Zoe Rennock ’24 Partners With Bioengineering as an Inclusive Education Consultant through PIE

Group projects are critical to the applied learning that takes places across the University campus, and not least to the Bioengineering Capstone Design course led by Pun To (Douglas) Yung, associate teaching professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Yung’s course asks student teams to develop real-world solutions to biomedical challenges, taking them from concept through prototype design. It can be a challenging environment.

“These are long projects, and students are working day in and day out,” says Yung. “But I began to notice my student teams were having a hard time with the collaboration and with concepts such as shared leadership and how to accommodate and adapt to other team members.”

Picture of Zoe Rennock
Zoe Rennock

Adds Yung, “Having a partner to help me take a look at team dynamics would be awesome, and it would help with real needs in my teaching practice.”

In fall 2022 Yung got such a partner: Zoe Rennock ’24 a selected studies in education (SSE) student in the School of Education, whose focus area is “Schooling and Diversity.” The program that brings Yung and Rennock together is the Partnership for Inclusive Education (PIE), a Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence initiative.

Happy Coincidence
PIE pairs faculty and students for a semesterlong exchange of perspectives on teaching, learning and inclusivity in a particular course. Faculty members sign up voluntarily and are paired with a student—often one from the SSE undergraduate degree program or the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public and Community Service—who is not enrolled in the course.

“The Partnership for Inclusive Education was developed in summer 2020, in the wake of campus and national protests, such as #NotAgainSU and May 2020 unrest in the wake of the George Floyd murder,” says PIE Coordinator Laurel Willingham-McLain. “It’s a perfect complement to the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) compliance initiatives all staff and faculty must participate in. PIE extends the DEIA focus over an entire semester, with one student collaborating with one faculty member on one course. The program contextualizes DEIA initiatives within a student-professor relationship that encourages respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility.”

Willingham-McLain says that the program defines “inclusion” as being culturally responsive to all students. “We define it together—students and faculty—during our orientation,” she explains. “We ask, ‘What does inclusion mean broadly?’”

Responses include, “That all students are invited and supported in learning” and “That each student is respected as having a unique set of experiences.”

“For this program, inclusion means creating culturally responsive learning environments for all students at Syracuse by opening a systematic exchange of perspectives on teaching and learning,” says Willingham-McLain.

The relationship between PIE and the School of Education began in summer 2020. SSE undergraduates must complete more than 270 hours of applied learning experiences across campus and in the community, including internships and shadowing. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, finding these placements became a challenge for program coordinators Kathy Oscarlece and Professor Barbara Applebaum.

“SSE needed placements, and we needed students. It was a happy coincidence,” says Willingham-McLain. A PIE internship can be an especially perfect fit for an SSE student going into K-12 or higher education. “It can be a plum internship because students get to pull back the curtain on faculty and discover how much they care about students and the depth of their concern.”

Classroom Dynamic
Rennock, a junior, started discussing how to fulfill her two semesters of internship credits with Kathy Oscarlece in spring 2021. “Kathy brought up the Partnership for Inclusive Education, and because my concentration is in Schooling and Diversity, it went perfectly hand-in-hand.”

Paired with Professor Yung for the fall 2022 semester, the two began meeting in August, to discuss what Rennock’s consulting role would be—to attend classes, observe project teams and communication among students, and give Yung recommendations for improvements.

“The main thing Professor Yung wanted help with was for each group to manage its teamwork and to include everyone in their discussions,” explains Rennock. “As the capstone course evolves into its second semester, group work can become unorganized and dynamics can become a little more tense.”

“In our teams of four there are naturally students who like to participate more,” observes Yung. “Leadership roles naturally emerge, but other students can feel muted and alienated. I might not be aware of this. But with Zoe observing, she can assess each team for who is and isn’t communicating. Then we can take action. For example, Zoe might send out material about shared leadership, or I might discuss teamwork best practices with everyone.”

Adds Rennock, “I brought what I learned from my education classes about including people and group dynamics, as well as how we support students with disabilities such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. I also learned a lot about project-based learning.”

Yung explains that Rennock helped with another classroom dynamic, the relationship between Yung’s teaching assistant and the class environment. “Zoe helped onboard my TA. He is new to the country and from a more lecture-based academic setting, so he was also new to the concept of student collaboration. Zoe noticed he was not fully comfortable at first. She is kind of like the connective tissue that helps the course run harmoniously, helping me to build trust among the student teams and among the leadership team.”

Stepping Up
PIE creates a unique space, says Willingham-McLain. “It’s where students and faculty think together about learning without grading or evaluating each other. There’s nothing else like this program on campus.” For students, PIE is an opportunity to “step up” their professionalism: “It’s on them to organize weekly meetings, observe classes, ask open-ended questions, and give feedback.”

The program is also an undergraduate research and publishing opportunity. For instance, in November 2022 SSE student Jingzhe (Jackson) Qi ’23 co-presented on PIE at an educational development conference in Seattle, Washington, while SSE alumna Madison Jakubowski ’22 co-presented “Creating and Sustaining a Student-Faculty Partnership for Inclusive Education” at Pedagogicon 2022.

Ultimately, Willingham-McLain says she loves the “nimbleness” of the program and deeply appreciates her partnerships with the School of Education and Shaw Center. “They have access to students, and I have access to professors,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the next push toward expanding this program and ways to incentivize more faculty to join.”

That enthusiasm is shared by Yung and Rennock. “It’s a great program,” says Yung. “I’ve been recommending it to my ECS colleagues and have even brought one of them on board.”

Adds Rennock, “I’d recommend that other professors do the program. When student consultants and faculty develop a good relationship, we can make change.”

As for how useful her PIE internship will be to her career, Rennock says she is thinking of teaching young children: “This experience can be used across grades, for teaching skills such as interpersonal communication and project-based learning.”

Learn more about the School of Education’s Selected Studies in Education bachelor’s degree program, or contact Timothy Findlay, assistant director of undergraduate admissions and recruitment, at twfindla@syr.edu or 315.443.4269.

This article was originally published on April 5, 2023, By Martin Walls here