Enviromental Studies 101 is one of Western's largest lecture classes. In the Fall of 1999, Scott Brennan used many multimedia tools to motivate his students. Integrating web discussion groups, powerpoint presentations, video, and audio clips, ES 101 became not just another large lecture class. The following essay describes how Scott Brennan prepared for his class.
When I first learned that I would be responsible for teaching Western Washington University's (WWU) largest lecture course, Environmental Studies (ENVR) 101, in the fall of 1999 I was more than a little concerned. Enrollment in the course typically runs close to 450 students who come together in WWU's largest lecture hall for three one hour meetings each week. A class of 450 students can conjure at least a hint of stage fright in even the most seasoned presenter and it definitely flies in the face of all that we know about appropriate and viable pedagogical processes. In addition to the size of the class, the challenges associated with bringing critical environmental issues to life in a large lecture course were chief among my concerns.
Despite these factors I was able to approach my assignment as a tremendous opportunity rather than as an overwhelming challenge. I benefited tremendously from the support of the Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment, the faculty and staff of Huxley College of Environmental Studies, and most importantly from the active involvement of former and current ENVR 101 students.
I received my teaching assignment in the spring of 1999 just days after accepting a summer-long position with Denali National Park Wilderness Centers, Ltd., an environmental education and ecotourism company based in the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. This seasonal work opportunity afforded me an opportunity to pursue my research interests and to live and work in the heart of Denali National Park. It also meant that I would spend the three months immediately preceding fall term, time I desperately needed to develop exciting, engaging and decidedly high-tech multimedia curriculum, living in the attic of an old Alaskan wilderness lodge where the only source of electricity would be twin diesel generators.
The lodge sits 30 miles north of Mount McKinley and 90 miles of single lane, unpaved park road from the nearest pavement in a neighborhood where grizzly bears and caribou are far more common than ethernet connections, fax machines, or even personal computers. I knew that I had my work cut out for me.
Before I left for Alaska, I spent as much time as I could with current and former ENVR 101 students to learn of their experiences and impressions of the course. One of the students I interviewed, whom I'll call "Nate," said the following when I asked him what I should know about college freshman and sophomores that would help me teach the course effectively and engagingly.
"You need to remember," Nate said, "that the only time we are ever in one room with that many people our same age is when we're at a concert, or maybe in a big movie theatre. And you need to remember that we grew up watching television. A lot of television, a lot of talk shows. "
I think that Nate was telling me that if I hoped to connect with 450 students and engage them on a personal level that I needed to make it colorful, and noisy, and animated. And maybe, just maybe, a little bit entertaining. I knew that this last possibility might draw the attention of those purists whose adherence to blackboard and chalk and oratorical excess approaches the ascetic. But since the students I had talked with had been very clear in their desire for a participatory multimedia experience, I decided to oblige them. What I didn't learn until much later, however, was the fact that what the students were asking for was not much different than with the leaders of the CIIA and the FIGs project were asking for. The students just used simpler, more accessible terms to describe their desires.
I arrived at Camp Denali, a cluster of 50-year old cabins and an old, but nicely restored wilderness lodge on Monday, June 14. I had traveled a thousand-odd miles by plane, bus and truck to arrive as close to the edge of civilization as you can get. I had seen four or five grizzly bears and as many moose and caribou in the final hours of the trip and the laptop computer I had carefully cradled in my lap for something approaching a day and a half seemed decidedly out of place. Despite the incongruities, I set to work on my curriculum development as soon as I could. I would often work in the enduring luminescence of early evening or on the mornings of my days off from work around camp. During the mosquito free wind storms and the long daylight hours, I took advantage of my portability and produced course content, including PowerPoint slides, outside and in full view of Mount McKinley and much of the Alaska Range. My curriculum development objectives were fourfold.
To develop a course website that would provide traditional curricular resources as well as interactive discussion areas/bulletin boards constructed by CIIA staff.
In addition to posting the course syllabus and lecture highlights as well as relevant links, I intended to make regular writing assignments that the students would complete and submit electronically to the discussion board. Once posted, these writing assignments were available for all students in the class to review, analyze and critique on line and during structured in-class discussions. [Discussion Board]
To prepare PowerPoint presentations that paralleled and expanded upon the course texbook, Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships by Eldon Enger and Huxley College's Dean Brad Smith.
With the support of CIIA staff, I was able to collect a large database of audio and video clips as well as still photos and other images that supplemented the simple text of the slide presentations. One resource I found to be particularly valuable was the archive of audio news stories from the National Public Radio archives at NPR.
To provide students with opportunities to study real environmental problems in the context of real places and the real people who are trying to solve these problems.
There are several important reasons I used multimedia case studies to illuminate key environmental concepts, processes and problems. First of all, environmental issues are best understood in the context of real places and tangible concepts students can easily grasp. For example, many students would have difficulty understanding ozone depletion if we asked them to "first, consider the ozone molecule." Such a concept is too abstract and too far removed from the daily lives of students to be an effective entry point for this important discussion. A better approach would be to start with a real place, real people and tangible objects or organisms affected by ozone depletion.
For instance, by relating the story of sheep ranchers (real people) in Australia (a real place) discovering an increase in eye lesions among their sheep (concrete, tangible organisms) we allow students an accessible entry point to understanding the ozone depletion problem and to investigating the effects of concomitant UV radiation increases. This case-based approach was central to my approach.
A second important reason for using a case study based approach is that students learn best through stories. Stories provide the context, questions, drama, and personal involvement that will encourage students to become interested in environmental problems. Once this interest is generated through a place-based story, students will be much more interested in learning the scientific terms, processes, and tools that they can then use to unravel the mystery of the sickened sheep and the hole in the ozone, or any other environmental problem.
The use of audio, video and in-person guest speakers greatly enhanced the real world content of the course [Example of Real Life Multimedia Presentation]
To give students an opportunity and incentive to think critically, form arguments, opinions and their own lines of reasoning about pressing environmental problems.
In the spirit of Nate's advice, I wanted to develop a series of questions or dilemmas that I could present students with once we had covered fundamental concepts and processes in class. In one such exercise, students watched a recent PBS documentary entitled "Affluenza." This film portrayed the connection between a consumer-driven society and environmental, social and political problems. Its interdisciplinary nature appealed to me but I was also interested in encouraging my students to discuss potential solutions to the problems it portrayed [Student comments on "Affluenza"].
I believe that student comments on the course speak well to the veracity of Nate's comments and the overall objectives of the CIIA and the FIGs project.