Educational Advancement Fund spotlight:“Learning through Community Engagement in Earth and Environmental Sciences
Lily Claiborne, Principal Senior Lecturer in Earth & Environmental Sciences, recently told us about her grant from the Educational Advancement Fund.
Can you tell us about your project and what inspired you to do it?
My project is focused on creating community-engaged science in the Earth and Environmental Sciences department at Vanderbilt. Specifically, this grant focuses in on a new courseI’m co-teaching this spring with Dr. Jessica Oster called Community-Engaged Science in which we’re really working to help students collaborate with community members to do science together, addressing real, authentic environmental problems. I was inspired to do this in a couple of ways. Our students do amazing science in our program and have for a long time, but they’re very often doing science that is far away in some remote place and is wonderful and exciting and beautiful, but not much like the work they’ll likely do after they leave Vanderbilt. And they’re often doing it just with scientists, which is also not like the work they will likely do when they leave Vanderbilt. I wanted to help them grow the capacity to work with diverse groups of people do science that has immediate impacts on society in ways that they find valuable. This kind of work has been shown to help recruit and retain folks from underrepresented and marginalized groups in our field of geosciences, which is also something that’s very important to me. The second source of inspiration was an environmental disaster that occurred a year ago here in Nashville. A flood caused a restaurant supply warehouse to be washed out into one of our urban streams and brought a lot of attention to the stream. I live in the watershed, and so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to start to connect our students with a real environmental problem where they could have an immediate impact while working with the impacted community.
What is the anticipated impact of this project on students and the Vanderbilt community in general?
Writ large, I think the impact on our students will be growing their capacity for civic engagement:for ethical, thoughtful, reflective collaboration with communities who are different from them. I anticipate it’s going to grow their relational communication skills, as well. Those are two things that we don’t focus on in a lot of our classes. We focus on science communication in that we ask students to practice presenting science to other scientists, but not as much talking to other folks outside academia about their science. So,I think it’s going to grow those skills. We also hope it impacts our recruitment and retention of folks from underrepresented groups in our undergraduate program, partly by celebrating a greater diversity of kinds of science.We’re also going to use some of the funds to support growing the capacity of our department to do this kind of work beyond just this class. We’re bringing in seminar speakers that’ll talk to our whole department about community engaged science. Just
recently, we’ve also started to partner with folks outside the College of Arts & Science in the School of Engineering and Peabody College who are doing science in streams and want tap into our growing capacity to connect them with the community. So,I hope that this kind of work can become more common across the university and help get our Vanderbilt scientists out into Nashville, doing science with people in places where it’s needed.
I love it, absolutely love what you’re doing. What recommendations might you offer to others who are thinking about applying for one of these internal teaching grants?
I think that having a village is great, so if you have an idea that’s exciting, even if it’s not something that’s normally in your wheelhouse, don’t be afraid to reach out and find people who are willing to jump into it with you and try it out.That’s one of the great things about having access to the Center for Teaching:it supports folks in doing things that seem a little risky but provides the scaffolding and support that are needed to be able to doit well. I mean, I’m a volcanologist,I study volcanoes, and yet here I am out in Nashville, standing in a stream with a bunch of students and scientists. I think these kinds of grants and the learning communities that form around them at the Center for Teaching make these challenges safe and doable. So,I would just say: don’t be afraid to try something new, because this kind of support is there for it.
To conclude in one or two sentences, how would you capture your teaching philosophy?
I think the core of my teaching philosophy is to be brave and to tailor my classes to meet student needs: I am willing to try the things that it seems like the students need the most, even if they’re very different than what I’ve done or seen in the classroom before.