Faculty Innovators: Sumreen Asim and John Ross

11th October 2021

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–For a student, the academic year can sometimes feel like a roller coaster at a theme park, with its highs, lows and ecstatic relief at having survived.

And wobbly knees.

But what if classrooms really were theme parks?

Better still: What if theme parks were classrooms?

Absurd, right?

Not when you listen to Sumreen Asim and John Ross.

Asim, assistant professor of elementary science and technology and Ross, assistant professor of management, designed and implemented a travel-study course combining the needs of both science education and business in an informal learning environment, bringing students to theme parks in Orlando, Florida for an immersive cross-disciplinary experience.

Doing the impossible

When Asim and Ross cooked up the idea of taking students to Orlando, they were breaking new ground.

“The first trip was sort of like, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this,’” Ross said.

They were encouraged by Asim’s scouting trip in 2019, and the words of Walt Disney, who famously said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

With the support of the IU Southeast Accounting Department, the impossible became real, and the class–H427: Education Through Travel–was on its way.

The core innovation here is their big-time application of the “informal learning environment” concept, which covers every setting that is not a traditional formal classroom,

For Asim, the “classroom without walls” is a credo that unifies all her teaching endeavors.

As for Ross, well, he just loves theme parks.

He has taken several classes to Orlando, with students participating in park-led workshops that combine principles of business with behind-the-scenes applications in the entertainment industry.

For business students, theme parks are truly cutting-edge.

“Theme parks are some of the most amazing businesses,” Ross said. “They are masters at retail, customer service, industrial engineering, project management and creativity, and are also tremendous education centers, filled with examples of STEM lessons in action.”

In other words, these are fully-intentioned enterprises designed to squeeze the last drop of money out of you in exchange for unforgettable experiences.

The key word here is “design.”

In a theme park, nothing is left up to chance. Each and every detail is part of a self-contained brand experience.

Entertainment is the “what,” profit is the “why,” and science and technology make up the “how.”

For STEM education students, Disney is a living laboratory where kinetic energy, inertia, pneumatics, electronics, friction, air resistance, compression waves, hydraulics, binaural hearing, electromagnetics, and many other concepts come to life.

Another pillar of theme park design is psychology. Disney in particular offers visitors a chance to experience alternate realities, and uses animatronics, smells, sounds, projections and other special effects to make the experience as convincing as possible. Understanding how people perceive the world around them is key to making this work.

Psychology students—and probably business students, as well—may be familiar with concepts like regency bias, choice overload effect and simplicity theory, to mention only a few of the mechanisms in play. Because people love stories, great attention is paid to creating compelling narratives and putting visitors in the middle of them, so that the ride becomes their story. Because people hate standing in lines, the line becomes part of the ride, with all sorts of mental milestones placed along the way. Because people respond more readily to visual stimulation, words are generally replaced with images whenever possible.

So there is no shortage of subject matter to dissect.

IU Southeast students and instructors John Ross and Sumreen Asim at a theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Doing the impossible: Ross (third from left) and Asim (far right) with IU Southeast students in Orlando.

At Universal, the class walked through Suess Landing and compared it to Marvel Super Hero Island, exploring the varied uses of color, text and the placement of objects or props as part of story-telling, paying particular attention to how the environment attracted different age ranges and played upon different emotions. They studied Transformers and Tower of Terror in like fashion, focused on the science but taking note of the emotional impact, and the strategies behind it.

At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the discussions broadened to considerations of environmental sustainability, the role of native vegetation and animal care.

Stepping back, the students connected the attractions to classrooms, discussing how to meet the needs of our students and how to leverage student interest to “hook” them into engaging with academic content.

At Disney, they revisited this topic through the “Culture of Excellence” workshop, which encouraged students to look at specific exhibits and/or areas of the theme park more critically, identifying how parks work to cater to diverse cultures or languages, with the ultimate goal of creating an inclusive environment for all. 

Students were required to submit tweets during the day, and write a paper at the end of the course. But there was plenty of space for interdisciplinary discussion during joint debriefs, in which the students brought their own unique perspectives to the group.

The strands came together during a workshop in which students were encouraged to articulate a vision of leadership and teamwork within organizations such as schools.

With both Disney and Universal providing living examples of large teams with clear and simple unifying concepts achieving the impossible, students were able to reflect on the ingredients of success.

Learning in the world

Experience. It’s what counts. And increasingly, it’s what students around the country demand from their educational institution.

Experiential learning is nothing new at IU Southeast. In fact, with a deep history of field study, internships and study abroad to draw on, the college is dramatically expanding its copious current offerings to include more trips, excursions, and other experiential opportunities linked to learning goals.

For Asim and Ross, experiential learning has long been at the core of their teaching philosophy. Both see real-world relevance as the key to engaging students, and to initiating the process of lifelong learning—or better still, life as learning.

“Learning happens through construction and connection,” Ross said. “Connection is when we connect learning to similar topics, construction is when we build upon what we already know—this course using theme parks engages both forms of learning.”

Innovation is the key to keeping up with the curiosity they have ignited. Both instructors see the learning process as a joint venture, with innovation as the way in which teachers can maintain and expand student engagement.

Theme parks take the classroom to a new level of innovation.

“Taking our students to a unique learning context allows them to make real-world connections, and makes learning meaningful beyond the textbooks, lectures and classroom activities,” Ross said.

While the pandemic may have put a damper on many activities, Asim and Ross are already planning their next trip to Orlando. They can be sure to attract plenty of interest: Before the trips started, five to ten business students would travel each year, according to Ross. In the 2019-2020 school year, that number had grown to between twenty and thirty.

Homepage photo: Minnie and Mickey Mouse by Momentmal from Pixabay.

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