style and look, but the students had control within the chosen template to present their refugee stories how they wanted them to be told. In addition, those stories needed to be told in both English and German.
Challenges aside, it was a rewarding experience that I think the students walked away from with not only a greater understanding of German culture and what it means to be a refugee; but a confidence in how to conduct research or interviews and an understanding of how technology can be used to tell a story in a visual, audible or sensory way.
Go check out their fantastic work on the NOTUNTERKUNFT site!
Cecile-Anne Sison has worked with faculty, students and staff for over a decade; creating media and managing projects for course enhancement.