Teaching Outside the Classroom – Part One
by John Morrell
Graduate Teaching Fellow, CFT
On April 5, 2011, the Center for Teaching hosted a “Conversation on Teaching” on the topic of “Teaching Outside the Classroom.” This is the first installment of a two-part blog post covering the observations made by two panelists – Steve Baskauf from Biology and David Furbish from Earth and Environmental Sciences – as they reflected on their experiences teaching courses that involve a field component.
Biology lecturer Steve Baskauf described a long-term invasive species removal and vegetation sampling project that he and his students have conducted at the nearby Warner Parks. Baskauf teaches several sections of an Introduction to Biology lab course, often with more than 60 students in each section. Baskauf began these field trips as a service-learning project in 2003-2004. He brought his students to the parks to remove bush honeysuckle, a particularly abundant invasive plant species in the park.
In 2008, Baskauf brought another group of students to the park to investigate the sites where his students had removed the honeysuckle. The density of honeysuckle plants was 14 times greater in unremoved areas than in the areas where students had worked to remove the plants. The experience gave students exposure to sampling techniques, and in designing this stage of the project, Baskauf suggested that he benefitted from refining data collection techniques for a large group of students.
Beginning in 2009, Baskauf began a more controlled experiment to replicate his previous work and to gather publishable data. In 2009, students collected baseline data, including age analyses of the honeysuckle plants, and began a new removal project. Baskauf expects the project to continue until 2015. Conducted over the course of twelve years, his project models a long-term evolutionary trajectory for field projects in the natural sciences – from service-learning project to data collection project to controlled experiment.
With such large classes, Baskauf has several TAs to help run the labs. He pointed to the value of these TAs and also to the importance of proper preparation so that the lab can run smoothly. Baskauf suggested that the interpersonal dimensions of what happens outdoors are similar in many respects to the interpersonal dimensions of an indoor lab setting. In this sense, the extra thought that goes into designing effective field experiences has applications in the lab setting as well.
Baskauf argued that fieldwork is a part of the basic grounding that a well-rounded biologist ought to have. Although it can sometimes seem old fashioned in today’s world of molecular science, Baskauf argued that biology students should still know what a plant looks like and how to use a microscope.
On these field trips, Baskauf argues, students learn about invasive species in ways that they cannot appreciate from a classroom. Removing one bush honeysuckle plant from the ground can take several students. Working on the removal project, students get a physical sense of how bad the problem is and how difficult it can be to solve.
Baskauf shared some thoughts on the difficulties he faced in designing these field trips, as well as methods of assessment that he has found effective:
- Creating a sampling method suitable for 400+ students with minimal previous knowledge
- Coordination with park personnel (permits, tools, training)
- Effective use of TAs as team leaders (management of group dynamics)
- Student allergies and fears; safety
- Test covering background reading
- Participation grade for field component (assigned by TA)
- Follow up lab requiring data analysis (stats) and presentation (GIS maps: electronic submission of PowerPoint by partners).
Baskauf emphasized the value of data-driven field experiences; students take ownership of the experience because they are using “real” data, rather than theoretical data – because their research involves all the funkiness and uncertainty of the real world. In the field, course concepts are not just theory any more, they are applied.
Baskauf also suggested that students get a sense of accomplishment answering questions that the instructor does not know the answer to ahead of time. On the other hand, Baskauf also noted the importance of failure in fieldwork, pointing to the learning that happens through an examination of the ways that things don’t always work right.
During the discussion that followed, one interesting point that emerged was that another way to teach outside the classroom is to create a “real world” audience for student work. Students have a greater investment in the project when they think their work might be publishable in some way.
Be on the lookout for the forthcoming second installment of Teaching Outside the Classroom, scheduled for release on May 4th.