ES AIRE Grant Report

This summer we received an NSF-AIRE grant to integrate a research component into our introductory Environmental Studies course, ES 118. This memo reports back on what we have accomplished.

Background

Environmental Studies 118 was one of the first courses on the Colby campus to address interdisciplinary environmental studies issues. The course has been offered annually in some form since 1988-89 and has been jointly taught by three or four faculty members from different departments. It has traditionally been organized by spending a week on each environmental issue are covered in the course (such as population, forest issues, energy, etc.), with a single faculty-member responsible for designing a week’s lectures and choosing the reading and activities for section. The focus has been more on covering the material than examining how knowledge is gained through the research process.

Purpose

Our main objective was to integrate research into every facet of the course. We have focused on three different elements of research: (1) teaching the students about the research process and research methodologies, (2) mentoring them through a "hands on" research project in which they define the topic, gather the evidence, interpret the evidence and reach conclusions based upon that evidence and (3) reinforce this "hands on" learning by emphasizing in the lectures the role by which research has been used to increase the state of knowledge of selected environmental problems.

Process

We have met throughout the summer. At the first meeting we agreed on what we wanted to accomplish and defined a process for meeting that goal. Each member of the group had the responsibility for taking one component of the this approach and coming up with a draft that addressed the issues. We would then meet to discuss and refine the drafts until such time as we reached consensus. Though some details remain to be worked out, we believe that we have come up with a design that fulfills our goal.

The Results

Our design for a research-focused course has three major components: (1) teaching the students about research, (2) engaging the students in actual research and (3) illustrating research in action through the lectures and discussions.

Teaching Research

 

It has become clear to us as we have taught this introductory course over the years that our students need more formal help in understanding how to do research. A typical high school experience provides little help to in framing research questions, in distinguishing the significance of various sources of evidence, in interpreting the evidence, and finally in drawing conclusions from the findings.

We have decided to address this problem by adding a component to the course that teaches research. Fortunately a means of doing this is readily at hand. We have in previous years used a Thursday night session to show videos. These are usually interesting, popular and informative in the sense that they convey some useful information to students about environmental problems. this use of the time, however, did not fit the research-focus model very well. Hence we have decided to use the Thursday night session to teach about the research process.

The schedule of these presentations has been synchronized with the various deadlines for the student research projects so that we will be helping them specifically with the topics as they need them for their own research. Here are the topics and the sequence:

Student Research Projects

 

The newly designed student research component of the course is made up of four, graded components. In designing these components we have relied upon what we have learned about what has worked in the past and what hasn't. As a result this approach is significantly different from our previous approach. Major differences (in addition to the session which focus on how to do research (defined above) include the means of selecting topics, the means of forming groups with similar interests, the linking of research advisors with groups, the nature of the first draft and the means for handling presentations.

The descriptions below describe the new approach.

On Monday of the second week students will submit their ideas for a group topic by handing in a form containing the topic idea, four elements to examine under this topic, and the sources used to find this topic.

Faculty will screen and/or merge these topics, based on our judgement of how well we think they can be researched as a group project. In class on Wednesday of that week students will receive a list of 20 or so topics from which to choose. Group selection will take place during the Thursday night session of that week. Students will do this by signing up for topics subject to capacity constraints. By the time the students leave this session the groups should all be defined. The three research mentors will divide up the projects among themselves so that each mentor that the same number of groups to advise. (this method of selecting topics and securing advisors is completely different from our previous procedures. We believe this approach allow the greatest flexibility to students in pursuing their interests and the greatest chance that faculty will be mentoring projects closer to their own expertise.

The successful proposal will include:

A description of what large question(s) the project is attempting to answer and what framework the group proposes to use to answer these questions. The proposal will describe the common elements that link the individual research, what aspect of the question will each student study and how each student proposes to research his or her issue. Each student will submit five references that s/he has preferably had a chance to review or alternatively has ordered based on reading an abstract.

 

Grade: 10% of project grade. We plan to give a single, group grade to all group members. However, we maintain the discretion of giving individual grades should that be necessary.

The first draft will consist of the individual sections of the reports authored by the individual students. (This is a considerable change from our earlier approach. Earlier we required a draft of the complete paper. In practice the draft tended to be very unfocused as students grappled with putting their own sections together and, as a result, were unprepared to complete the next step. Now we require them to have completed their individual sections before requiring them to use the individual research to evaluate analytically what conclusions can be drawn from the individual section, as well as revise the individual sections in order to be more useful in the overall analysis.) Each section paper must be a minimum of 8 pages and will be evaluated based on how well the paper answers the questions outlined in the proposal. In addition to content, grading criteria will include breadth and use of references and paper mechanics. The attached style sheet indicates how we expect references to be cited. We encourage students to take advantage of the services offered by Colby’s writing center located in Miller.

Grade: 30% project grade: This is an individual grade.

The group paper integrates the individual sections both analytically and visually (table of contents, single font, pagination, single reference section).

A 3-4 page group introduction will give a background as to why the group chose this topic, what questions they hoped to answer in looking at this issue, and the process they used to study the issue.

A 4-6 page conclusion will describe the collective knowledge gained from the research . What conclusions can be drawn from the research? What process was used to draw the conclusion? The conclusion will draw on evidence from individual papers.

Grade: 40% of project grade. Grades will be one-half individual grade and one-half group grade. Part of individual grade will be based on the extent the student contributed to common activities. To help determine this, students will be asked to evaluate themselves and their group mates.

Each group will prepare a 30 minute presentation highlighting, in an engaging manner, the issue, research and analysis. These presentations will be run conference-style which means: (1) four days of presentations will be held, (2) during each presentation day three projects will be presenting their wok in different rooms (one for each of the three research advisors), and (3) students not giving presentations on any given day will be given the opportunity to attend the presentation in which they have the greatest interest (subject to some balancing by faculty)

Grade: 20% of project grade. Grades will be one-half individual grade and one-half group grade.

In unusual circumstances and only after consultation with a faculty member, it may be possible to opt out of the group project and prepare an individual research paper.

 

The Lecture Component

 

The final component in the package involves redesigning the lecture component of the course. Originally the lectures were designed to survey the field. As such they covered a considerable amount of ground at some sacrifice of depth.

The redesigned series of lectures is designed to emphasize the other research components of the course. To be specific we intend to discuss issues of research and research design in the course lectures. We have come to believe that is important for students to know that the same types of issues they face about how to do research on nebulous and changing topics are those faced by their professors and by others researching in the field.

The lectures can reinforce what is happening in the other components of the course through discussing the way in which the information we present in lecture has been generated, and how our own process of research in this field is done. Implementing this goal has required the development of new procedures for seamlessly integrating the new pedagogic materials into the course lectures. We found we had to cut the number of topics we cover in the lectures (to make room for the new, deeper coverage) and to show how overarching themes could be used to tie the pieces together. Specifically issues such as how specific circumstances (such as common-pool resources or externalities ) create individual incentives for actors that may result in collectively undesirable outcomes are a recurring theme, as is the role for values in forming a normative vision. The new, shorter list of topics covered allows us the opportunity to show student not only how these issues are related in terms of overarching themes, but also how the state of knowledge evolved.

We believe we have accomplished quite a bit over the summer and are enthusiastic about the opportunity to test out this new approach on our students in the Spring. Especially because we feel the effort has been so productive, we want to thank the NSF for the AIRE grant that made this effort possible. We very much appreciate the support.

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