A truly transformative undergraduate education starts with the students

Rice helps develop students like Constantine Tzouanas into the leaders of tomorrow by providing opportunities to make real contributions in areas that really matter

Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering, talks with Wiess senior Constantine Tzouanas in his office. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering, talks with Wiess senior Constantine Tzouanas in his office. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Wiess College senior Constantine Tzouanas had two epiphanies about leadership during high school. The first came his sophomore year when he realized how much more could be accomplished during a volunteer shift at the Houston Food Bank if he united his classmates to work alongside him. What began as two-person (Tzouanas and his mother) visits to the food distribution facility was soon organized into the Clear Lake High School Food Bank Club. Over the next two years, Tzouanas gathered 100 of his fellow high schoolers to help distribute 10,000 pounds of food over 5,000 accumulated hours of work.

Tzouanas’s second realization came during a summer spent in a lab at Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative. Even as a junior in high school, Tzouanas was able to work alongside seasoned professionals and conduct the sort of real-world research he never thought he’d have access to at his age.

“For me, that was the point at which I really knew that I wanted to come to Rice,” Tzouanas said. He was an early decision applicant to Rice and Rice only, and he followed his sister, Stephanie Tzouanas Schmidt ’14, into the Department of Bioengineering. “In high school, you have all of your classes separated — biology here, chemistry over there — but in bioengineering you put it all in a pot, swirl it around, gain some new skills and you can end up creating technology and uncovering knowledge with the power to impact people’s lives and expand what’s possible scientifically,” he said.

Tzouanas wasn’t content to keep his inventive nature confined to the lab, however. Before his sophomore year at Rice was over, the enterprising bioengineering major had collaborated with departments across campus and sought feedback from a quarter of Rice undergraduates to generate a survey on how to improve student-professor interactions and the best ways to link student interests and major elective courses being offered by departments.

Far from bristling at the idea of being lectured by students on how best to teach their courses, Rice professors were more than happy to help — whether in the Department of History or the Department of Economics.

“There wasn’t even this hesitancy of, ‘Oh, you’re a bioengineering major,’ or ‘I’m a professor and you’re a student,” Tzouanas said. “There was a willingness to see what we can both do for this common goal of contributing positively to the campus community.”

Tzouanas "stood out for his work ethic and inquisitiveness," said Professor of Chemistry John Hutchinson. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Tzouanas “stood out for his work ethic and inquisitiveness,” said Professor of Chemistry John Hutchinson. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Professor of Chemistry John Hutchinson first met Tzouanas as a first-semester freshman in his General Chemistry course, where he was soon impressed by the young man’s eagerness. “He stood out for his work ethic and inquisitiveness,” said Hutchinson, who was also serving as dean of undergraduates at the time. Tzouanas, meanwhile, was already involved with the Student Association (SA), serving in the capacity of Director of External Affairs. It was here that he became acquainted with the university’s yearly Survey of All Students (SAS), the results of which are presented and discussed at SA meetings.

In the fall of 2015, Rice students overwhelmingly reported that a focus on teaching undergraduates should be the highest priority for the SA in the upcoming year. “It had triple the votes of any other priority on the survey,” Tzouanas said. It was another aha moment.

“Intuitively, we know that students at Rice care about their education, but this put a number on it as something they felt very passionately about,” he said. “So how could I use my position as a student to to help build on Rice’s strengths and unique emphasis on undergraduate education?”

Tzouanas thought of his gregarious chemistry professor, so talented at teaching, and the warm, engaging woman who led his First-year Writing-Intensive Seminar, Lora Wildenthal, professor of history and associate dean of the School of Humanities. He contacted them both to see if they could help him flesh out his idea of addressing the issue from the ground up.

Wildenthal connected Tzouanas with Fay Yarbrough, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History. Hutchinson set him up with undergraduate pedagogy expert Robin Paige at the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and James DeNicco, director of the Principles of Economics program, who was known for receiving the Malcolm Gillis Award for Distinction in Undergraduate Teaching in his very first year at Rice.

Over the next few months, Tzouanas led a seven-student working group and collaborated with Hutchinson, Paige, DeNicco and the SA to create a 40-question survey on teaching that was sent to students in 2017. More than 850 students, or nearly a quarter of undergraduates, responded, indicating that an “initial awkwardness” around approaching professors outside of class was one of the biggest barriers to creating more positive student-professor interactions.

“One of the more surprising pieces of information that came out of the survey was quantifying the reasons students feel hesitant about approaching their professors,” Tzouanas said. “They don’t want to ask the wrong question, or don’t want to appear unknowledgeable, or don’t want to waste the professor’s time.”

Armed with this quantitative information, Tzouanas conducted two faculty focus groups and interviews with the deans of the schools of Humanities, Social Sciences and Engineering to get their input on the students’ responses. That’s how he ended up in the office of Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering.

Fay Yarbrough (left), associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History, and Lora Wildenthal, professor of history and associate dean of the School of Humanities, worked with Tzouanas on a survey of history majors. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Fay Yarbrough (left), associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History, and Lora Wildenthal, professor of history and associate dean of the School of Humanities, worked with Tzouanas on a survey of history majors. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“Constantine came to my office to share some data that he was collecting on student experiences at Rice,” DesRoches said. “I could tell from our short meeting that he was special; he was very bright, engaging and very broad in his thinking.”

After forming the Strategic Planning Committee for the George R. Brown School of Engineering last fall, DesRoches saw a chance to involve students to join the faculty and staff on the committee. He invited Tzouanas to join, providing the sophomore with even more exposure to the way professors think — and vice versa, said DesRoches. “Constantine brings a fresh and student-centered perspective to the committee.”

Meanwhile in the Department of Economics, DeNicco was preparing to implement some of the ideas Tzouanas had been busy gathering from students and professors alike. This past spring they piloted an initiative in DeNicco’s ECON 100 course to use regular, structured weekly feedback as a way to motivate students to interact.

“Every week we would ask the ~300 students questions like ‘How well do you understand the material?’ and ‘If you don’t, what factors are contributing to that?’” Tzouanas said. Additionally, students could freely share their thoughts on the class in a conversational, free-flowing format called “Tweet at DeNicco.” Topics brought up by students ranged from a class discussion of production possibility frontiers to compliments on the barbecue made and served by DeNicco at this year’s Pancakes for Parkinson’s fundraiser.

Tzouanas and DeNicco watched as students’ initial apprehensiveness about interacting with their new professor melted away in the face of “a warmer, more positive interaction.” Given a structure within which to provide regular feedback, the students thrived and valued the ability to see each other’s questions, feeling more at home in the course and more confident in their own mastery of the material. Moreover, they said, being encouraged to approach DeNicco on a social level via “Tweet at DeNicco” — something students perceived as more of a “chance encounter” than, say, a scheduled in-office meeting — made them comfortable in future interactions. So comfortable, the students said, they would now be interested in tackling even bigger topics with DeNicco, from long-term academic advising to personal mentoring.

The question of why students don’t reach out to professors more frequently outside of class has been widely discussed within the larger higher education community and Rice specifically, said Wildenthal, at both Rice Board of Trustees meetings and within the Humanities Advisory Board. “This topic was echoed in a recent book that the CTE chose for its faculty reading group last year, ‘How College Works,’” Wildenthal said. “This book supports what Constantine found — chance encounters, within a framework promoting that kind of encounter, works best.”

And through his work with Wildenthal and Yarbrough, Tzouanas was busy making still more discoveries via another survey of students in the Department of History, “which allowed the department to consider student interest for the first time when planning the curriculum,” said Wildenthal.

A mini-pilot in fall 2017 put out a survey to declared history majors and received 30 responses; a full-on implementation of the survey the following semester netted 70 more — one-third of all history majors. Among the wide range of questions: Which history classes would be more likely to draw in nonmajor students — transnational or comparative? Asian, African, Latin American? How could the department better arrange classes to help students meet their distribution requirements?

“We couldn’t survey all of the students in our classes, but these results give you a sense of the kinds of things we can ask about and receive feedback on,” Yarbrough said. “Of the surveyed students, nonmajors would like to see more introductory courses offered, while majors seek more 300-level courses.” Also, more classes on Latin America.

“I didn’t see students engage in this kind of work at my previous two institutions, but I think that says more about Constantine,” Yarbrough said of Tzouanas’ commitment to helping the History Department structure its curriculum.

Ned Thomas served as the served as William and Stephanie Sick Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering prior to DesRoches, and as yet another campus mentor to Tzouanas. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Ned Thomas served as the served as William and Stephanie Sick Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering prior to DesRoches, and as yet another campus mentor to Tzouanas. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

For his part, Tzouanas sees his university service as “just a lot of fun,” but also as fitting hand in glove with Rice’s commitment to providing transformative undergraduate education, one of the goals of the Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

“Whatever Rice says in its mission statement about distinctive commitment to undergraduate teaching, that’s actually very real,” Tzouanas said. “That also draws professors here, creating this experience where you have all this world-class faculty but you also get to work with them and engage and collaborate as part of your normal routine. It’s not like they just go to lecture and then immediately scurry off to their labs — you actually have the opportunity to meaningfully learn from them.”

Hutchinson agrees, citing this sort of collaboration as one of Rice’s hallmarks.

“Faculty and students share a common commitment to academic excellence and they enjoy working together toward this goal. Certainly the college system promotes this type of interdisciplinary interaction, but the close bond between students and faculty is also found through research, scholarship and design across the academic disciplines.”

Between his work with the SA and student surveys and his actual coursework, Tzouanas has been busily pursuing a Certificate of Engineering Leadership through the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL) and acting as a leadership coach with the Doerr Institute for New Leaders, where he’s sharpening his own skills while encouraging the nascent leadership instincts within other, younger students. “My long-term goal is to lead a research lab and promote youth STEM engagement through community outreach,” he told Rice News last year when it was announced that he’d been awarded a 2017 Goldwater Scholarship.

This summer, he’s been working toward that goal as an intern in a single-cell analysis lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his second year in a row at MIT. And while he’s still as interested in bioengineering as ever, he admits that tackling teaching from an undergraduate perspective, crafting surveys and interpreting their data gave him a renewed appreciation for the social sciences and humanities; it’s the track he’s now pursuing within his neurosciences minor.

“It’s been a really neat way for me to come in as a student and create something new that wouldn’t have otherwise existed, plus it’s beneficial for all these different groups,” he said. “As soon as next year starts, I’m really excited to work to expand the programs with Dr. DeNicco and the History department to partner with more courses and departments across campus.” There’s even survey data still left to parse, but Tzouanas is certain the Rice community will find an application for it — and hopes that will happen while he’s still here to help. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of this information yet,” he said, “but I have a year left!”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.