Do you know how many blades of grass are on Miller Field?
When I first used engaged, inquiry-guided pedagogies I didn't know they had a name or were considered cutting-edge by many educators. I did sense the power of the authentic learning environments and I saw students respond positively.
Today, I'm an unrepentant addict, craving the controlled chaos of engaged learning. There's something about the nervous disbelief when, on Day 1 of my Measurements course, I ask the students to come back in 45 minutes with an estimate of how many blades of grass cover Miller Field. Their facial expressions betray a strong hint of "You want us to do what?" I just love that! And it's a great way to introduce students to statistical sampling, teamwork, and the kind of outside-the-typical-school-experience thinking I'd like them to develop (Hess & Keto 2009).
My instructional development activities have a common theme: creating learning environments
that develop the "whole student" by combining technical material with professional
development activities in teamwork, leadership, and communication.
I accomplish this through active, inquiry-guided courses - working with a community partner - that challenge students to solve difficult, real-world problems. And I demand professional results. Students typically find this approach challenging but rewarding.
In everything I teach, my goals are to
(1) excite students about the prospect of continuous learning and the process of figuring things out for themselves, (2) focus explicitly on personal and professional development skills, including collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and organization, and (3) place students in the types of situations they will encounter after graduation by using engaged, project-based approaches to teaching.
Why these three goals?
Many technical skills will be obsolete within a relatively short time. Sure, we use current approaches and technologies - spatial information systems, laser hypsometers, wikis - but they change quickly and students will be left behind if they can't change with them. Change requires accepting the need for continuous learning and growth, and the ability to adopt new ideas and adapt new tools to help meet personal and professional goals.
Taking measurements of a white-footed mouse during Natural Resources Measurements, 2011.
Although it's cliché, the world's challenges are becoming increasingly complex. They are unlikely to be solved by individuals acting alone but rather by diverse, collaborative teams. As researchers faculty recognize the importance of collaboration and often ask students to work in teams. But we rarely teach them how to create and sustain effective teams, assuming that they know somehow. I've found that they often do not, so I help them begin to learn.
I create a community-engaged learning environment that provides civic context
and in which students are expected to learn rather than to be taught.
I enlist, as co-learners and co-educators, community partners who have course-relevant needs and assets, and select challenges of genuine interest to them. I wrap the entire course around this challenge. Collaboratively, we refine the problem statement, articulate concrete goals, identify learning needs, define the syllabus, organize and carry out the project, and communicate the results in professional-quality reports and presentations - exactly the kinds of things students will likely do after graduating.
One consequence of this learning environment is that a course is new every time. Thus, I am always a student and learn along with everyone else. This allows me to say "I don't know" with neither embarrassment nor fear; followed immediately by "But how can we figure that out?" Students realize I'm not withholding information just to make them jump through hoops, they start to recognize "I don't know" as a first step to learning, and they grow willing to explore ideas and ask questions without fear of ridicule or penalty. In this atmosphere students are also comfortable teaching me, which I quite enjoy.
Students identified and measured trees on 64 plots throughout Raleigh in 2008, working with Raleigh Parks, NC Division of Forest Resources, & the US Forest Service.
Each course has a set of technical and professional development learning objectives.
For example, students completing my undergraduate
Natural Resources Measurements
course should be able to estimate population characteristics using sampling techniques, quantitatively describe some natural resources, and communicate their findings using narrative, graphics, and maps. Professional development objectives include improved ability to develop, articulate, and attain concrete goals from nebulous problem statements, and to function effectively as a team.
For undergraduates, I create this environment using a service-learning
approach that integrates academic, civic, and personal learning around a problem
in the community that we work together to solve. The students work with community partners to define the problem, collaboratively identify learning needs, help shape the syllabus, organize and carry out the project, and communicate results in professional-quality reports and presentations. For example, we partnered with Wake County Environmental Services in 2005 to examine trends in the amount of impervious surfaces - roads, driveways, rooftops - around Falls Lake.
The data and report
we provided helped break an impasse between environmentalists and builders on a committee developing new stormwater regulations.
For my graduate courses, I create this environment using an approach I call the
collaborative research course (Hess & Drew 2004).
The essence of the approach is to assemble a team of graduate students for a course with a defined topic and products, usually in association with a non-profit organization, and then treat them as professional colleagues as we struggle with the issue at hand. In 2008, for example, we worked with Triangle Land Conservancy to rethink the way that they measure and report the outcomes of their conservation efforts.
But how do I know any of this works (beyond literature supporting the pedagogical value of the approaches)? Technical objectives are assessed through a combination of homework, exams, written reports, and oral presentations. I use homework and exams to assess knowledge, comprehension, and application. Written and oral reports support assessment of higher-order skills: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. I have developed detailed rubrics for these reports, encourage peer review, and provide guidance for revisions. Community partners also review our work and have been pleased with our results. At the graduate level assessment focuses on products, and quite a few of our course products have been published in peer-reviewed journals; and Triangle Land Conservancy has a whole new way of talking about their conservation work.
A couple of years ago I realized that my assessment of professional development objectives depended too heavily on student self-report, anecdotal evidence, and "I know it when I see it." For example, I have incorporated into my Natural Resources Measurements course Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, along with associated essay assignments, to help students think about goal-setting, work together, and develop leadership qualities. I have heard from students and from faculty who teach classes later in the curriculum that this has a positive effect. But that's really not good enough.
Thus we arrive at the last part of my approach to teaching, which is a
continual cycle of improvement
as I learn by trying things and examining the results. Last semester, I thoroughly revised my approach by developing a three-week Teamwork Bootcamp that integrates measurement exercises with Covey's Seven Habits and Patrick Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I evaluated the student essays based on their reading of The Seven Habits in a more organized way, and observed carefully their leadership and collaborative skills. To do this, I had to learn more about what makes a good leader and collaborator so that I can help students identify and understand those attributes, adopt them, and flourish.
I learn ... so I can do a better job of helping students learn ...
I learn some more ... and the cycle continues.