“Discuss this with your ‘shoulder partner,’” instructed Mz. Lenz. The high school biology students turned toward each other, and the classroom came alive with the chattering of teenagers discussing the mechanisms of DNA replication. As a new collaborative teaching fellow, I watched as teenagers discussed enzyme activity and the problem of Okazaki fragments. They consulted the textbook or lecture slides when the teammates disagreed. Two years later, as a teaching assistant at Northern Arizona University in a developing introductory biology course, I explained how quizzes for this course were going to be different than anything the students have ever done before. My students looked at me in disbelief. One student raised their hand, “You mean, we get to work together…on the quiz?” Rather than the sound of scratching pencils and stifled coughs, the classroom was full of the sounds of student-led teaching and learning as they worked through the quiz questions as a team.
These are two examples of how I have seen student engagement with course materials increase. From my own experience as an undergraduate, and later as an instructor, teaching and learning happens best from student peers. I view my role as an instructor to be the guide for teaching and learning. Often that means that I take a backseat to allow the students to distill and synthesize the information by having to explain the concepts to their classmates.
Ultimately, when students walk out of my classroom on the last day of the course, I want them to have gained the skills necessary to be successful in the remainder of their education and in their careers. This is especially true for introductory courses. Not only do students need to gain the basis of knowledge of biological, ecological, and evolutionary principles, I want my students to have learned how to learn. I seek to aid my students in developing time management, study, and test-taking skills that will serve them not only in my course, but in the rest of their education and into their careers. For future scientists and professionals in many other fields, the ability to collaborate effectively will be an important for successful careers. An additional benefit of having students work as teams is that students gain practice in the important skill of collaboration.
In addition to skills, I want students to walk out of my classroom with a deeper understanding of how and why biology matters to their personal lives. I wish to foster an appreciation of the natural world in my students. One of the ways that I do this is to take the students outside and show them the biological concept we are discussing. For example, when we talked about male and female cones of conifers, we walked outside and found some trees with both male and female cones. I asked the students to look at the yellow tips of the juniper branches and told them, “Those are the male cones!” One student exclaimed, “I thought they were just dying! This is really cool.” On the first day of the Introduction to Invasive Species course I developed and taught for Northern Arizona University, we walked around the campus to see the invasive and native plants the university uses in landscaping. In the student evaluation of the course the students were asked what activity contributed most to their learning. One student responded, “walking outside and actually seeing the plants”. Likewise, I asked students to answer the question of how a year-long research project affected the way they learn about biology, a student wrote, “The experiment allowed me to realize how important useful biology is and how it’s applied to real-world problems.”
Using outdoor, place-based learning engages students with course content in unexpected ways. This teaching method allows students to engage in their own curiosity by making observations based on their own interests. Connections between previous and new knowledge can be made during these less structured activities and students tend to engage with each other, creating peer teaching and learning opportunities. I have been fortunate to collaborate with experienced teachers at the local high school and with Northern Arizona University professors that have shown me the value of place-based learning in developing students’ appreciation for and understanding of the natural world.
My teaching philosophy is that teaching and learning happens best when explaining concepts to peers. I facilitate this through group work by creating “teams” early in the semester. Outdoor, place-based learning connects concepts to students’ lived experiences. My introductory and lower-division courses focus on skill-building, including collaboration. I have found that these teaching methods lead to students feeling like their unique skills and experiences contribute to the community of learners, students learn from and with each other as they collaborate, and they gain appreciation for the natural world around them as the concepts of biology become tangible through outdoor, hands-on experiences.