Driverless cars

Autonomous vehicles will be the topic for a seminar class at Slippery Rock University taught by Patrick McGinty, instructor of English, who received a $4,000 grant to conduct research this summer.

If his career as a Slippery Rock University English instructor doesn’t pan out, Patrick McGinty may want to consider becoming an investigator.

“I’m one of those nosy Pittsburghers who notices when a new building is going up and wants to know what’s going on,” McGinty said. “I see these driverless cars all over the place in Pittsburgh and it fascinates me as a cultural object.”

His curiosity into what’s happening in the autonomous vehicle industry in his home city drove McGinty to seek a grant allowing him to develop a new SRU seminar class to conduct research about driverless cars.

McGinty received a $4,000 grant through Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education Faculty Professional Development Council grant program. His proposal was one of 48 accepted from faculty across the State System’s 14 institutions.

According to a report released by the City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Office in April, there are five companies testing 55 driverless cars in the city, which is the first urban area in the country to adopt testing guidelines for this emerging industry.

“There are so many people working in the sector and there are these legal and political implications and environmental benefits,” McGinty said. “It’s one of those things where the more I tug at (the topic), like a piece of yarn, the more it starts to unravel and there are more issues it brings up. My goal is to get students to dig into a big, complex issue and that they learn and feel empowered to participate in the discussion, because our society needs them (to do so).”

The grant McGinty received allows him to work on a novel manuscript about driverless cars and teach three sections of a seminar class at SRU on the topic during the 2019-20 academic year: two for Honors College students and one University Seminar course for first-year students.

“(McGinty receiving this grant) represents what we aspire our faculty to demonstrate: unbridled curiosity, discovery and ambition. I’m glad to support it,” said Dan Bauer, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “Patrick is a teacher but he’s also a learner, and this two-tiered approach provides a democratic classroom environment where students and faculty learn together.”

McGinty will facilitate students’ learning in a variety of ways, from discussing the recent news related to the driverless car industry to studying the lifespan of previous innovations, like the microwave oven.

“Oftentimes, there’s a lot of fear or way too much hype, so we want to establish a historical context for American innovation and how this idea of driverless cars fits into a larger context,” McGinty said. “I’m not a naysayer; I’m just interested in mapping as many discussion points that we can in one term.”

The subject of driverless cars is just one topic that will be covered in 57 different University Seminar classes. The classes are required for first-year students as part of SRU’s Rock Integrated Studies Program, which is the University’s news liberal studies program. As part of the class, McGinty is planning a creative writing assignment, such as short story or one-act play, to use speculative fiction as a way to imagine what types of scenarios are ahead for driverless cars.

“The freshmen are as capable of imagining the future as anyone else,” McGinty said. “There are experts who are designing and testing things, but so often literature and science fiction has predicted future consequences as well as any other form of human inquiry. People in the industry are coming up with answers but I’m just excited to see what a group of freshmen thinks about it and what problems or exciting opportunities they come up with.”

University Seminar courses are intended to promote deeper, intellectual inquiry, as well as critical and creative thinking, by introducing students to a variety of topics, such as driverless cars, food justice or horror films. SRU piloted the Rock Integrated Studies Program last year and it will be fully implemented this fall.

Nora Ambrosio, professor of dance and a Rock Integrated Studies committee member, said that most first-year students will take University Seminar in their first semester, with nearly all placed in the course of their first or second choice. All first-year students must take University Seminar prior to the completion of their first year.

“Students were so interested in the classes (during registration) that they couldn’t decide and some even wanted to take more than one,” Ambrosio said. “Even though we have all these fun and exciting topics being taught, the main reason for the seminar is for students to learn these themes and topics in the form of the course outcomes that are relevant to a 21st-century education. We’re trying to give the students a leg up on what they are going to need to know for every course they are going to take for their major program.”

The University Seminar classes are intended to support six student learning outcomes:

• To demonstrate a commitment to intellectual rigor and academic excellence.

• To produce ideas in written, digital and spoken forms.

• To engage with topics of diversity and inclusion.

• To make local and global connections.

• To evaluate information sources, distinguishing unsupported opinions and beliefs from researched claims and evidence.

• To understand the interdisciplinary aspect of the University Seminar and how the outcomes relate to the students’ majors (or intended majors) and lifelong learning.

“We’re approaching traditional concepts (of education) from the side,” McGinty said. “We’re not front-loading the issues and talking about research writing or using a library database or those types of skills; we’re saying, ‘Here’s this topic; let’s think about this topic and as we go throughout the course we’re going to braid in all these other skills while having open discussions, readings and exercises around this topic.’”

As McGinty talks to people working in the driverless cars industry, from executives to the test drivers, he’s not only developing discussion topics for his classes but he’s also working on a novel manuscript that has a protagonist who works in the sector.

“By focusing this summer on reading everything and talking to as many people as I can, this will go a long way to make the class really special and I’m fortunate to have a (department) chair and a dean who supported me (getting this grant),” McGinty said.

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