Tina Ronson ’17 is a neuroscience major who wondered how much deeper her understanding of the brain could go if she combined the study of neuroscience with themes from the world of philosophy.

 “I found [neuroscience] to be very science-based — which it should be,” she says. “But I missed discussing some of the bigger philosophical questions: Why do we, as humans, want to connect with other humans? Why do we dream?” So Ronson teamed up with a classmate to teach “Beyond the Brain” as part of a new program called IDEAS, which stands for Integrating Democratic Education at Stonehill. These one-credit courses, offered each year in the spring semester, are inspired and facilitated by students who are looking to share their intellectual passions with other students.

A Way to Engage Students in Learning at a Deeper Level

Ronson says she enjoyed the experience immensely. “It gave me time and space to delve into a topic I was really interested in and to learn from other students,” she says. Today, Ronson is student co-director of IDEAS along with Melissa Mardo ’17. Mardo herself was the facilitator of “Lettuce Be Real Foodies,” which covered everything from sustainable agriculture to workers’ rights. “I’m continually amazed by my peers and impressed by how energized they are about their topics,” Mardo says.

The program is now in its fifth year and IDEAS courses, which meet in the evenings and are offered on a pass/fail basis, have become popular. “We received three times as many applications to facilitate IDEAS courses as we had spots,” notes faculty director Sarah Gracombe.

Students apply to become IDEAS facilitators in the spring, presenting their proposed topics as well as an idea of their approach. Gracombe and the student co-directors choose the topics; there were 11 this year, ranging from “Is Slavery Really Over?” to “Potter and Politics.” In the fall, facilitators attend a weekend retreat as well as a series of meetings that help them develop syllabi and prepare for their classes.

An Experience That Serves Students Well After Graduation

 According to Gracombe, IDEAS has long-lasting effects. “I hear from student facilitators who have graduated how much they continue to draw upon their IDEAS experiences both as new professionals and as active citizens,” she says.

 Ronson is already realizing IDEAS’s influence in her own life. “Facilitating a course taught me how to plan, work on a team and mediate peer-to-peer conflicts — all skills that help you become a better leader,” says Ronson, who after graduation will be pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University. “I actually talked about IDEAS in all of my graduate school interviews.”

 Mardo sees the benefits extending to participants as well. “IDEAS empowers students to take charge of their own learning, something they take with them into their other courses,” she says. “They come to expect more of their peers and of themselves.”

 That’s true of Andrew Smith ’17. He’s taking “Flavors of the World,” where students cook food from different countries while studying the cultures with which the food is associated. “Being part of this course has taught me how important it is to get out of your comfort zone and try new things,” he says. “This is something I’ve struggled with in the past; this class is definitely helping me accomplish this.”

 Ronson is also proud that IDEAS makes Stonehill a standout among colleges. “Only roughly a dozen schools across the country offer democratic education courses like this,” she concludes. “It’s one of the things that makes Stonehill unique.”