Teaching by Learning Something New Every Day

Picture of Shuba Tewari

Shubha Tewari enjoys a good challenge, especially if that challenge means that she gets to learn something new. So when she was first asked to teach in the iCons Program at UMass Amherst, she was highly intrigued.

“A lot of higher education is top-down – a teacher lecturing down to students,” Tewari explains. “iCons is about discovering together and that makes it very exciting. The program is also unique because it offers an opportunity to teach students from different disciplines and backgrounds. I was really drawn to that.”

Tewari has been interested in interdisciplinary studies for a long time. Originally from Pondicherry, India, Tewari earned an undergraduate degree in just three years of studying physics, mathematics, and computer science as well as French, Sanskrit, and English literature. She then went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, focusing her research on the physics of liquids and solids.

In January 2015, she accepted a position as a lecturer in the Physics Department at UMass Amherst and was quickly recruited to teach in the iCons Program.

Right away, Tewari appreciated the real-world focus of the iCons Program and the collaborative discovery process employed by both faculty and students. She marveled at how teachers and students work together to solve complex problems, and how iCons teams share their learning with one another, with no one individual or team considered more knowledgeable than any other.

“The program has a broad range of knowledge that students can learn,” says Tewari, “because students choose the topics they study. For faculty who enjoy learning alongside their students, this is an incredibly exciting way to teach.”

One of Tewari’s most memorable teaching experiences in iCons was in 2016 when students were challenged to model the spread of the Zika virus.

Quote about teaching in iCons being exciting because students choose the topics to study.“I asked an old friend of mine who is a modeler at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) if he would take a look the iCons students’ work. This sent the level of student engagement off the charts. The students worked feverishly to translate complex mathematical concepts into polished presentations knowing their work could make a difference. In the end, the CDC rep sent a letter to the iCons students highlighting how the CDC itself had just adopted an interdisciplinary approach to their scientific research, inspired by the iCons Program.”

“Students go through a process wherein they are encouraged to fail – not in the traditional sense of the word, but rather they learn to embrace a discovery-based learning approach,” Tewari remembers. “This is a useful process for educators, too. We must let go of preconceived notions about student success and recognize how useful this experience is for them.”

While Tewari stepped away from her iCons teaching in 2018, she remains deeply inspired by her time in the program and continues to use iCons principles in her courses – where she hopes to learn something new every day.