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ProMod helps ASU students succeed by working together.
ProMod allows ASU students to streamline education.
ASU's new ProMod program aims to build freshmen retention rates.
October 19, 2015

ASU's ProMod program aims to streamline education, raise freshmen retention rates

Many freshmen come to college excited to learn about their majors — but sometimes less enthusiastic about all the first-year courses they’re required to take.

That’s one of the reasons why Arizona State University is trying an innovative model that could transform the way college students take classes by combining three courses and allowing them to produce real work.

The method, called ProModProMod stands for “project-based modular learning.", is being piloted by a few hundred students this semester. It streamlines the curriculum by combining general-education courses with classes in the students’ majors. There are fewer lectures and more teamwork. At the end of the year, the students have a tangible product — such as an artwork or a treatment plan.

“I think one thing that hurts the kids is a lack of coherence in the curriculum,” said Elizabeth Capaldi Phillips, professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Thirty percent of ‘introduction to bio’ is the same as ‘introduction to psych.’ That’s not fair and it’s not sensible because you should be building on knowledge.”

Capaldi PhillipsCapaldi Phillips is also provost emerita, a University Professor and co-director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at ASU., who is on the team that’s leading the ProMod initiative, said,  “Project-based learning is one way of making things coherent, engaging the students and getting them to see the connections and care about what they’re learning.”

While project-based learning in a course is not new to ASU, combining courses and asking students to solve a problem is a reinvention. For example, kinesiology students take Kinesiology 101, Psychology 101 and English 101 in their module, in which they are developing an evidence-based treatment plan for lower-back pain. They learn about anatomy and treatment in the kinesiology part, how to get patients to comply in the psychology portion, and how to write concisely and coherently about their work in the English part.

Students with a white board

ProMod students

Joshua Bowser and fellow students work on their heat-island
reduction project in the ProMod program at Cesar Chavez High School.

Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

ASU has already overcome a major logistical problem with ProMod. Although the students take three courses together in a module, the classes are still graded separately on their transcripts.

“The registrar was a genius on that,” Capaldi Phillips said. “They’ll still get grades because if they want to go to medical school, they want to see grades.”

More than 300 students in 14 ASU programs are participating in the modules, taught by faculty teams, and the goal is for their entire degree to be project-based.

Along the way, they will learn skills that employers are demanding: writing, presentation, problem-solving and the all-important understanding of collaboration.

The students can see the connections in their classwork and appreciate that the required general-education courses are not a waste of time and money.

“I was excited about this because they wanted to make a change and it puts meaning into the course,” said Itzel Martinez Mejia, a freshman who is taking the ProMod in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

ProMod was started this fall, and it’s too early to know whether it will increase retention rates — or show other measurable results, such as better grades.

But so far, the new way of teaching and learning has invigorated both the students and the professors who are trying it.

“Sometimes we get bogged down with our students,” said Tannah BromanBroman is the kinesiology degree coordinator., a principal lecturer in Exercise Science and Health Promotion who is teaching a ProMod group this semester.  “We think they’re not doing anything, they’re not doing well on the tests, they’re not engaged.

“This renews your faith in their ability to solve problems.”


ProMod provides a unique educational experience. Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now


Students shape ProMod

ProMod is driven by students, not faculty.

Students design how they want to tackle the project. They divide the work. They learn the course material when it’s relevant to their project.

About 40 freshmen are participating in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre's ProMod, called “The Art of the Long Now.” They are exploring how different media can imagine a new future for the human race.

At the end of the fall semester, the students will have created a video project that encourages college students to think about the future. Their end-of-the-year project will be a media and performance installation.

“I’m really interested in the idea that students can have an impact on the world around them directly in that freshman experience, not waiting until they’re older or being in rehearsal while in college — but having an impact right then,” said Jacob PinholsterPinholster also is an associate professor of performance design., director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, who is teaching the module.

That opportunity is what drew Martinez Mejia to choose the ProMod program.

“The reason I want to be an actor is so I can have my voice heard and make an impact on the world, and the moment I heard about this program, I thought it was exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.

The camaraderie has enriched the experience.

“I thought we were going to do one whole idea, but every one of us has an individual idea and when we combine our ideas, it makes it so much bigger than what we thought,” said Martinez Mejia, who is from Avondale, Arizona.

“We’re like a family instead of a hundred people in one room.”

The “soft skills” the students will learn are critical to the ProMod concept.

“They’re going to learn how to react to difficulty and change because they’re going to run up against their own obstacles, or I will introduce artificial ones,” Pinholster said.

“They will learn the idea of being responsible to another person, to listen, to understand the value of what another person says and how to measure it against your own ideas and make an objective call.

“They’ll learn to not be precious about the things they’ve created but to put them out there and take a risk.”

Broman said she has been surprised at who is succeeding in her kinesiology module.

“Sometimes the ‘A’ students are the hardest ones to get on board. … Sometimes they suffer because there isn’t always a right answer or a single answer.

“You’ll have the ‘B’ or ‘C’ students pulling the ‘A’ students along, saying ‘Let’s just try this.’ ”

It starts in high school

ASU developed ProMod after receiving a $4 million “First in the World” grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2014, the largest grant among the 24 institutions who were awarded. The competition, launched that year by President Barack Obama, was intended to find new ways to increase retention for students who are at higher risk of not completing their degrees — such as first-generation college-goers and teenagers from low-income families.

Of the 305 students who opted into ProMod this semester, nearly two-thirds receive the Pell Grant awards for low-income students. About 21 percent of the students are Hispanic.

Students volunteer to be in the modules and can opt out of continuing in the program.

The hands-on projects can level the playing field between students whose parents attended college and those whose parents are high school graduates who have no idea what university courses are like, according to Jeanne WilcoxWilcox is the principal investigator for the grant and is the Nadine Mathis Basha Professor of Early Childhood Education., a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who is on the ProMod team.

“I was very interested in the pipeline piece. We have a lot of kids who get to college and are not ready,” she said.

That’s another risk factor that leads to dropping out.

So ASU has partnered with Phoenix Union High School District to place ProMods into three high schools. Seniors at Cesar Chavez, Bioscience and Metrotech high schools take a module that combines English, communications, a science class and a sustainability class. If they matriculate at ASU next fall, they start with 13 credits earned from the ProMod.

Cesar Chavez has 21 studentsAll of the Cesar Chavez ProMod high school students are in the AVID program, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination and supports students who would be first-generation college students. in ProMod who were recruited because their transcripts qualified them for admittance to ASU.

Martin Irwin teaches the science part of the ProMod course at Cesar Chavez. His class is investigating ways to mitigate the effects of urban heat islandsUrban heat islands are cities that are warmer than rural areas because of heat absorbed by buildings and roads and from heat generated by energy use.. They’ve interviewed ASU experts and explored ideas such as reflective paint, rubberized concrete and vertically growing plant walls.

Irwin said the students stay more focused because they are together for four hours a day.

“The students truly enjoy what they’re doing, and it becomes more exciting to explore their ideas instead of coming up with my same ideas,” he said.

The students honed their writing skills by creating brochures to pitch their solutions, said English teacher Ben Pitts.

“English is there to support the science-driven questions. The English portion is taking what they learned in the research and communicating in a clear and concise manner,” he said.

Not all the students jumped at the chance to join the ProMod program, but were persuaded by Alesa Patterson, the AVID coordinator at Cesar Chavez.

“Any time you talk about college, the biggest concern for our students is paying for college,” Patterson said.

 “When you talk about the opportunity to receive credit for free, they start to listen. And their parents start to listen. Besides which, the classes prepare you for any college. These are college-level classes.”

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Veterans transition to student life at ASU

Veterans transition to college at ASU
Acclimation, ignorant questions part of veterans transition to college
Life at ASU: The veteran perspective
October 19, 2015

ASU helps veterans segue to civilian life with groups and services aimed to ease the life change

Editor's note: This feature is part of a series profiling different slices of ASU's diverse population. Find more stories here.

They were responsible for other people’s lives, sometimes while under enemy fire. And then, in a flash, they’re sitting in classrooms watching other students text while professors are talking.

Arizona State University has about 3,400 students who are military veterans — a population that has unique challenges and advantages.

For many, the transition from military life to campus is abrupt, with some veterans starting classes just weeks after becoming civilians.

Some take full course loads while dealing with the emotional and physical scars of battle. Others spend their evenings changing diapers instead of socializing. They can face insensitive questions about their service. The throngs of people can be overwhelming.

“It’s culture shock,” said Joanna Sweatt, military/veteran advocate at ASU. She and her staff give academic and career advice and get veterans the services they need, such as counseling, support groups and tutoring.

Their work seems to be helping. ASU was named a “Military Friendly School for 2015” by G.I. Jobs magazine for the sixth consecutive year and was ranked as the No. 2 "Best College for Veterans" by College Factual.

Sweatt also provides emotional support.

Woman holding baby

Kayla Colon holds her 3.5-week-old daughter
Tatiana Sophia Colon, as her husband prepares
dinner for the family at their Chandler home.

Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“I have to get them to communicate, and help them get over what their ideas are of the outside world,” said Sweatt, who was in the Marine Corps for nine years. “Like, now there’s no one telling them what to do. Their time is their own to manage.”

While 85 percent of the veterans have college credits when they arrive at ASU, the move to campus life is still an adjustment.

“In Tempe, they can be in a lecture hall with 250 students who are cooking away on social media, and that can be distressful to a veteran, who is used to a situation where when you’re in someone’s presence, you give them your attention,” Sweatt said.

She said that although the veterans can face challenges, they also can draw on the discipline and leadership skills they built in the military.

“They bring real-world experience to the classroom and they don’t want to do poorly,” Sweatt said.

“It’s our job to show them they’re welcome here and that they deserve a college experience.”

From fighter jets to full-time student

When she was in the Navy, Kayla Colon launched fighter jets off the deck of aircraft carriers.

“I loved the adrenaline rush. I loved the thrill. I loved the smell of jet fuel. I loved the flight deck,” she said. “It was everything I wanted.”

Colon always was a go-getter.

She graduated a year early from Sequoia Charter School in Mesa and joined the Navy at age 17, eventually serving on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carriers.

During her second deployment, she met her husband and had a daughter.

“I decided I didn’t want to be away from her, so I needed to make the transition to being a civilian,” Colon said.

She left the Navy in June 2014 and started full time at ASU two months later, majoring in tourism development and management at the Downtown Phoenix campus.

“I am very structured, very organized. We have a system and a routine. We do things a certain way to make our lives work,” said Colon, who is 24. She expects to graduate next year, earning her degree in three years.

That organizational quality has served her well as Colon juggles a full class load with parenthood. Her husband works full time and is taking classes at Mesa Community College.

“But it’s a different mindset being around younger students who don’t have children and don’t have the responsibilities. They might work a part-time job to pay for their outings,” she said.

“I have different motivations … I look at my kids and think ‘this is why I’m doing this.’ ”

Still, the transition into civilian and student life didn’t come without challenges.

“I had a panic attack on my first day of classes,” she said. “There were so many people and it was overwhelming. I hadn’t been to school for six years.”

The support she’s received through the Student Veterans Club and with Sweatt has helped ease the change.

Last year, Colon, who wants to be a corporate event planner, organized family activities for the club. That camaraderie has helped sustain her through the tough times.

“Being a veteran comes with its own issues and being a veteran with a family has its own issues that not everybody can understand.”

Perhaps nothing shows Colon’s grit more than her most recent achievement: She gave birth to her second daughter on Friday, Sept. 11.

By the following Monday she was back in class.


Woman holding a poster
Zsuzsa Szabo holding a sign made for her by her students.


The uninformed questions

Like many veterans, Zsuzsa Szabo’s parents inspired her to pursue military service.

But not because they were veterans.

“Both of my parents are immigrants and I grew up with the ‘America is the best country’ viewpoint and I always wanted to give back in some way,” she said.

After graduating from Westwood High School in Mesa, Szabo attended Mesa Community College for a year and then joined the Air Force on the advice of her sisters — who had been in the Army.

At Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, she worked handling medical records at a hospital.

“It was the best experience I ever had — besides ASU,” Szabo said.

Though she loved the Air Force, Szabo wanted to fulfill her dream of being a teacher, and so she came to ASU as an undergraduate in 2011. Getting a work-study job at the Pat Tillman Veterans Center helped ease her transition from airman to student.

“The environment and the camaraderie and getting to be with other veterans who are going to school is a great experience,” she said.

After graduating, Szabo landed her dream job — teaching history at Dobson High School in Mesa, where she shared her life experiences with the teenagers.

“When we got to current events and we were talking about the war on terrorism, I was able to bring a unique perspective to it,” she said.

Last year, she decided to return to ASU for her master’s degree in history. As a graduate student, Szabo, 31, still checks in with the Pat Tillman Center.

“I missed it so much and I still visit when I can,” she said.

Like many veterans on campus, Szabo has faced some uninformed questions.

“Always, with the Air Force, it’s whether I flew a plane. They think everyone was a pilot.

“Or, ‘Did you kill anybody?’ My students in high school asked that too,” said Szabo, who hopes to resume teaching when she completes her masters.

“Some people don’t have any clue about the military – just what they’ve seen on TV and in the movies, so I’m happy to answer their questions.”


Woman addresses room
Military Veteran Advocate Joanna Sweatt talks to academically transitioning veterans at the Veterans Welcome Orientation in ASU


Getting the right advice

Part of the transition from military life to student status includes paperwork, and the details about different benefits can get complicated.

That’s where Alan Phan can help.

Phan is one of the student workers at the Pat Tillman Center. A global studies major, he spent nearly four years in the Marine Corps, which he chose because it was the “toughest” branch of the military.

“I wanted to challenge myself. I regretted it the second day I was in, but I got through it and survived and I’m OK now,” he said.

Phan was an aviation and maintenance administrator at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, describing his team’s responsibilities this way: “If the airplane crashes, it comes straight back to us.”

He decided to pursue civilian life so he could spend more time with his son, who’s now 6 years old.

Phan, 28, has a full course load and works 20 hours a week at the Pat Tillman Center, helping fellow veterans navigate the administration to access their benefits.

“The best thing we can do is give them the right advice and make sure the classes they take are going toward their major. If they don’t, the VA won’t pay for it,” he said. “If you change your major and those classes don’t transfer, those benefits are gone. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Phan, who hopes to work for a non-governmental organization, said the job has helped him adjust to life on a big college campus.

“With 18-year-olds or 19-year-olds, when we have conversations, it’s hard to relate to them,” he said. “A lot of the kids here, their parents are paying for it or they’re smart and they got scholarships.

“I wouldn’t be in college without the military.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter, ASU Now