Integrating active learning with multiple perspectives helps students to succeed

I have had a variety of great higher education learning experiences that have guided me on my path to pursuing my PhD in Animal science at VT now. I had the opportunity to attend on full scholarship the 2 summer semester program of the Midwest poultry consortium where I earned a certificate in poultry science and decided to go to graduate school. These classes were great, not only because they were tailored to exactly what we all wanted to learn about- poultry science- but also because they also used integrated learning experiences with multiple expert professionals working together. In my first summer semester we had afternoon labs in avian physiology: where we worked with quail, took EKGs of chickens, and fed food coloring to laying hens to see how it impacted the yolk color of their eggs; and poultry processing and food science: where we learned about the slaughter process by following the entire process with our own bird, we then learned how products were created and ate a lot of great turkey. The next summer our afternoons were filled with simulated research in nutrition, and doing diagnostic necropsies with real submissions under the supervision of the diagnostic lab staff. All of these activities served to reinforce the morning lecture contents and to provide a new environment that is reflective of the real world in poultry science. I hope to bring this style of teaching to my own classroom and to hopefully impact a student the same way I was impacted. I know it is extremely challenging to successfully integrate such lab and lectures so I am trying to adopt a course coordinator approach to teaching the introductory courses to expose students to many experts and opportunities at the university. Ideally this approach would set students up for identifying areas of interest and forming connections to get involved in research or other opportunities related to those interests. As an instructor I would never be able to accomplish this for students alone.

Diverse experiences with culturally responsive teaching

After thoughtful group discussion of our personal experiences with culturally responsive teaching, we’ve come to the agreement that there is no one way to be culturally responsive. These inclusive practices occur across multiple domains (e.g., within the course content, through instruction, in relationships with students). They also look different across different disciplines. Here are a few of our experiences from our disciplines of psychology, architecture, animal science, and engineering. 

Alexis: Topics of culture and diversity are often naturally interwoven in psychology course content. At the same time, much of the existing literature in psychological science is based on very white, middle-class, westernized groups of people. Thus, it can require some extra effort in order to include ethnic and cultural diversity in my classes. I have increasingly tried to be conscious of whose work I am highlighting during class, and to share the work of psychologists from underrepresented backgrounds. However, it can also be difficult to do this in a way that isn’t tokenism. I often wonder how to appropriately approach these issues in the classroom and how to achieve culturally responsive teaching strategies in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

Mahnaz: When it comes to some fields of study such as architecture, differences can become influential and reduce performance. For instance, the different unit system that is used in the United States is completely different from what is used in many other countries. Although it is possible to complete a project with the metric system and change it to English Units at the end, it is not always accepted. Converting the units, which can be a simple issue, can become a huge hindrance even to understanding the scale of your project and know what you are designing. Overall, it can negatively influence a student’s performance.

Mohammed: Saudi Arabia has less diversity in its education system than the United States. However, in Saudi Arabian higher education, most students prefer to work as a group in class discussions and projects to get multiple different experiences and take different viewpoints. Moreover, hands-on experience in engineering colleges in Saudi Arabia has increased in the last ten years. This yields to develop culture education in a class. The integration between hands-on experience and group discussion in a class can be considered as a good teaching strategy in higher education.   

Sara: Integrating individual life experiences is essential to the learning process. When teachers embrace this fact they are likely to be more successful. I try to embrace this in my own classroom, where I attempt to teach 150 new students the basics of Animal Science. The biggest challenge I face is that within my population of students exists individuals that grew up around livestock and then I have others that have only ever had a pet cat. This wide range requires me to make sure that all students get the opportunity to ask questions when they are lost in the material and to keep the advanced students engaged while helping out the other students. Trying to treat all of my students like blank slates in this class would alienate half of my students from the material that I am so passionate about; alternatively, taking the approach that all students are ready to dive into a discussion about species management strategies will alienate the other half. There is no right way to teach this class, my only goal for the class is to have every student ready for the next level of Animal Science classes within the department. 

The “cultural” component of culturally responsive teaching is more than just considering the ethnic or racial background of students within our class. Our experiences highlight this fact and we all feel better having had this conversation.

Embracing Inclusive Pedagogy in MY Classroom

The biggest hurdle for me to overcome in adopting inclusive pedagogy is how to holistically integrate the principles into my class in Animal Science in a meaningful way. I will concede I like the idea of implementing “ground-rules” related to creating a brave space for the classroom community, but I am concerned that starting conversations on tough subjects, not explicitly course content will detract from the sense of community within my classroom. One such example is addressing the history at our own institution.  At VT the Smithfield Plantation used to keep slaves, the university does not openly discuss this painful fact. Yet there are locations on campus – mainly near the farms on plantation road- that have names in homage to the old plantation such as the Smithfield Horse Center (where many of the students in the department of animal and poultry sciences will visit during their degree program). If I were to start a dialogue with my students about why the center is named as such how does that benefit my goal of teaching students about the science of managing equines? I understand and applaud the goal of making students into better citizens of the world by facilitating discussion around the history of VT and embracing the discomfort of acknowledging the horrible legacy that plantations have on individuals of color especially in the realm of agricultural sciences- but I struggle with how can I meaningfully integrate these principles into my class. I know that I could always post a historical information page or document onto my canvas page and have students read it and discuss it but is that enough to truly prepare students to become citizens of the world? Will it mean anything to them?

I fully appreciate the values embodied in the theory of inclusive pedagogy, but I struggle to rationalize how to integrate them within the existing framework of a typical Animal Science curriculum. The more I learn about pedagogy and reflect on my own experiences the more I realize that I want to throw out the handbook when I reach the point that I am able to teach and ideally create my own classes.

-SE

Intersectionality

My introductions to Intersectionality

I first learned about intersectionality while I was training to be a resident assistant at Michigan State University. We were talking about identities and assumptions and the leader of our training introduced the term. As soon as I heard it I felt it was the perfect way to think about identities. It reminds you that you are composed of multiple identities and that others are too. I also feel that the term reminds you that you can find connection with other people who may seem to be extremely different from you. I have moved away from residential life but I still think about intersectionality frequently.

Mainly I think about intersectionality with regard to its connection to life experiences. As a graduate teaching scholar I spend a lot of time reading about pedagogy and theories related to learning. I feel that good teaching requires the instructor to embrace intersectionality in their classroom. The revelation came to life for me when I learned about Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Critical Pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is a style of teaching that connects classroom material with student’s past life experiences (read more here). Most recommended teaching techniques in critical pedagogy revolve around discussion where students are asked to connect their own life experiences to the classroom. This teaching style makes the most sense for me because it is how I learn. I need to find a connection to the material- either to my own interests or with respect to something I can apply in the real world. For example the semester I realized I loved metabolism was when I was taking courses in biochemistry, nutrition, and toxicology. It was a really hard semester but half way through I had a light bulb moment where I realized the material I was learning about in each class was just a variation of what I learned in the others. I saw the relationship between the disciplines under the larger umbrella of studying metabolism.

Applying intersection in the future

With regards to intersectionality in the traditional sense- “the complex cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap or intersect” (Merriam-Webster, 2019), I don’t do a lot with that currently. I would like to though. Intersectionality is not a topic that gets brought up much in the world of science. It has a lot of potential too though- there is a lot of discrimination in the scientific world, both in the past and in the present:

Race- and gender-based bias persists in US science

(More) Bias in Science Hiring

Gender discrimination holding women back in veterinary practice

I think if we integrated more training in issues surround diversity and inclusion- such as intersectionality- to science graduate programs and professional programs (medical, veterinary, pharmacy, etc.) we would be able to cut down on discrimination present in science today.

-SE

Intersectionality. 2019. In Merriam-Webster.com Retrieved October 7, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intersectionality