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Mapping The Development of Our Habits of Mind at Plymouth State University: as a beginning student and as a student getting ready to move into the professional world.

Entering 2024 students at Plymouth State University (PSU) will be required to take two courses that focus on the four Habits of Mind deemed essential for 21st century learners: purposeful communicationproblem-solvingintegrated perspective, and self-regulated learning. I am developing an Integrated Capstone (INCAP) course; one of the two required courses students must take.  My course is called “Sustainable Practice and Development” and will be offered by the Tourism, Environment, and Sustainable Societies” Cluster. This is a culminating course near the end of students’ academic career at PSU.  To build connection and a sense of community at the beginning of the course, I will provide an opportunity for students to map and tell their story about their growth with the Habits of Mind since arriving at PSU and learning about the habits in their “Tackling A Wicked Problem” (TWA) course as a first year student. This activity should help us all get to know one another, while emphasizing the importance of the four habits of mind.  Similar to the students’ experience in their TWP course, the INCAP course is intended to bring together students from different disciplines or majors who have an interest in sustainable development.

The intent of asking students to reflect on where and how they have developed the four Habits of Mind since their first year at PSU will help them think about their education holistically and not just as a collection of 120 credits, the amount needed to earn their bachelor’s diploma, which most students accumulate over approximately four years.  Mapping their progress of their development of the Habits of Mind at this stage will once again emphasize the value of these principles and have them thinking about their value as they prepare to move into their careers.

The TWA and INCAP required courses, the two bookends of a student’s academic experience at PSU, which target the four Habits of Mind, emphasize project-based learning.  Ideally, students plan to deal with a problem that involves external partners or stakeholders.  By having students from different disciplines or majors in each course, students will bring different perspectives, and as seniors in the INCAP course they should have different skill sets acquired over their four years of taking courses.  Mapping their story about the development of their four Habits of Mind, will require students in the INCAP course to think about their experiences- assigned tasks, group projects, internships, independent research, and involvement in extracurricular activities and how each of the four habits was involved and shaped. They will need to think about how they view the meaning of each of the four habits.  

For Purposeful Communication, I want to remind students to think about the meaning of the word “purposeful” in particular. We can collectively explore their sense of the word. To me, “purposeful” implies thought out intention, thinking about the nature of our impact with regards to our communication, sharing, and engagement. This includes thinking about and being sensitive to how our messages are received.  In my mind, participants engaged in purposeful communication want to: speak from the heart, represent their true values, indicate they are being thoughtful and measured in their responses, imply they are sensitive to the needs and input of their audience, and therefore will be receptive to input and feedback from classmates, stake holders who have a vested interest in the project, and other external audience members.

For Problem-solving, I will ask students to think about the nature of any projects- individual or group- that they have been part of in their four years since entering higher education. They will be prompted to think about how they have advanced solutions or made a difference.  They will be asked to consider key steps that moved the project forward. and how they used and shared the knowledge they acquired in dealing with a problem to help others, or bring about change?  They can think about what challenges they encountered and how they overcame or pushed through these. They will be asked to reflect on what they learned from the process that was transferable? They will be reminded that, “Problems range widely in scale and scope—small to large, local to global, well-defined to ambiguous, simulated to real-world—and problem solving may be undertaken individually or in collaboration with others. In all cases, engaging in problem solving requires the ability to think creatively, adapt and extend one’s thinking, acknowledge different contexts and incorporate different perspectives, embrace flexibility, consider potential implication, determine courses of action, persist and adapt despite failure, and reflect on the results,” (General Education Requirements, Habits of Mind, Plymouth State University).

For self-regulated learning, I will ask students where they have been involved in setting personal goals, where they have had choice or autonomy, what difference this made and how they fared.  I will ask where they considered they took personal responsibility for their own learning and how this affected their motivation? Where did they take risks and what was the outcome? Have they reflected on and considered the factors that influence their learning? In what kinds of learning situations do they feel they excel?  What strategies have they learned work well for them in accomplishing tasks? Are they able to create their own checklists and benchmarks?  Do they need regular feedback to keep them motivated and how do they make sure they receive this? Have they purposely communicated and shared any of these reflections with their peers or instructors to help others understand how they best operate and what conditions help them maximize their learning?

For the fourth Habit of Mind, on Integrated Perspectives, I will ask students where they have encountered diverse or challenging views as they have moved through their formal higher education experience? What have they learned from others?  What conditions existed that enabled them to constructively learn from diverse perspectives? What difference has exposure to different perspectives meant in terms of advancing their understanding of their own discipline or major or even individualized study and what difference has hearing different perspectives from outside “their field” meant?

After sharing the above information with students, I will provide them with ideas about what “mapping” means.  I use the work “mapping” instead of “write an essay” to suggest there is no one, right way to tell their story.  They are encouraged to be creative, to use visuals if they choose. They do not necessarily need to be sequential and hierarchical; maybe their path or journey was circuitous.  Maybe they had semesters where they have a hard time extracting significant meaning or learning related to the four Habits of Mind.  Maybe the greatest advances in their learning happened outside of classes, outside of their focus on their major?  Maybe they are still thinking about their passions and what they want to study and pursue in life. 

My story:

Since I am just embarking on this activity with my new INCAP course, I don’t yet have models from previous students to show them what a map looks like.  All I can do is tell them about my own reflections, thinking and experiences with the Habits of Mind.  I am open to my students’ notion of what mapping their development of the four Habits of Mind means and looks like for them.  Everyone’s experience is different.  I can share my story of my thinking about the four Habits of Mind.  I can show them how I have been applying and developing the four habits in my life as an environmental science and policy professor.  I also want to impart that I strongly believe in aligning one’s personal and professional lives, which in part means as a faculty member on the sustainability council at PSU, I find integrity in practicing and showcasing my personal commitment to sustainability in my lifestyle choices.

The short version of my story begins when PSU decided to create cluster projects- interdisciplinary initiatives involving outside partners designed to address a problem and provide a service. I developed two Cluster Projects that give my life as an academic real meaning.  One is called “Forest to Forest:  Bicknell’s Thrush” where an interdisciplinary team of faculty (Social Science, English, Biology, Education, Art and me)  planned a series of events (film, conference, fieldtrips, and exhibit at the Museum of the White Mountains)  to raise awareness about a rare, threatened songbird that migrates between mostly the island of Hispaniola where the Dominican Republic and Haiti are co-located and the White Mountains of New Hampshire and other high peaks of the Northeast. The Bicknell’s Thrush is a catalyst for looking at sustainable development issues at the two ends of its migratory path.  

One of the most recent phases of the Bicknell’s Thrush project is a book of poetry to purposely communicate about the bird. Who knew when I started the project that I would be offering a writing workshop, “Writing, Illustrating and Sharing Stories From Our Forests” for an international audience where I would describe my process of deciding to write rhyming poems about the Bicknell’s Thrush. 

My introductory poem sums up my purpose:

Sustainable Solutions Is What We Need

The Bicknell’s Thrush provides education, about the marvels of bird migration.

Two forests, two cultures are connected, with many lessons to be respected.

Reminding us about conservation, and ecosystems that need protection.

Sustainable solutions, plant the seed, as humans, we can and must take the lead.

In my classes, one set of students prepared posters on how and why the Bicknell’s Thrush should be listed on the Endangered Species List.  Another group created hands-on board games to educate people about policies and legislation which can be used to protect the bird, like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the more recent UN Sustainable Development Goals, which address the challenges society faces like environmental degradation, including deforestation, # 15 pertains to Life on Land and maintaining biodiversity and our forests.  Earlier in my career, I never would have imagined I would be giving presentations on the Bicknell’s Thrush for the Appalachian Mountain Club, Audubon, and others or write and illustrate a book of poetry about the Bicknell’s Thrush.  All four of the Habits of Mind were involved in helping me launch the first initiative and develop subsequent phases of the project.  I developed a passion and pursued it.

My second cluster project “Valuing Our Campus Trees and Community Forests” has a similar and maybe even stronger place-based element than the “Forest to Forest:  Bicknell’s Thrush” outreach effort.  Students research trees on the Plymouth State University campus and then team up to offer tree tours to classmates and prospective students and their families.  The students also collect data on the trees on campus to determine the ecosystem services the trees provide, specifically they quantify the $ value of the services the trees provide, one service being carbon sequestration which is related to climate change. Our outreach and data collection efforts led to PSU being the first higher education institution in NH to receive “Tree Campus USA” designation.  Every year we must renew our application, so we will continue providing and engaging in activities with the community around appreciating and learning about trees. 

In thinking holistically about the sustainability of our campus, the next logical step following our Tree Campus USA designation was to seek “Bee Campus USA” designation which we have now accomplished and plan to maintain.  We are not raising bees as some might imagine, we are providing a pollinator friendly habitat which means we don’t use any toxic chemicals in the landscaping practices.  We partner with physical plant for both designations. All my cluster projects involve students, but the Tree and Bee Designation initiatives have been led by students.

I didn’t set out to target the four Habits of Mind when I developed my cluster projects on campus, but now in reflecting, I realize my projects have done just that.  I have embraced clusters for the license and endorsement to work with new colleagues and students from different disciplines for their integrated perspectives to provide meaningful activities that provide an environmental benefit for our communities, while addressing environmental problems of maintaining biodiversity and amelioration of climate change. We have engaged in purposeful communication to educate others about the importance of 1) sustainable development here in the White Mountains as well as on the island of Hispaniola and the need for conservation of the Bicknell’s Thrushes’ habitat which will benefit other species as well, including endemic species found nowhere else in the world. We are also all about sharing the ecosystem services that trees and bees provide. Lessons on self-regulated learning have come about as students have engaged in multiple phases of the cluster projects, not always for academic credit to fulfill course requirements, but sometimes as members of clubs- like the Peace and Social Justice focused Common Ground club, or as independent projects, or for the stories students can share about their initiative in seeking to bring about change and make a difference as they apply for jobs.

My cluster projects have strengthened my commitment to my profession and rejuvenated my sense of purpose in thinking about what it means to be an academic engaged in teaching, service, and scholarship.  I hope I have affected students with the projects and in mapping and telling my story about the four Habits of Mind, I will inspire some of them to apply these principles as they discover and follow their passion and unique path.  

Resources:

“Cluster Pedagogy:  The Next Step in PSU’s Journey of Academic Innovation,” Plymouth Magazine, winter 2019, https://www.plymouth.edu/magazine/winter-2019/cluster-pedagogy-the-next-step-in-psus-journey-of-academic-innovation/.

“Forest to Forest: Bicknell’s Thrush,” Plymouth Magazine, winter 2018, https://www.plymouth.edu/magazine/winter-2018/forest-to-forest-bicknells-thrush/.

“Forest to Forest:  Bicknell’s Thrush,” Exhibit at the Museum of the White Mountains, January 30th- February 21st, 2018, https://www.plymouth.edu/mwm/exhibition/forest-to-forest-bicknells-thrush/.

Plymouth State University, General Education, Habits of Mind, https://campus.plymouth.edu/general-education/general-education/general-education-requirements-fall-2005-later/#:~:text=Purposeful%20Communication%20is%20a%20habit,the%20creation%20of%20new%20messages.&text=To%20be%20effective%2C%20messages%20must,among%20individuals%20and%20the%20community.

“Writing, Illustrating and Sharing Sustainable Stories From Our Forests,” A National Writing Project New Hampshire Sponsored Event, four related Facebook posts:  https://www.facebook.com/maryann.mcgarry.3/posts/3508031872563096,  https://www.facebook.com/sadhanaforest/posts/2637404606477883, https://www.facebook.com/maryann.mcgarry.3/posts/3454954611204156, and  https://www.facebook.com/maryann.mcgarry.3/posts/3533806413318975

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