“Ugh, gross,” responded an undergrad in my ecology class. “There are still bugs crawling in it!” Walking to the bus from a ecology fieldtrip to Turkey Creek, my students happened upon a small mammal skull. “What is it?” was the resounding question from the tight circle that formed while the “click, click” of the cell phone cameras documented the discovery. I was uncertain myself, but matched their excitement as we walked back along the path with that question unanswered. I returned to the stream after class with a dichotomous key and a camera, and later posted a picture of the skull along with three possible skull matches, all unidentified, on our course discussion board. The consensus online was that our mystery skull matched picture number 2. The following class day, the students walked into the classroom to find the mystery skull projected in the front. “Now I think it’s 3,” a few said in response to the large screen images. “What is it?” I then projected the dichotomous key and went through the 8 steps to finally solve the mystery of the Turkey Creek Skull – a raccoon, which was also shown in picture number 2. Although my planned learning outcomes for the day did not involve proficiency with mammal identification, the raccoon provided the students with an opportunity to discover and question the world around them.
As an ecology lab instructor, it is my responsibility to bring to life complex lecture topics to engage students to be trained in the skills and techniques used to effectively investigate ecological issues. I convert ecological theory into dynamic hypotheses to remind students that our current understanding rests on a bed of questions from the past to fuel their own curiosity and sense of discovery. I promote a collaborative atmosphere between students and myself to navigate course material to create a student-centered learning environment in class and online. My goal is for students to be able to treat a given ecological issue as a solvable problem that can be analyzed using field-based techniques.
I teach with an active learning style, using current research and issues to illustrate classic concepts. Knowing my own biases as an active learner, I balance discussion and group-work with online opinion forums where students have time and space to reflect on questions and still contribute to the overall learning of the class. In addition to these informal assessments, I have developed my formal assessments of final papers and exams to reflect my learning objectives and course goals to be transparent in my expectations for students. In addition to my course goals and lesson plans, I try to remain flexible to teaching moments that can serve to excite students or give further instruction.
I believe that a true partnership in learning can be achieved by being adaptable to student styles and observations and communicating clear expectations to encourage students responsibility. Not everyone in my classes will have the desire and/or to become an ecologist, but through a collaborative learning environment, each student will be able to address issues with their own scientific inquiry.