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Treading Into New Waters- Hoping For A Huge Ripple Effect

I do my best thinking while hiking.  Hiking is like meditation or dreaming. I am usually breathing too hard to have a conversation with anyone, even if I am hiking with someone, and so my brain is free to mull over new events in my life.  I have a lot of new challenges to process.

The image is of me hiking, mulling over ideas, leaving the trail, to tread into the water, where my footstep is having a ripple effect across the pond. The words student centered-learning, student engagement, student agency, and student partners are floating across the pond as part of the ripple effect.
My footsteps are having a ripple effect in the pond of learning.

The spring 2020 semester, where half of it was spent adjusting to the Covid pandemic has left me with lots to mull over.  The last couple of weeks at the beginning of May, in particular, have been busy as my University has launched conversations and thinking about what fall 2020 will look like and preparing for contingency plans.  The idea is to design by intention as opposed to reaction which is what we had to do this spring.  I have much to reflect on as I finish the end of one of the most experimental semesters in my 23 years of teaching in higher education.  Approximately half the semester consisted of normal face to face classes and the other half suddenly moved to virtual sessions with some non-mandatory synchronous activity. While in the midst of everything I concentrated on surviving, now that the semester is over, it is time to reflect.

As I was hiking I found myself thinking about the orientation for the second cohort group of Curriculum Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC) members which occurred less than two weeks ago.  I was accepted into the program to develop an interdisciplinary capstone (INCAP) course on Sustainable Development with a colleague from the social sciences. It was now time to begin planning. Second, I had just participated in two days of professional development pertaining to intentionally designing more hybrid flexible modules for courses that blend online and face to face components.  This was part of a two day “Slipper Camp,” a take off of “boot camp,” These were Zoom sessions and we were at home in our slippers literally.  We even took a photo at the kick-off event of participants holding up one of their slippers; you’ll see my moccasin.  I also was approved to adopt open educational resources (OER) for my Foundations in Environmental Policy Class for spring ‘21, which means I won’t rely on and require a commercial textbook anymore. All three programs- the CPLC, Slipper Camp, and grants for converting courses to use OER, were offered by the team at the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University (PSU). Thank goodness with all the change that has happened at PSU, they exist- a beacon of light guiding our way in the current storm- a worldwide pandemic. 

Part of my willing commitment as a new CPLC member is to engage in formal reflection, which means I will discipline myself to take time to write down my thoughts as I interact with my colleagues and consider changes I will make over the next year.  To show my seriousness about the process I am undertaking, I have vowed to make my reflections public.  I have decided to write and illustrate with cartoon images a blog post about my musings and share a link with my cohort members with as we make this new journey together. This is my second post.

So, as I was hiking locally this week, to celebrate nearly “finishing” the semester, I found myself naturally thinking about all the professional development opportunities I had just enjoyed. I was wondering about intersections across all the conversations.  And as happens on hikes, what always seems like a flash of insight, almost like electrical energy surging through me, I made a connection.  After being pushed into offering Zoom sessions by my students who craved contact, I knew I wanted to explore and improve on engaging students in there virtual learning experiences. I had also submitted a proposal to use questions as a framework to restructure my Foundations in Environmental Policy Class. I was proposing a more Socratic structure to the course, where I would pose open-ended questions and have teams of students take turns in addressing questions organized around various themes.  I would require and reward engagement. Students’ responses would create knowledge and resources for the class.  The idea came from Judith Lazar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who offered a graduate course entitled:  Science, Politics and Environmental Policy, (Lazar, Judith, 2004).

I was excited to organize a course around a series of questions, as questions can be used to develop critical thinking skills and nurture insights.  The Socratic method of teaching aims to engage classes in open-ended dialogue, where everyone examines their individual beliefs and assumptions, (Sanford, John, 2003).  For a course focused on environmental policy, the point is to probe core values about how best to steward the environment and natural resources.

In reviewing faculty member Lazar’s materials for her MIT graduate course, I was most interested to note how the course is organized around two, key questions: 1) What is Science? and 2) How is Science Filtered Through the Process of Policy?  Each of these questions has a subset of questions. Below are some of the most thought-provoking questions to introduce into my Foundations in Environmental Policy Course.  These questions seem so relevant in 2020, even though the course material was posted back in 2004.

  1. What do scientists do and how do scientists produce scientific knowledge? And to what extent, and in what ways, do scientists’ values, or worldviews, influence the practice of environmental science?
  2. How do scientists perceive their role in the policy process?
  3. How do advocates use science to define/frame environmental policy issues?
  4. How do the media cover science and environmental risk?
  5. How does the public view science and scientists? How does the public understand environmental risk?
  6. How does Congress deal with science when making legislative decisions?
  7. What are some differences in the way science is incorporated into the policy process in other (developing, developed) nations?
  8. What, exactly, is “local knowledge” or “traditional ecological knowledge,” and why might we want (or not want) to include it in our assessments of how the natural world works?
  9. What is adaptive management? What is the rationale for adaptive management — why do scientists believe it will enhance the use of science in environmental policymaking? What is the precautionary principle, and how is it related, if at all, to adaptive management?

With a new organizational framework for the course, students could conduct research and present in teams either face to face or virtually using Zoom, whatever the public health standards dictate. I now feel ready to dig into the weeds and find readings related to content to inform the students as they attempt to address the questions. I also can seek to master first  and then show students how to embed polls and use other techniques to engage their classmates as they present.

Now on my next hike, I will set my brain free to have another break through on the design of my new course on Sustainable Development.  I know from my years of experience and from interactions with other faculty involved in the PSU Co-lab, a key parameter will be celebrating student agency, a learner-centered environment, where students are co-creators.  Fortunately, I am joining the second cohort of CPLC at PSU; the first cohort group has already amassed resources, including readings based on Paulo Friere about working with students as partners, (Peters, J. & Mathias, L. 2018).

Resources:

Lazar, Judith, (2004). Science, Politics and Environmental Policy, OER Commons, https://www.oercommons.org/courses/11-373-science-politics-and-environmental-policy-fall-2004/view.

Peters, J., & Mathias, L. (2018). Enacting student partnership as though we really mean it: Some Freirean principles for a pedagogy of partnership. International Journal for Students As Partners2(2), 53-70. https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3509

Scholar, John, (2003). Scholar discusses educational benefits of Socratic method, Stanford News Service, https://news.stanford.edu/pr/03/socratic528.html.

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