Spatial Learning Using a Digital Project for ENSP 2324: Environmental Science (Wasserman)

The Course

My main objective in this course (that receives a number of non-majors seeking to fulfill their science requirement) is that students will gain an improved understanding of and appreciation for the natural environment and how human activity alters its functioning, which will promote critical thought regarding sustainability in both their professional and personal lives.  I attempt to meet this objective using a number of assignments and projects, as well as the traditional lecture format.  For my innovation fellowship, I am focusing on the nature blog project I have the students conduct over the semester, which fulfills one of the student learning outcomes of the course: The students will be able to document their everyday interactions with the environment and evaluate how various actions influence that environment.  This nature blog is entitled A Travis County Almanac and is inspired by a classic text in the fields of environmental science and ecology A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949).

In this assignment, the students are asked to spend one hour each week somewhere in nature where they can set all distractions aside and focus solely on the ecology in front of them.  During this time, they record observations and reflections in a journal, take photos, record videos and sounds, and attempt to identify and count various living organisms.  At the end of each month, they use this material to create a formal, public blog entry for the course website.  This is done across the four months of the semester, and in the last entry they are asked to look back over their previous entries and reflect on the changes they have observed.  Students conduct their observations at state and city parks across the Austin area, nearby campus at Blunn Creek Nature Preserve, or on campus if transportation is a difficulty.  In addition to their reflections and use of at least one type of media, the students must also connect their writing to one quote from A Sand County Almanac.

Innovation Project

I have taught this course four times during the past year, and this nature writing assignment has been one of the favorites of the students.  However, it is a work in progress and there are a lot of areas that can be improved upon, including more focus on spatial learning and synthesis across the students’ reflections both in space and time.  To accomplish this, I have been working on a number of digital methods, including further incorporation of specialized nature apps for smartphones and tablets, including Leafsnap, iNaturalist, and Merlin Bird ID.  For the spatial element, I am working with Pongrácz Sennyey and his staff at the Munday Library to embed a map into the front page of the website that will display all the locations of the posts across the semesters.  Each student will also be required to embed a map into each of their posts showing the location of their observations at a finer scale.  In a parallel project, we are working to establish a citizen science approach to the student observations of nature in which they will go to set points at Blunn Creek each semester and take photos at the same angle, height, and direction.  We will use these photos to track changes in the environment over time.  The overall goal of these additions to the nature blog assignment is to increase connection across student blogs within and across semesters using maps to build a landscape of observation over time.  This broader perspective should further develop a land ethic within the students, as discussed by Leopold.

Assessment

To determine if use of spatial context helps students connect their experiences with those of their peers both within their semester and across semesters, the students will present a critical analysis of the blogs at the end of the semester.  This assignment will require a discussion of at least two additional sites along with their site, as well as a comparison of word clouds across semesters.  For example, here is the word cloud for the 2013-14 academic year:

Challenges:

The biggest challenge to the success of this project is time.  This includes my time for assessing the quality of the monthly blog entries (e.g., there were around 175 entries for 2013-14) and to grade their final critical analysis presentations.  The second issue for time will be finding class time for these final presentations, as well as the citizen science project, as I already find it difficult to cover all the material I consider essential to an environmental science class without these two additional assignments.

Accomplished:

During the Innovation Institute, I have benefited greatly from interactions with a number of St. Edward’s staff and faculty related to my project.  This has included brainstorming ways to improve the scholarly output of the students in these blogs, both in terms of their writing and photography, as well as practical advances in purchasing equipment (e.g., iPads, handheld GPS units) for the students to collect data and photos and updating the website with a map on the homepage to organize posts by geographic location.  With the help of library staff, we are currently creating the parallel research project of a systematic study of changes in environment over time at Blunn Creek utilizing a web-based app where students will be able to directly upload their photographs to the database.

In the future, I would like to continue exploring ways to develop a land ethic in our students, including production of nature documentaries using GoPro cameras, collaborations with museums and/or nature centers to display the results of the various long-term class projects, and establishing a similar model at other universities (including international) where students can compare and contrast ecosystems using a pen-pal type format where each student pairs up with a student in an environmental science class at another university and reads and comments on their blog posts.

Thanks to everyone involved with the St. Edward’s Innovation Institute for all the wonderful ideas that will make this project a successful centerpiece of ENSP 2324!

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