The Beni Hassan Research Group (BHRG) has been working on a range of projects which are primarily focused on developing an online and easily available ‘visual dictionary’ to highlight the significant artistic and cultural features of the wall imagery, architectural features and inscriptional data from the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan. Set out as an authentic research project, the work of the BHRG presented a unique opportunity for students to get involved and develop skills like communication, data curation, analytical skills, attention to detail, and communication outside the formal curriculum.
Undergraduate students were invited to be active participants in each stage of the process, such as description and analysis of themes, scenes and details, editing, assigning appropriate photographs and line art, editing again, and transliteration and translation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions in the tomb. Many of the BHRG are original and inaugural members and have been part of the team since February 2017. Students worked on collaborative tasks while also being presented with opportunities to work independently and propose creative solutions to problems they identified themselves.
I asked the students to write a short reflective post on the kinds of skills they learned.
Several students commented that they learned to problem-solve through peer feedback as well as group communication and reflection. “As we identified issues that were reflected in our expression or analysis of scenes, we noted it, clarified it as a group and set clear guidelines for the rest of the project. Our team relied on the feedback of others through the process of editing and group discussion. We continually revisited and collaborated over descriptions. It became about being conscious of what you were doing and communicating something that you didn’t understand for further explanation,” writes Shannon Collis.
More importantly students developed resilience by ‘hanging in there’ and a sense of ‘we’ll work it out together’.Kate Keeble’s interest in joining the group was sparked by ancient Egyptian art and the “fantastic opportunity to collaborate with a dynamic group of individuals with a shared interest”. She goes on: “Despite my initial apprehension, I saw this as an opportunity to learn from the approaches and skills of my colleagues through discussing common problems or queries and partnering with other members to work on tasks to make the process, and data more manageable.”
Although not explicitly articulated, several posts indicated that students developed confidence that they knew how to solve a problem or where to go to find resources for help. More importantly, students developed resilience by ‘hanging in there’ and a sense of ‘we’ll work it out together’. This resonates with Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk on passion and perseverance, which is the No.1 key to success according to her research.
Brittany Priwer’s “motives for joining such a collective project was to develop her skills in digital-based programs such as JSESH and Inkscape – skills that I could potentially carry over into the workforce.” She values the important connections she made: “I always feel like a valid team member after leaving each meeting as my opinion and ideas are taken into account. Through this program, I have been able to develop a strong contact-base and have met many like-minded people in the Egyptological community, which will serve me in years to come.” This was echoed by Madeline Jenkins:
“I always leave the meetings feeling motivated and uplifted”.
Several students commented on having developed their interpersonal skills. “This has been largely contributed to by the environment of the group and the respect everyone holds for each other. There is a strong sense of approachability within the group which is emphasised by humour in each meeting. When in meetings there is no hierarchy, everyone is equal and has a chance to put our ideas on the table knowing our voice will be heard. This has allowed our verbal communication to strengthen and flourish, allowing the group to operate at its best.” writes Kirstyn Baker. She went from being the ‘one who sat in groups and said nothing unless directly asked’ to an engaged discussion contributor. Kirstyn is not the only one who highly values the lack of hierarchy in such a learning setting: it is a critical aspect of true partnership.
Penelope Blake found “The task of writing these descriptions […] a valuable learning process for students to understand how to write coherently, concisely, and to an audience.”
The students learned how to write for diverse audiences, both specialist and non-specialist, and ensured that the most important information was prominently positioned within a description, while still emphasised the broader historical, architectural, artistic and/or cultural context. Students collaboratively devised a clear set of criteria for this genre of writing that could be used as a template to maintain consistency across several hundred entries.
Alyssa de Luna also emphasises her desire to target specific skills:
“As someone with what used to be a limited knowledge in IT and digital literacy, having the opportunity to understand new and modern technology skills by applying it in ancient history is a very profound way to learn. Who ever knew that learning about the past could teach me so much about the future?”
Given the students’ powerful statements, there is no doubt that they are motivated and gaining a great deal from this hands-on research experience. Hannah Vogel’s quote presents a great conclusion to the students’ reflective journeys: “We have been able to use each other’s strengths and all learn new skills together to create unique goals and objectives.” Learning, growing and achieving a shared goal together is a truly enriching experience.
What stands out is how much students value ‘learning together’. As educators, we often hear ‘students don’t like group work’, however, the student reflections above suggest the opposite. In this particular project, the environment created offers students an opportunity to be part of an inclusive knowledge-building community, where all members have a common and shared goal, are empowered to voice their opinions, and are part of a strong support network where they encourage each other throughout the process. The success of the model is also seen in that students are also able to actively engage in authentic, research-centred tasks that will have an impact in both the scholarly and general communities, and ultimately enable skills development that can be used in a variety of professional pathways.