Active Learning in a Natural History and Related Courses Using Video Open Educational Resources: Observations over a Decade

Gary D. GrossmanDownload PDF | Volume 14, 2020

The need for open educational resources (OERs) in STEM and natural history education has never been more important given COVID-19 and the continuing cuts in state and federal funding of higher education. Over the last ten years, I have developed active learning-based (see Grossman & Simon 2020), video OERs for natural history and related environmental courses, and in this essay, describe their use as data sources for university classes. I provide examples of an exercise and a grading rubric, as well as a link to a YouTube channel with over 230 video OERs. Experience using OER-based exercises at levels ranging from first-year seminars to graduate seminars, indicates that positive student experiences only occur when assignment rubrics are carefully matched to students’ biological experience, interest, and level of knowledge. First-year non-science majors require substantial detail and interaction regarding how to complete an OER-based research paper, whereas graduate students need only be instructed to develop and complete their own research project based on what they observe in the OER. The increased availability and low cost of high resolution digital video equipment and free video editing software render it easy to film OERs of animals behaving in situ. Given the shift in lecturing modes (classroom versus online) necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, OERs are likely to play an increasingly important role in life science instruction. [full article]

Quick capture and questions: A curriculum for introducing natural history through field journaling

Freya Chay, Hannah Black, and Richard NevleDownload PDF | Volume 12, 2018

This paper outlines the curriculum and teaching approaches developed for a course we called Quick Capture and Questions: Practicing Natural History through Watercolor. This course was offered to students from diverse academic backgrounds at Stanford University and aimed to explore how field journaling could be used as a tool to deepen any student’s engagement with natural world by inviting them to slow down, deepen their observations, and cultivate personal connection to the natural systems they move through. [full article]

Why teach natural history through hybrid and online courses?

Alison K. Varty and Susannah B. Johnson-FultonDownload PDF | Volume 11, 2017

In this paper, we describe the current trends in online enrollment in higher education and summarize the research on the effectiveness of online learning in general and with a focus on online education in the natural sciences. We conclude that teaching hybrid courses with face-to-face field experiences or fully online courses with autonomous field experiences may be an effective way to educate a larger, more diverse student population about natural history. Furthermore, we describe some of the current online offerings in natural history and provide examples of how natural history topics could be approached in both hybrid and fully online courses. [full article]

Natural History in the Digital Age

The Use of Original Music Videos to Teach Natural History

Gary D. Grossman and C. Edward WatsonDownload PDF | Volume 9, 2015

We describe the use of original music videos as instructional aides for a large non-science major course in natural history. The course meets university general education requirements for life sciences and environmental literacy. Over two class years (Fall 2012 and 2013), the senior author wrote and recorded five music videos to reinforce class lecture materials including songs on: (1) conceptual topics, (2) important habitats, and (3) important species. The purpose of the videos was to utilize a multimodal form of instruction in a format (music videos) commonly used and appreciated by university students. The videos were uploaded to YouTube between 18 August 2012 and 13 November 2013. Anonymous, voluntary questionnaires in both years indicated that students’ perceived that videos improved their learning and attitudes towards both class and studying. We assume that a portion of the positive responses was due to the fact that the class instructor generally created and sang the songs in the videos, rather than employ materials from other sources. The results reveal potential for measuring actual gains in learning and retention and an investigation of their correlation with different video content (e.g., natural history concepts, habitat types, and species information) is ongoing. [full article]

An Invitation for Engagement: Assigning and Assessing Field Notes to Promote Deeper Levels of Observation

John S. Farnsworth, Lyn Baldwin, and Michelle BezansonDownload PDF | Volume 8, 2014

This paper explores current practices for teaching the discipline of keeping field notes within academic natural history courses. We investigate how journal projects can be structured to promote engagement with the natural world while emphasizing the importance of recording accurate and honest observations. Particular attention is paid herein to the assignment of field notes, and to the process of assessing the results of these assignments. Our discussion includes results from an informal survey of best practices among colleagues representing numerous natural history disciplines. [full article]

Natural History of Spain: Teaching Students About Nature and Culture in a Foreign Country

Gorka Sancho & Deborah A. BidwellDownload PDF | Volume 8, 2014

An ideal liberal arts and sciences undergraduate education in the 21st century should expose students to the natural world as well as to different human cultures. Unique to the College of Charleston’s semester abroad program in Spain, our Natural History of Spain course is designed to provide students with both immersion in natural history, as well as simultaneous immersion in foreign language and culture. Lengthy field excursions focus on basic nature observation and field annotation skills, exposing students to the unique flora and fauna of Spain across multiple ecosystems. An integrative approach comparing and contrasting environmental, cultural, and rural land use issues in Spain and the United States promotes conservation and emphasizes critical thinking skills. During semester-long offerings, Spanish language coursework and cultural immersion through lodging with host families rounds out the interdisciplinary course of study. Our approach allows for an in-depth and truly internationalized perspective, resulting in an integrative immersion in Spanish nature and culture that is grounded in time and place. Students responses highlight the importance of field trips and extended time spent immersed in natural settings as essential to their learning and overall experience. One hundred percent of students rated their international experience positively. [full article]

Field-based and hands-on ecology labs increase undergraduate interest in the natural world

J. ResascoDownload PDF | Volume 7, 2013

Courses with field components and emphasis on natural history have been fading from college curricula. Interest among young people in observing the natural world has also widely been observed to be declining. Here, I measured whether participation in a college-level general ecology lab (with hands-on and field-based labs) increases student interest in natural history. I created a scoring system to assess students’ interest in natural history (“naturalist score”), and students used this system in self-evaluation before and after completing the course. During the semester, students participated in labs rooted in ecological theory and natural history including two field-based labs, one experiment using live plants and animals, and independent projects on topics of their choice. Naturalist scores increased significantly post-course. This pattern was apparent in students across a wide range of career interests. [full article]

Field School

Lyn BaldwinDownload PDF | Volume 7, 2013

This article uses the form of a creative non-fiction essay to illustrate that the teaching of an ecology field school can be informed by lessons learned from natural history. Throughout the essay, I use migration as a lens through which to interpret the teaching opportunities and challenges that occur in a two-week, capstone field course provided every two years at my university’s research station. Just as shorebirds refuel and rest at migratory staging areas, field school has its own educational waypoints that mark the progress of both individuals and the larger group. As a unique way of knowing that allows university students to attend to the natural world, this story argues that field schools make an important contribution to biology students’ undergraduate education and are worth preserving. [full article]

The Journal’s the Thing: Teaching Natural History and Nature Writing in Baja California Sur

John S. Farnsworth and Christopher D. BeattyDownload PDF | Volume 6, 2012

The skills of making informed observations, synthesizing those observations, and communicating them effectively are central to the naturalist. Developing university courses that optimize instruction in these skills simultaneously can, however, be a challenge. Here we describe a program at Santa Clara University comprised of two integrated co-requisite courses, Writing Natural History (ENVS 142) and The Natural History of Baja (BIOL/ENVS 144). Lectures through the 10-week winter quarter expand students’ knowledge of the ecosystems and biodiversity of the Baja Peninsula and help them to develop descriptive writing skills. The courses culminate in a ten-day expedition to the Baja Peninsula and Isla Espiritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez, where students explore local ecosystems and journal about their experiences. The result is a program in which students expand their skills in natural history and develop their own voices as writers and natural historians. We describe the structure and philosophy of this program and provide details on associated lecture topics, logistics, exercises, and readings. [full article]

Local Species Trading Cards: An Activity to Encourage Scientific Creativity and Ecological Predictions from Species’ Traits

Jay M. FitzsimmonsDownload PDF | Volume 6, 2012

Species’ traits (e.g., body size, generation time, diet breadth) are being used by biologists with increasing frequency to predict ecological responses to modern environmental threats. Given the importance of traits for ecological research, and the accessibility of traits to learners, it is important to develop effective teaching methods for the relationship between species’ traits and ecological responses. I describe a short (approximately 45 minutes) activity that encourages youth to critically evaluate species’ traits in the context of predicted responses to modern climate change. The activity uses trading cards for local butterfly species akin to sports trading cards, with photographs of the species on the front and their trait statistics on the back. Participants are asked to make trait-based predictions of species’ responses to climate change. I describe my experience leading this activity with a youth naturalist club, and provide supplementary files allowing readers to modify this activity for other taxa, traits, and ecological responses. [full article]

Listening to Children: Perceptions of Nature

Donald J. Burgess and Jolie Mayer-SmithDownload PDF | Volume 5, 2011

This exploratory study investigates children’s perceptions and experiences of nature during a residential outdoor environmental education program and contributes to an understanding of how nature experiences arouse biophilia, a love of life and all living things. Using interviews, naturalistic observation, and artifact collection, we studied children’s responses to nature during and following their participation in a residential environmental education program known as Mountain School. We explored how an examination of biophilic sensibilities can help researchers and educators focus on the vital intersection between the individual, environment, and action. Our study suggests that children’s perceptions of nature are varied and dependent on prior experiences. Our study indicates that after spending time in the wilderness program at Mountain School, children’s perceptions of nature changed. Children formed connections with the fauna and flora of the North Cascades. Our use of biophilia as a framework for inquiry demands that we consider what it means to include the larger biotic community in our discussion of educational reform. This research contributes to an evolving understanding of the relationship between people and the natural world. [full article]

From Dioramas to Dragonflies: Redefining the Role of Natural History in Environmental Science

Kirsten H. MartinDownload PDF | Volume 5, 2011

Each time I teach an environmental science class, I bring my students to a stream near campus. The students are animated, glad to be freed from the confines of the lecture hall, and unaware of what faces them at the streamside. I stand in the middle of the stream, watching the water ripple across the rocks and over the toes of my battered old boots. This stream hides many stories within its rock-bound borders, stories of the struggle of life. [full article]

Natural History From the Ground Up: developing a college-level natural history program in the new millennium

David GilliganDownload PDF | Volume 3, 2009

In their Autumn 2001 issue, Orion magazine listed a scant nine institutions of higher education with programs in natural history. That same year I had recently completed my graduate work in Natural History and Ecology and was teaching field courses for Prescott College in Arizona, one of the listed institutions. Around this time, I began my own search for college-level programs with roots in natural history, convinced that there had to be more than had made the pages of Orion. It was a tricky search because, as many of us know, at most colleges and universities natural history lies hidden at the foundation of a variety of disciplines, mostly in the natural sciences, but seldom manifests as a degree track, a professorial position, or even in a course title. [full article]

A Bird in the Hand: a place-based, hands-on curriculum in ornithology

Stephen C. TrombulakDownload PDF | Volume 3, 2009

One of the most widely appreciated branches of the Tree of Life is that of the birds. It is almost certainly no exaggeration to say that we know more about the natural history of birds—including their distribution, ecology, behavior, and taxonomy—than of any other group of animals. Part of the reason for this that they are so easy to study; they are numerous, morphologically diverse, colorful, primarily day-active, and large enough to see with the naked, or slightly aided, eye. These same characteristics have led birds to be among the most popular of organisms for study in natural history classes; in general, students get far more excited about the natural world when they are given the opportunity to encounter animals that are easy to see, beautiful, and readily identifiable to species. [full article]

Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place

Fred Taylor and John TallmadgeDownload PDF | Volume 3, 2009

We gather at sunset on a rocky promontory that juts into Low Lake, at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, near the town of Ely in Northern Minnesota. We’re here for a six-day seminar, “Stalking the Spirit of Place,” with doctoral students from the Union Institute, a non-traditional university for mid-career adult learners. Unlike traditional doctoral courses, Union’s seminars are designed to model interdisciplinary inquiry, engage multiple intelligences, and demonstrate how to create a learning community where scholarly knowledge is integrated with individual life experience. [full article]

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