I was apprehensive when I was first asked to teach Environmental Science 101. With more than 440 students each quarter and 1300 students each year, it's the largest class on Western Washington University's campus. The course is an opportunity to introduce and recruit students to Huxley College of the Environment at WWU, and because it can therefore influence Huxley's enrollment, a lot rides on the class. But, environmental science is a topic best explored outside, in the environment, not within the boundaries of a lecture hall. Also, I have always felt more comfortable leading discussions or supervising hands-on projects in contrast to giving lectures to a large audience.
Cove at Larrabee State Park near Bellingham, WA
This led me to ask how I could teach this course in a way that would allow students to connect with nature and with the broader field of environmental science. How could I get students in such a large class to actively participate, to practice critical thinking and to receive feedback from me, and maybe even get their hands dirty? And, how could I encourage my students to apply the lessons of environmental science to their lives and promote environmental stewardship while not distancing those students who do not share my passion for tree hugging? I've taught this course for several years now and each time I have tried some new experiment in an effort to reach these goals. In this portfolio I'd like to describe some of the ideas that have worked and some that haven't so that other large-course instructors can use the good ideas and avoid the pitfalls I've encountered.
Environmental Science is fundamentally about how people interact with the natural environment. To give my students first-hand experiences in nature, I partnered with Western's LEAD (Learning Environment Action Discovery) program. This program provides service-learning opportunities for environmental restoration and preservation of habitats in Whatcom County, where Western is situated. I offer students a chance to earn extra credit by participating in LEAD projects that include removal of invasive species, trail maintenance, wetland restoration, and other projects, and this year nearly 180 students participated. To obtain full credit, students write an essay describing what they did and what lessons they learned. (See Extra Credit)
Student responses to this assignment vary (often depending upon weather conditions on the work day), but they generally appreciate the chance to restore the environment and they are often impressed with the amount of work that can be accomplished when many workers join forces. For those students who prefer art over manual labor I offer the chance to interact with nature by producing documentaries or short films highlighting local environmental issues. I show the best of these films at the end of the quarter at an "Environmental Film Festival." This past year about twenty students produced films that included stop-action animation, music videos, and scripted dramas on issues ranging from dissolved oxygen in Bellingham Bay to problems with farm subsidies. (See Extra Credit and Extra Credit: Video Samples) These activities allow students in this otherwise large impersonal lecture course to have an intimate experience with nature. Even if they forget much of what they learned during lecture, these are the kinds of experiences they will remember once the course is over, and ones they will learn from as well.
There are many ways to teach critical thinking, but I prefer to give my students the chance to wrestle with open-ended questions, where they can interact with each other and with their instructor, and receive feedback. This can be challenging in a large class. I've tried several different ways to incorporate critical thinking into my course. I'll describe one method that has worked well and one that I've abandoned.
I've had some success using an online critical thinking assignment. Students initially answer a few questions about their opinions regarding a controversial environmental issue. The students then read two online articles that advocate different positions. The web-based assignment then requires students to critically evaluate the two articles and determine which article best defended its position. At the end of the assignment, I ask the students to re-examine their initial views and indicate whether the articles changed their minds. After the assignment, I compile the results and share the average responses with the class. This illustrates that not everyone in the class thinks alike. It is also a good way to initiate a discussion on the topic with the entire class. Since the students have all had a chance to think about the issue on their own, more students are willing to participate in the in-class discussion.
One approach that I have abandoned is the in-class debate. Organized debates can potentially encourage participation and allow students to critically evaluate controversial issues. I arranged the debate as follows. Students would sign up to debate a particular issue; I would communicate with each team of debaters and help them to frame their arguments, and turn over part of a class period to the debate teams. At the end of the debate, the rest of the class would ask questions and evaluate the performance of the teams. Some debates were quite interesting. But you can never tell what a student might say into a microphone. After trying debates for the first few years I taught the course, I decided that it too often disrupted the class and didn't foster critical thinking.
My course is environmental science, not environmentalism, and I do my best to teach the important facts and concepts without advocating for a particular political or an environmentalist position. I do this in order to maintain credibility with as many students in my class as I can, regardless of their background or political viewpoint. However, many of the course topics raise the question of how should we care about the environment, or what should we do about, for example, green-house gas emissions, oil drilling in wildlife areas, nuclear waste disposal, etc. I address these issues vicariously through guest speakers.
The large size of my class makes it a very attractive audience for many speakers such as politicians and representatives of non-profit organizations. In part because this is such a large audience, I have been able to attract some very effective and relatively high-profile speakers including U.S. Representative Jay Inslee, Ocean Conservancy vice president Mark Powell, WorldVision communications manager Kari Costanza, among others. These guest speakers serve two purposes. First, they connect students to environmental issues outside the classroom. Second, by serving as advocates for their particular interests, and by communicating their passion, they inspire my students to take environmental issues seriously and to take action.
Online readings, assignments and assessment can save time and paper. I have incorporated web-based content into my course in various ways and I've compared student learning outcomes (by comparing exam scores from year-to-year) and student satisfaction (from course evaluations). I've taught the course using either textbooks or online readings. I've also used both online multiple-choice exams and in-class exams, and I've tried a number of different web-based assignments. Although students would rather not pay for a textbook, I've found that textbooks seem to work better than online readings at the 100-level. A textbook provides an organized summary of course content in a consistent voice. Regarding online exams, I've also found better learning outcomes when students take exams in class rather than online. Students taking an in-class closed-book exam study harder and retain information better than students who take open-note online exams. Even though I'd like to go paperless in Environmental Science 101, I nevertheless prefer teaching with a textbook and I go through several thousand sheets of paper each year when I give exams…I recycle the paper, of course!