Faculty Spotlight

Sumreen Asim & John Ross

For a student, college sometimes feels like a theme park ride: highs, lows, terror, then relief at having survived.

But what if classrooms really were theme parks?

Better still: What if theme parks were classrooms?

Two IU Southeast faculty members are answering those questions.

Dr. Sumreen Asim, assistant professor of elementary science and technology and Dr. John 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 their H427 class to Orlando, they weren’t sure it would work.

But 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.”

Asim and Ross enjoy pushing the boundaries of the term “informal learning environment,” which covers every setting that is not the traditional four walls and a white board on a college campus.

For Asim, the “classroom without walls” is a credo that has long unified all her many and diverse teaching endeavors.

Ross will tell you he just digs theme parks.

Then you realize it’s deeper than that. Ross 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.

It turns out theme parks are cutting-edge enterprises. And recently, many of them have opened new educational departments to share their enormous accumulated knowledge and experience with students from middle school through college.

Ross has been eager to take advantage.

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

For Asim’s 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 through the technology of the rides, shows and other attractions.

Another pillar of theme park design is psychology. Disney in particular offers visitors a chance to experience alternate realities, and uses technology like 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.

That is where students meet up with concepts like regency bias, choice overload effect and simplicity theory, to mention only a few of the psychological mechanisms underlying park design. Because people love stories, theme park designers make sure to create compelling narratives and put 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 replaced with images whenever possible.

The course allowed students to enjoy the attractions, then analyze and discuss what was really going on. 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, focusing on the science but also taking note of strategies used to manipulate emotions.

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

John Ross and Sumreen Asim at Disneyland

Faculty meeting: IU Southeast instructors (lr) John Ross, Sumreen Asim, Linda Christiansen, and Kathryn Ernstberger during a break at Disney World Resort.

Sumreen and John's class at Disney World Resort.

Making connections

Stepping back, the students were able to connect 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 between the business and science students 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.

Students develop creative problem-solving and communication skills during a class on teamwork at Disney World Resort, through examples based on real-world business experiences of Disney leaders.

IU Southeast students learn about the science behind Epcot's Living With The Land attraction by taking the Behind The Seeds tour.

Learning in the world

Experience. It’s what prospective students around the country demand from their college, especially since the pandemic.

Experiential learning is nothing new at IU Southeast. And in response to increased demand, the college is dramatically expanding its offerings to include more trips, excursions, internships and other experiential opportunities tied 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.”

Both instructors see the learning process as a joint venture. They view innovation as the way in which teachers can maintain and expand student engagement.

“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.

Does it work? Judging by the steady increase in student participation from trip to trip, the answer is “heck yeah!”

While the pandemic may have put a damper on many activities, Asim and Ross are already planning their next trip to Orlando, and students are signing up. Dubbed “Theme Park U,” the trip will bring together students from IU campuses, Bucknell University and Central Florida University for an immersive three-credit experience that includes a symposium with theme park executives; classes on park design, leadership, human resources, technology, marketing and more; and behind-the-scenes tours that give students insights into the special effects that make these places so special.

Staff Spotlight: Tiffany Buckmaster