by Allison Kidder, Environmental Science, Policy, & Management
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2011
Introductory survey courses like Intro to Environmental Studies can sometimes leave students exasperated with the constant influx of many diverse topics. In order to enable the students to thoughtfully evaluate increasingly complex environmental issues, this class demands entry-level undergraduates from a spectrum of majors to grasp a deep understanding of diverse material that ranges from how humans have moderated Earth’s carbon cycle to how Walt Whitman’s poetry influenced environmental thought. A key component of understanding modern environmental problems is ensuring that students have a working knowledge of ecosystem structure and function. To this end, students are required to learn a number of core ecological concepts. When prompted, students readily recited well memorized definitions of abstract ecological concepts such as species rarity and endemism, disturbance, succession, and exotic species. But when I asked students for a more thorough explanation of these ideas, to provide examples beyond those provided in lecture, or to consider why these concepts are important to know when evaluating certain environmental issues, I was greeted with quizzical looks and unsure responses. I wanted them to master these concepts well enough to apply them in different situations. I felt I needed to find another way to help bring these concepts to life for my students.
I decided to put myself in their shoes and hark back to what helped me learn these same concepts. I recalled learning most intently when seeing examples of each concept out in the field in their unique spatial and temporal context. Using a little imagination and the wide variety of UC Berkeley’s campus resources available to us, I devised a series of field trips for my students on weeks they were learning new concepts. We traveled all over campus, taking the shuttle up to the UC Botanical Garden, walking over to Strawberry Creek, and crossing the street to the student community garden and the Oxford Tract facility. During our visit to the UC Botanical Garden, my students and I headed to the California native plant section to explore the ideas of endemism and rarity in the serpentine soil, pygmy forest, and vernal pool areas. The oak picnic area was the perfect spot to discuss visual examples of trophic and symbiotic relationships. I was also able to physically show the particularly abstract concept of succession to my students by pointing to the nearby hillside of grassland succeeding to shrubland and oak-bay woodland. Other days we explored the tangible impacts of exotic species invasion by visiting areas of Strawberry Creek invaded with English ivy and comparing them to areas recently restored with native plants, and discerned the differences between organic and conventional farming methods in the student-run community garden and Oxford Tract research facility. I used a portable whiteboard to encourage student participation in impromptu and lively class discussions about what they were witnessing.
I was able to use several methods to assess students’ understanding, including discussions in class and on bSpace, mid-semester evaluations, short reaction responses, and student journals. In-class and online discussions allowed me to promote thinking about why and how these examples relate to real-world environmental issues. A mid-semester teaching evaluation and periodic short written responses enabled me to learn how the field trips enhanced their understanding of the concepts covered. Students were also required to create semester-long journals of natural history observations through descriptive writing, sketching, photography, and poetry. Many students explored these important concepts through additional outside research, and further, they placed them within the context of their lives and current issues. By bringing students outside of the classroom, I successfully increased students’ understanding of somewhat esoteric ideas to form the base for interpreting a wide breadth of material.