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.