Putting Global Patterns in Perspective with Experiential Interdisciplinary Learning

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Natalie Graham, Environmental Science, Policy and Management

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020

For the fall 2019 semester course called Biogeography, I devised a new interdisciplinary learning experience across physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Biogeography was offered at UC Berkeley for the first time in many years in fall 2018. The class draws on knowledge and tools from multiple fields of study including anthropology, ecology, genetics, paleontology, climatology, and geology. The class is also made up of highly motivated students enrolled from a variety of disciplines. The problem was that during analysis of literature and lecture concepts students were struggling to follow along and were unengaged. As earnest as they were to learn the field, they couldn’t make the transition from theory to practice by reading about biogeography. They needed hands-on practice to do biogeography. Changing the course discussion to be experiential would provide problem solving opportunities, increase participation, and promote collaborative learning. And I’d need to include new skills in all elements of the course: natural history, experimentation, data science, and critical thinking. Proficiency in these areas would be best built at each student’s own pace.

I implemented a teaching method that coupled fun, interactive time in-class with deeper follow-up questions. Want to travel through the history of the planet from your desktop? Scientific data can be a time machine! That’s biogeography! Self-paced activities put the student at the center of learning through experiences and reflection. Classes had a minimum of teacher talk time and I provided explicit written instructions allowing pairs/groups to work independently. For our first meeting in “Fundamentals of Biogeography,” I took them outside for an activity with the app iNaturalist. Students learned the basics of data collection and citizen science. Outside of class they compared online databases for natural history museums to the citizen science approach. To teach them about Dispersal and Immigration, I sent them home with sticky traps to collect small flying insects. The microcosm experiment ran four weeks. In class the students calculated immigration rate and recorded data which we plotted together in R. To gather and analyze data for “Distributions of Species,” “The Changing Earth,” and “Speciation and Extinction,” I implemented lessons using Python 3 in Jupyter notebooks and I worked the UC Berkeley Division of Data Sciences to host the materials on the campus’ JupyterHub. The code for each of these lessons was adopted from colleagues’ campus research in biodiversity informatics. Importantly, the assignments were accessible with zero background in programing, and they introduced emerging tools in the field. For Diversification and Regionalization, I asked them to take a tour of the world’s biomes by visiting the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. I gave them a detailed guide for each garden stop and followed up with questions about plant adaptations across regions. During the “Island Biogeography” activity, they had a raucous good time bouncing ping-pong balls (species) into egg cartons (islands) to generate empirical data which they later used to test how immigration and extinction vary with island size and distance.

For assessment, I gave students anonymous Google form surveys midway and end-of semester. While 85.3 percent of the students agreed/strongly agreed the material helped them understand the field of biogeography, only 53.6 percent agreed/strongly agreed the discussion helped them understand lecture. To bridge this gap, I provided weekly written bullet points that specifically linked activities to lecture and optional pre-reading for background on complicated labs. I also asked students to rank the activities and explain their first/last choice. This led me to improve clarity for the remaining Jupyter notebooks and experiments. My official course evaluations mean scores improved a full point from 2018 to 2019 across all categories. Students wrote that activities provided “visual evidence” of the theories they were learning and that “being able to look at data, graph, and interpret was a great way to apply concepts.” The best indication of success is the word-of-mouth popularity of the class and the fact that we are expanding to a three-hour lab period to continue the experiential interdisciplinary learning method for Biogeography in fall 2020.