In what seems to be becoming my annual post on help me think out loud about my fall teaching assignment (see last year’s post on community ecology classes), I am thinking about a field-oriented natural history course I’ll be teaching this fall and what assignments/evaluation tools I should use. Or more broadly, you hear a lot about best pedagogical approaches to classroom learning (including many great posts from Meg), but less about outdoor pedagogy. I think we all think since we’re ecologists this is obvious. Or maybe outdoor learning is so obviously active-learning, project-based, real-world etc which is what we’re trying to bring into classrooms that we don’t have to worry about it. But really, outdoor pedagogy is pretty much teach as we’ve been taught every bit as much as classrooms have been. I’ve increasingly been appreciating how much deep thinking is required to really get pedagogy right, and since I’m taking over a field course, I’ve been thinking a lot about my goals and how to align them with teaching and evaluation tools outdoors. I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts.
To make this concrete will still keeping this fairly generic, I am looking at a natural history course, the center-piece of which is multiple half-day field trips to a variety of ecosystems, and I am looking for an integrative project that spans the semester. I am considering three different projects:
- Do your own research/experiment – this is fairly typical in the OTS type model where you are spending a few weeks at a field station (I’ve taught such a course myself). Here you mentor students through the process of designing, executing and writing up a discrete piece of novel research. Pros – this teaches the scientific method and is fairly open-ended and clearly requires stretching their critical thinking skills and at least one form of writing. Cons – Many students aren’t really ready to do independent research as undergrads (especially lower level) and so often find this assignment more frustrating/intimidating than inspiring and in some cases do such low level work I’m not sure they learn much (or worse learn a very simplistic view of science), and its not particularly integrative (i.e. good at teaching scientific method, bad at helping students make connections and insights in natural history)
- Do a digital specimen collection – this is also a fairly typical assignment in “ology” classes (I did one myself in my graduate days in an entomology class). Since my class cuts across many taxa (requiring many types of collection equipment) I would probably have this be a digital collection instead of a physical collection where students take photos, put them into a document and annotate each photo with species ID, location, and notes about the species. Pros – this reinforces the goal of learning to ID species, paying attention while outdoors and seems likely to be retained as a tool useful to students after they graduate. Cons – less integrative than the other two choices, although this comes down a lot to what and how much I make them write in addition to the photos.
- Write a natural history journal – I haven’t encountered this one as much but a colleague suggested it. The assignment basics would be: 1) pick a small piece of land, 2) study it in depth from the soil to the sky, 3) make repeated visits, 4) write 5 pages about this location and its dynamics and interconnections in the spirit of Thoreau or McPhee. Pros – very integrative, very open-ended, a lot of emphasis on writing which is good (although like most biology courses we’re not really set up to do extensive mentoring on writing). Cons – pretty risky to expect students to observe and write like Thoreau.
There are some course-specific constraints in my own mind for my personal situation (although I think they’re not untypical of many teaching situations): this is lower division undergraduate (200-level), largish (44 students vs 2 instructors) course so more limited opportunities for mentorship than ideal. It is not a 2-week at a field station type of course so students will be doing this assignment very independently on their own time in the business of the semester (or not doing it until the last minute in some cases). The course is also literally focused on natural history, not principles of ecology or such (we have a separate ecology class). You can, of course, share your thoughts in the context of these constraints or I would be equally interested to hear your thoughts about the three options in your own context.
I personally have two main goals for this assignment: 1) is to be integrative. By integrative I mean they will already have lab exams on species ID and lecture exams on the stages of old-field succession etc. I really want something different that makes them think big picture, have ah-ha moments of connection and develop critical thinking and writing skills in addition to memorization. 2) is just to have fun and inspire. It is shocking how little time the average ecology student spends outdoors in their 4 years (forestry and wildlife do a little better than biology departments but still not great). This is likely to be their primary exposure to in-the-field until their 4th year for many students. I want them feel inspired by the awesomeness of nature that made us all go into the subject (while still being able to evaluate learning and give grades).
How important do you think these goals are? Do you think these assignments meet these goals? Any tips or gotchas you’ve learned the hard way on any of these projects?Other goals are imaginable and I’d be curious to hear them. Of course I’d be curious to hear other suggestions for assignments to meet these goals too.What do you see as the relative merits of these three projects? What do you think should be the primary pedagogical goals in a course that represents many students first exposure to the wonders of nature in a hands-on fashion? More broadly is pedagogy for outdoor teaching easy, or do we need to rethink this too?