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Teaching Outside the Classroom – Part Two

Posted by on Wednesday, May 4, 2011 in Events, News.

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 second 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.

Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences David Furbish discussed an upper-level course he teaches in geomorphology.  Professor Furbish argued for the inherent interest that geology seems to provoke – this is a course about how the landscape that we see evolves, and therefore a naturally compelling topic.  Furbish’s courses are smaller than Baskauf’s, with 12 students and one TA.  As an upper-level course, the students all have some background in EES.

Furbish focused on the task of balancing formality and informality and guiding students towards target topics.  He reflected on the important steps of designing a meaningful field experience:

  • Set up the field trip as a research project.
  • Develop relevant concepts in class (i.e. hill-slope evolution).
  • Conduct a theoretical examination of the issue in class long before going into the field.  Students should have a sense of what the field trip is going to be about before they go.
  • At least two weeks before heading into the field, develop the rudiments of basic hypotheses.  At this point the instructor should give details about the field site so that students know what to expect.
  • In the field, focus on the things that you’ve agreed to focus on and let the other stuff be icing on the cake.

As an example of the icing on the cake, Furbish pulled an acorn cap out of his pocket and cupped it in front of his mouth, producing a startlingly loud whistle.  Furbish has developed a tradition of teaching students how to whistle through an acorn cap, often making a connection to the Vanderbilt’s oak leaf and acorn logo when he teaches students this trick.   He also described making dirt-worms with his students.  Arguing for the importance of showing students that faculty still see the wonder in their work, Furbish strives to cultivate an instructional personality in the field that he describes as “geeky-cool.”   Asked how he creates teaching moments in the field, Furbish responded, “With a big, booming voice.”  He stressed the performative aspects of teaching in the field – “there’s just something about being really animated.”

Teaching in the field gives instructors the opportunity to get to know their students in greater depth – in terms of how they see the world differently from how the instructor sees the world.  This insight into student world-views can help the instructor to better communicate the concepts of the course.  Furbish also pointed to the group bonding and community building that happens with field experiences — seniors in EES can readily recount their favorite field trips.

Throughout the conversation, Furbish stressed the importance of good communication so that students know what to expect. Furbish emphasized that not providing adequate information to students on the front end can cause problems. The conceptual and logistical framework needs to be in place to make field-trips a positive experience for the students.

Furbish left the audience with two final pieces of advice: pack a backpack with extra sets of warm clothes, and bring along a couple bags of snickers for your students.

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