Justice Brandeis Semester intense and rewarding

Small classes delve into hands-on work, make connections in field

Last summer, Sahar Massachi’s schedule was intense. With just enough time for lunch or dinner breaks, he’d run home after his mobile apps class to grab a change of clothes and a toothbrush before heading to work with his small group of classmates.

To Massachi ’11, M.S. ‘12, who was initially worried about the cost and logistics, it was well worth it.

The mobile apps course is one of several Justice Brandeis Semester (JBS) options. JBS is an engaging, immersive academic program in which small groups of students explore a thematic topic through inquiry-based courses linked to real-world experiential opportunities.

“It was great. I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” Massachi says. “It taught us real tangible skills to actually make things in the real world and it did it in an environment where there weren’t competing pressures on my time.”

horizontal blue bar

New program manager joins team

Amber Thacher brings with her extensive experience and knowledge of the field of international education. Previously, she served as a program manager at Boston University Study Abroad, a study abroad advisor at Northwestern University and coordinated and served as on-site director of programs in Costa Rica and Mexico with Interamerican University Studies Institute in Oregon. She received a master's degree in intercultural relations from Lesley University in 2008 and a bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon in political science in 2002, where she had her first experience abroad at the Universidad Autonoma de Querétaro in Mexico in 2000. In addition to her role at Brandeis, Thacher serves as co-chair of the Boston Area Study Abroad Association.

horizontal blue bar

The program offers students a cohesive semester of integrated courses. To a large extent, it was modeled on the Environmental Field Semester, which had run a few times prior to the inaugural JBS semester in 2010.

“We were doing a lot of fieldwork in all of the environmental studies courses, and getting out to do it was really awkward,” says Brian Donahue, associate professor of American environmental studies, because of scheduling conflicts with other courses. “So we said ‘What if we pulled something together that integrated courses from several of us? Then we wouldn’t have to worry about any of that.’”

Included in that “we” were Laura Goldin, associate professor of the practice and internship director in the Environmental Studies Program, and Dan Perlman, associate provost for assessment and innovation in student learning and associate professor of biology. Together, the trio created the Environmental Field Semester, first offered in the fall of 2007, covering four interrelated courses.

When the university needed ways to solve crowding in the dorms a couple of years later, the administration looked to model a new program on the Environmental Field Semester – but one that would take students off campus to help offset crowding in the residence halls.

It didn’t solve the problem – some of the programs approved, like the Environmental Field Semester, which now falls under the JBS umbrella, didn’t take students away from the Boston area as the eventual “Civil Rights and Racial Justice in Mississippi” semester did – but there was interest in the structure and small classes of just 10 to 15 students.

“Every student learns in a different way,” says Alyssa Grinberg, former JBS program manager. “Traditional classroom learning is invaluable and JBS doesn’t replace it, but the applied knowledge they gain from the program is a really wonderful opportunity for students.” Her successor, Amber Thacher, joined the team last month.

A variety of programs were proposed by faculty and approved, and the JBS office began to gauge interest by registration and waiting lists. Subsequent summers’ offerings were pared or altered accordingly. To date, JBS has also offered “Environmental Health and Justice,” “Health and Society,” “Web Services and Mobile Applications” “Filmmaking from Script to Screen” and “Mobile Apps and Game Development.”

One of Massachi’s few complaints is that since he graduated, JBS offerings have only improved.

This year, JBS continues to offer “Environmental Field Semester” as well as “Ethnographic Fieldwork” and “Web Services and Social Networks,” the last of which Massachi wishes he could have taken. He also lamented the time frame, suggesting some of the courses could have used a little more than just eight weeks. Several courses have, in fact, been extended to 10 weeks. Brandeis continues to offer JBS in the fall as well.

Donahue enjoys working closely with students when teaching the JBS. Due to the work each of the professors do outside of the classroom, they have many connections in environmental sciences and are able to get out and do a lot more when not limited to the classroom, he says. Students often find internships with professionals with whom they worked during their JBS.

“It allows for a lot more hands-on work that is useful in the real world,” Donahue says. “We do very real research projects that have to do with land in Weston and its history and ecology and conservation use of it, so that’s exhilarating and a great way to learn and teach.”

But, he admits, it’s a “relief” when he returns to a semester on campus because “teaching this thing is very intensive, more stressful because it’s sort of a high wire” due of the intense schedule.

Applications in each JBS have increased, on average, by 80 percent since 2010, with more than half of the students receiving financial aid. The semester also counts, Grinberg says, toward the number of semesters students are required to attend Brandeis to graduate.

“In its first year of operation, the Justice Brandeis Semester concept was still new and unproven, but it has now become one of Brandeis's premier experiential learning programs, well-known to both current and prospective students due to its excellent word-of-mouth reputation from past participants,” says Elaine Wong, senior associate dean of arts and sciences. “JBS courses are for the most part taught by Brandeis' most outstanding professors, including five past recipients of Brandeis teaching awards, who are committed to creating a transformative learning experience for JBS participants.”

“The professors are the highest quality and I’d recommend most if not all students to seriously consider JBS if only for the opportunity to spend that much time in an intimate environment with the very best the university has to offer,” Massachi says.

JBS programs for spring and summer of 2013 will be announced next month.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, Science and Technology

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage