Saturday, January 31, 2009

Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place

Fred Taylor and John Tallmadge have a new article in the Journal of Natural History Education on Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place. Using the field-based graduate seminar they teach as a case study, they explore the opportunities and rewards of teaching course to non-specialists that combines a literary and scientific perspective on what it means to understand and inhabit a place.

From their abstract ...

This paper describes the design and conduct of an interdisciplinary doctoral seminar on the spirit of place offered in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota to adult learners of the Union Institute Graduate School. Natural and human history were addressed through readings and class discussions combined with observations and excursions by canoe, simulating the experiences of early explorer-naturalists. Exercises in narrative and descriptive writing as well as reading the landscape and splitting the spruce roots used for bark canoe repair provided visceral appreciation of the unseen dimensions of the ecosystem and the literary achievements of the poets and writers discussed. This type of course can be easily tailored to fit different venues or clientele. Such approaches are timely as we intensify the search for a sustainable world.

Check it out.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

You are here

The Global Environmental Monitoring unit of the European Commission has hust published a nifty, if somewhat despressing, map of the travel time to major cities, which they use as a surrogate measure of "accessibility." Even without seeing the map you can probably guess what the U.S. looks like: mostly bright yellow, which symbolizes travel times of one hour or less.

While accessibility itself is not necessarily a problem, the ways in which we achieve accessibility in this current era are. Road networks, in particular, are a disaster for the natural world, causing problems for wild nature in ways ranging from chemical contamination, spread of exotic species, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, and outright mortality from contruction and roadkill.

Hopefully, the future will bring modes of transportation that don't jeopardize the natural world or destroy the presence of wild nature. Hey, it's a new political era in the U.S.; I can dream, can't I?

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Myth 4: My story is only worth telling if I describe everything I do in my entire class.

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Wrong. The more you try to describe with your story, the more complex it becomes and the harder it is for someone to learn from it. I realize that effective teachers usually plan classes as complete and distinct constructions, where exercises and field trips connect logically one to the other to support overarching themes and standards. Yet this does not mean that the component parts of the class are not useful or important on their own. Other teachers could easily incorporate a single new exercise into their own class construction to support their own educational goals.

I experience this regularly in my own school. I am blessed with colleagues who teach classes on other taxa and with other conceptual emphases than I do, yet who share my interest in natural history. We commonly talk with each other about what we do with the students in lecture, field, and lab, and more often than not, we each find aspects of what the others do that we want to incorporate into our own class. This does not change the taxa we focus on or the concepts we emphasize, but it provides for steady improvement in the quality and effectiveness of our instruction, whether it is something as simple as how to keep a field notebook or as complex as how to introduce students to a statistical technique for interpreting behavioral observations in the field.

The truth is that you make more of a contribution, not less, if you focus your story on one simple thing: an exercise, an activity, a discussion, a technique, a field trip. Here the dictum “Minor est magis” (Less is more) is relevant: tell a detailed story about one thing. The fact that you have many such stories to tell simply means that you can write several different articles; it does not mean that you need to find a way to compress all your stories into one.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Myth 3: I should only write my story if I am sure that what I do is unique and significant

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Myth 3: I should only write my story if I am sure that what I do is unique and significant.

Wrong. I suspect this myth is ingrained in us from the body of publications that we are used to reading in the course of our research on new findings in education and natural history. Although we may accept that a core principle of the scientific method is that results must be repeatable – and hence saying something that has already been said is a key part of science – we typically do not see publication of such results. This has unfortunately led us to believe the same is true of for all publications, or even that it is desirable for all publications.

But this is not the case. For a renaissance in natural history to occur, we need to foster an explosion in the prevalence of natural history education in classrooms and community nature centers everywhere. Publications in this journal are not simply about novel ideas. They are about your practices: what did you try, what worked, what failed, what would you do differently? And there is value to reporting on activities that others have reported on … or even reporting on activities about which you have no idea whether or not they are novel. If someone reads about your practices and says, “Well, will you look at that. That’s the same exercise I heard about elsewhere,” then they are more likely to remember it and be empowered to try it. The truth is that your story is worth telling simply because it is your story, regardless of how unique it is.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Goals for the year

One of the things I've learned about myself over the long years is that I have to have goals. The vague notion, which I develop around this time every year, that I need to do "more" of something or get "better" at something never quite seems to transform into real action. To get from notion to reality I need to set real targets for myself.

I was finally able to articulate this after talking with my partner the other day during our numerous trips up a mountain in a ski lift. "We should ski more this winter," she says. "I agree," I reply. "Let's ski more."

Yeah, ok. Let's ski more, bird more, climb more mountains, finally learn those wetland trees, and look for beetles in some different places. (Not to mention lose a few pounds and knock some time off my 5K.)

But, as I said, I need goals if it's really going to happen. Maybe that's a manifestation of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. But whatever it is, I realize now that I need to set specific targets if I'm really going to take it seriously. So I spent the rest of yesterday thinking about my goals for the year.

See 160 species of birds in my county. Check.
Climb 10 summits in the Green Mountains that I haven't climbed before. Check.
Read 5 natural history accounts that I haven't read before. Check.

And finally, complete my book on ecoregional-scale conservation planning. Double check.

I'll let you know how it goes.

So ... what about you? Got goals?

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Quote of the day

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.

Isaac Asimov

Well said, Isaac. This is equally true if you substitute the word "nature" for "society." Not all change is good, mind you, but our relationship with nature went seriously off the rails once humanity got it into its head that we could prevent change and enforce a kind of ecological stablity.

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