Digital Pedagogy and Fieldwork

I was surprised to find “fieldwork” while scrolling through the list of terms in the MLA’s collection on digital pedagogy. As someone not very familiar with the humanities, I was curious to learn more about what humanities fieldwork entails, and how digital tools could be applied to something that is so deeply connected to the real-world, boots on the ground feeling that comes with getting out of the office and into the field. Coming from a wildlife conservation background, my idea of fieldwork involves remote places, unique habitats, and lots of looking for critters. Digital tools can facilitate the data collection and analysis process, but fieldwork is still primarily based in the non-digital world of paper datasheets and waterproof field notebooks.

In reading through the materials, I learned that humanities fieldwork, like wildlife fieldwork, often involves traveling to new places with unique significance, but it can also include traveling through time using archived materials, interviews, and other artifacts of history. Digital pedagogy in humanities fieldwork takes advantage of the wide array of digital tools available for storing and searching for materials, as well as compiling and sharing information. It can also use digital tools to bridge the gap between past and present, near and far, by creating an immersive experience accessible without any travel.

It seems like similar digital pedagogy approaches could be applied in wildlife conservation and other natural resource fields to encourage student reflection and interaction following field trips. For example, in lieu of asking students to turn in field notes after a class trip, we could ask them to write reflective blog entries or contribute to a class photo collection or social media thread, or pinboard and  discuss what they found most interesting and intriguing.  Another possible application could be a collaborative project to create an immersive, interactive web site about a place visited in class to share with the public and increase access to remote areas.

An example of digital pedagogy connected to fieldwork from my own educational experience comes from an undergraduate forest ecology class that I took several years ago. One of the key topics that we learned about in class was ecological succession, or the change in plant and animal communities over time. For one of my favorite assignments of the course, the professor provided a series of historical photos taken within about a 30 minute drive of campus, and asked us to revisit and photograph those same places and discuss how they had changed over time. Such a project would lend itself quite well to the creation of an informational article or web site to help share local history with a broader audience.





Moving forward

Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned about inclusive pedagogy and case-/project-/problem-based learning. As we move to another professor and another section of the class, it’s time to reflect and figure out how to use what we’ve learned so far.

For inclusive pedagogy, the biggest thing that has stood out to me is the idea of fixing the system, rather than fixing the student. As a teacher, when I see a student struggling, my first instinct is to reach out to them and see what I can do to help them work past whatever barriers they are facing. But as long as those barriers still exist, they (and others in the future) will still need help. In addition to helping individual students improve, we must also critically examine our teaching and the larger academic system, identify barriers to student success, and work to dismantle them. One way that I would like to do this in my own teaching is to ask students to fill out a short survey at the beginning of the semester, with questions about their experiences in other classes, including what obstacles they have encountered, what (if anything) helped them overcome and/or helped remove those obstacles, and whether there is anything specific that I can include in my teaching and class design to help them prevent these same things from becoming barriers in my class. I also plan to ask what they have found helpful in other classes for their own learning. At the end of the semester, I would like to have a similar follow-up survey focused on their experiences in my class and what they would recommend changing for the next time that course is offered.

For case-/problem-/project-based learning, I am really excited to take advantage of the resources offered by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, and to  use some of my own research experience to create useful case studies. During my time as a graduate student, I have collected lots of data and studied specific questions in great depth, and I imagine that I will continue to do so  if I stay in academia. Using actual data from my work seems like a great way to get students involved and excited, and make sure that these studies continue to make a difference long after the research is completed. For example, my dissertation research is on predator ecology and interactions with a threatened prey species in a highly human-altered ecosystem. This work is directly relevant to several different courses in the undergraduate curriculum, and could be used to create case studies on predator-prey interactions, population dynamics, endangered species management, and other key topics in wildlife conservation. For our PBL assignment, I am working to create a case study based on my dissertation research, and hope to use the finished product in an undergraduate guest lecture.

Overall, I think that the biggest barrier to implementing these ideas and others that I have scribbled in the margins of my class notes is my fear of going too far outside the teaching norm. It’s easy to write about how I’m going to design the most inclusive, interactive class ever, but the reality of planning and executing such a class is much more difficult, especially if you are a relatively new teacher trying to prove yourself to both your colleagues and your students. I want to go beyond the traditional Powerpoint lecture-based, passive learning approach, but there is comfort in knowing that I can hide behind clearly organized slides and the steady one-sided stream of information that many students are used to.  What if my case study is boring? What if my plans for a wider variety of assignment types to cater to different learning styles means that none of my students can learn effectively? What if nobody talks during class discussions? As I continue on my teaching journey, I aim to build the skills and confidence to take these chances and embrace the unknown.

My experiences with case-based and project-based learning

When I look back on all the classes that I have taken over the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies, there are three that really stand out as having influenced my approach to education, learning, and teaching. All of these classes were on different topics, taught by different professors, and impacted me in different way, but they all encouraged active learning through case-based and/or project-based learning. In addition, they were all taught by professors who seemed to truly care about their students’ well-being, and made an effort to get to know us as people. In this blog, I’d like to briefly describe each of these classes and how they impacted me, both as a student and as teacher.

Class 1: Principles of Fisheries  and Wildlife Management

As an undergraduate Wildlife Science major at Virginia Tech, this was the first in-major class that I took. It is typically taken in the fall of sophomore year, and helps introduce fisheries and wildlife majors to key concepts in the field and provide a foundation for more advanced coursework. It is also open to non-majors, who can use it to fill elective requirements. As such, it’s one of the largest classes offered in our department. I would estimate that there were ~120 students when I took the class in 2009. It has grown to~150 students in recent years. It’s been taught by Dr. Karpanty for quite awhile, so I’ve had the privilege of being on both sides of the teaching strategies that she discussed during Monday’s class on case- and project-based learning.

This was also the first class that I remember taking where case- and project- based learning were heavily emphasized. Class time typically included a brief lecture, some kind of discussion on the out-of-class assignments or recent material, and lots of small group work on various cases or projects. This variety led to lots of built-in shifts between activities, which helped me stay way more engaged and attentive than a traditional hour-long Powerpoint lecture, and the small group work helped me feel way  more comfortable contributing to discussions that I would have otherwise just sat and listened to. This class helped me realize the value in variety, and showed me first-hand that learning is possible outside of the standard lecture. It also helped me learn how to make big classes feel smaller and more welcoming. On a more personal level, it introduced me to Dr. Karpanty, who has been an amazing mentor and role model for me, and is now one of my PhD advisors.

Class 2: Forest Ecology and Silvics

When I took this class, I expected it to be a boring lecture class with painfully long lab periods spent doing busy work . My expectations could not have been further from the truth. With only ~20 students, the professor was able to take project-based teaching to a new level. Lab time was spent collecting data and going on field trips, and class time was mainly spent learning how to analyze data and use it to make useful inferences about forest ecology. I can count on one hand the number of actual lectures that our professor gave. We didn’t have a single standard exam. Instead, our course grades were based on multi-week projects and/or simulated professional events that included student poster sessions, mock job interviews, and brief research talks. For the final exam, we were actually tasked with creating our own cumulative exams in small groups, then trading with other groups who would then take those exams together. In doing so, we were forced to review everything we had learned and identify key concepts, but with much less pressure than a regular final exam. As someone who struggled a lot with test anxiety in the past, I really appreciated this non-traditional approach to exams, and plan to implement it in my own teaching strategy.

Class 3: Wildlife Field Techniques

As the name would suggest, this class is all about learning the various field research techniques involved in wildlife conservation and management. It was split into a lecture portion in the early spring semester, and an intensive 10-day field portion at the end of the summer. I’ll admit that the lectures were a bit painful, with lots of back-to-back Powerpoints in order to cram a semester’s worth of information into 6 weeks of class. The field portion, though, was pretty much entirely hands-on. We learned how to safely capture and handle a wide variety of animals, navigate in the field, conduct habitat surveys, set up monitoring equipment, and more by doing all of those things under the guidance of our professor and several TAs. From this class, I gained a renewed appreciation for the value of hands-on experience in the learning process, and learned the basics of nearly all of the field research techniques that I have used in my post-graduate career. I enjoyed it so much that I came back as an undergraduate TA the following year, which provided me with my first teaching experience and cemented my love of teaching in a field setting.



Diversity and Inclusion in Wildlife Conservation

When you think of a wildlife biologist, what kind of person do you think of?

Going a step further, if I asked you to name a wildlife biologist, who would come to mind?

Many people would answer with one of the following three:

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Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter, a well-known zookeeper and nature documentary star.


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Jack Hanna, former zoo director and a frequent guest on morning talk show animal features.


Goodall and baby chimp, Flint.

Or Jane Goodall, a famous primatologist and anthropologist who revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees.

With their encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife, fashionable khaki-on-khaki attire, and an animal in hand or close at hand, these three people embody everything that comes to mind when most people think of a wildlife biologist. They also fit the traditional demographics of wildlife scientists and managers in our country. The field of wildlife conservation in the United States has  traditionally been dominated by older white men. But as our country has become more diverse, so has our field. While the khaki-on-khaki dress code remains a staple among wildlife biologists (photographic evidence below, featuring yours truly), the faces of wildlife conservation are changing.

A few weeks ago, I was up at Mountain Lake Biological Station helping to teach small mammal trapping for a field course. It was a huge class, with well over 50 students from a wide variety of backgrounds.  I was amazed at how much more diverse the students of this class were compared to when I took the same course back in 2011. During one of the evening lectures, which was focused on how to be successful in field jobs, I mentioned the importance of being able to get along with people from a variety of backgrounds and identities. Later on, one of the students approached me while I was sitting at the bonfire, a little bit away from the rest of the group. He said that he was really glad that I had mentioned varying identities within the wildlife field, and that he felt like was having a hard time fitting in with the rest of the students.  I listened and reassured him that he belongs, and that he wasn’t the only one there who doesn’t fit the traditional mold. I also shared a little bit about my experiences feeling like I don’t belong in our field. We talked about how even though the field of wildlife conservation is becoming more diverse, change takes time, and it’s hard to feel like you belong when you’re the only person like you in a group.

As a teacher, I want my students to know that they belong, and that they are  all valuable members of our field. I can’t change their past experiences or their identities, but I can change and adapt my teaching to help make sure that they all feel welcome and included. I’m looking forward to learning strategies for more inclusive teaching, and hope that I can continue working towards a more inclusive field.



Image credits:

Steve Irwin:

Jack Hanna:

Jane Goodall:

Kat the Khaki Queen: Cropped from a photo taken by Lindsay Hermanns