Caitlin Varley

For Tom Kopp, professor of teacher education at Miami University, learning is anything but traditional.

With courses on geocaching and letterboxing as well as a bluegrass workshop, Kopp holds special workshops to allow his students to explore their curiosity.

According to Kopp, curiosity is an incredibly useful educational tool.

“This whole business of curiosity killing cats is nonsense,” Kopp said.

Kopp’s doctorate degree is in human motivation, which led to his fascination with curiosity.

“Curiosity is this incredibly compelling quality,” Kopp said. “Of the various aspects of human motivation the one that kind of really intrigues me is this whole business of curiosity and interest.”

Kopp said he created his summer workshops to actually “get out there” instead of just talking about the topics.

“They’ve got to be in the field (and) hands-on,” Kopp said. “You’ve got to experience it to really know what it’s all about.”

A creative approach

According to Kopp, his workshops include a three-course sequence on curiosity that is mostly for educators, including public school teachers, home school teachers or even people who work at summer camps.

For the past two years, Kopp’s first course focuses on what curiosity is, the second looks on how to make it happen in the classroom. The third course then examines how to teach through a curiosity-based approach.

While working as a high school English teacher in New York, Kopp said he taught Emily Dickinson by first talking about her many quirks before tackling her poetry.

“By that time the kids’ curiosity is going nuts and then you work your way into the poems, and by that time they start to look for her personality in the poems,” Kopp said. “Lo and behold, they’ve had a really intense Emily Dickinson experience.”

Billie Best, a substitute music teacher at Kramer Elementary, took Kopp’s curiosity series last summer to renew her teaching license.

Best said she had the opportunity to choose a focus based on her interests in relation to the class topic.

She said the class met in groups to talk about their work, took pictures and wrote papers.

“It’s just a way of finding out more in 20 different ways by doing creative things to gather information and to learn more about a topic or an interest or an idea,” Best said.

Best said the class had many little projects, including field trips and computer research.

“I really enjoy (the) classes because they’re experiential and I’m very much a lover of learning by doing,” Best said.

Miami alumna 1994 Kristen Schwind took two classes in Kopp’s series to renew her teaching license and to give her new ideas to use while homeschooling her children.

Schwind said that after taking Kopp’s workshops, she now focuses on finding out what her children are interested in and allowing them to study accordingly.

Schwind said her kids are currently working on a timeline project and have helped their father set up electronic equipment.

“I don’t have the same standards a (traditional) classroom teacher has to meet,” Schwind said. “I have personally a lot of flexibility in the way I set up my lesson plans and the way I teach my children.”

Beside his three-course sequence, Kopp said his other workshops are even more intense. Debuting last summer, Kopp created on class based on the sport called geocaching, which requires participants to find a hidden object by using a global positioning system (GPS) from coordinates posted on a Web site.

“It’s a whole sport … a whole pastime based around curiosity,” Kopp said.

Kopp said there are over 700,000 hidden places in the world and about 1,200 in the Oxford area. During the two-day workshop, students use handheld GPS devices as a guide while they travel around Oxford looking for the geocatches, or hidden objects.

Kopp said geocaching can be applied to teaching in many ways, particularly since research is based on searching and exploration.

Kopp said he learned about geocaching when an orienteering friend mentioned it.

Best said she took geocaching as part of one of Kopp’s curiosity courses. Prior to the course, Best said she was unaware of GPS devices and didn’t know geocaching existed.

“It was just absolutely amazing,” Best said.

Education for a lifetime

For summer 2009, Kopp said he plans to add another workshop based on exploration, called letterboxing. Letterboxing uses by clues instead of a GPS to search for the “letterboxes.”

According to Kopp, when people find the letterbox, they open it and stamp the piece of paper inside with their own personal stamp. Then, they stamp their logbook with the stamp found in the letterbox. Kopp said he found letterboxing in a 1998 article in Smithsonian magazine, and compares it to Treasure Island.

“It’s just perfect for language arts teachers,” Kopp said. “We’re talking about symbolic thinking and problem solving and following directions.”

Kopp said he spends his time talking, listening and messing around. He added that he thinks life should be playful.

“I think that purpose can be found in play,” Kopp said. “What strikes a lot of people as being just a frivolous waste of time, I see if there’s something about it that human beings find compelling. Then there’s potential there for using it for productive ends.”

Kopp’s other workshop relates to one of his favorite pastimes.

In addition to being a Miami professor, Kopp is also is the director of education for the International Bluegrass Music Association.

“I am an absolutely crazed bluegrass fan, have been for years,” Kopp said.

Kopp said he thinks the way to learn about a culture isn’t by reading and lecturing, but instead by actually going there.

“You’ve got to jump in the fishbowl,” he said.

Teaching a bluegrass workshop for the past five years, Kopp said it begins as an online course. Students adopt a favorite band and learn about the instruments, history and terminology on the Internet.

“Once everybody’s all dressed up and ready to go, we all go off to a really intense bluegrass festival in Kentucky,” Kopp said.

The class stays at the festival from dawn until about 1 a.m. the next morning, totally immersed in the music, food and people.

“By the time you get done, you don’t kind of know about bluegrass, you know bluegrass,” Kopp said.

Best also took the bluegrass workshop last summer. She said she was able to apply the ideas she got from the workshop to use with her students. Her music class made their own instruments, listened to examples of bluegrass music, wrote and then performed their music.

Julia Lindsey, associate professor of art at Miami, also took Kopp’s bluegrass experience. She said she took the class because it sounded like fun and she wanted to learn more about bluegrass.

Lindsey said the assignments were open-ended so she had the opportunity to explore her own interests, the history of women in bluegrass music.

“I got so much out of it,” Lindsey said. “I would highly recommend it. It’s fun and you learn a lot.”

Kopp said his workshops are meant to help people become active learners and to help educators become active teachers.

Kopp said he teaches his workshops in the summer because he has to teach required courses during the fall and spring semesters.

“Summer time (in Oxford) … is a highly overlooked learning resource,” Kopp said. “It’s like the dessert of my teaching here.”

According to Kopp, his workshops are usually taken by graduate students, upper-level undergraduates and people in the community, but the courses can be taken by anyone.

“You can go to Miami for four years and get a piece of paper or you can go to Miami for four years and get an education,” Kopp said. “There’s a real big difference.”