Bringing Student Experience into the Classroom

Stephanie Schmidt -- image credit: personal collection Stephanie Schmidt has known for a long time that she wants to become a teacher and an environmental researcher.

"I think there were just so many teaching and learning concepts that I was superficially aware of because I was a student at a small school where teaching was emphasized," she says, as she explains how excited she is about her plan to become a professor at a small liberal arts college.

When Schmidt, a doctoral student in the Limnology and Marine Sciences Program (an affiliate of Civil and Environmental Engineering) and GERS fellow, graduates at the end of this summer, she will go onto a teaching post-doctoral fellowship sponsored by the Consortium for Faculty Diversity at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

"It's a great program because it gets people teaching experience that they otherwise wouldn't get in grad school. For someone like me who wants to be at a small liberal arts school, a school that's focused on teaching, it's ideal. I'm very excited to get that kind of experience, and to continue working on my research. I'll be team-teaching in the fall, teaching my own class in the spring, and there's going to be exciting opportunities for research collaboration, too."

Schmidt's research with her mentor, Jake Vander Zanden, focuses on the reconstruction of historical Great Lakes food webs. She explains that while researchers know that many invasive species have been begun to thrive in the lakes recently, there is much less known about the structure of the food webs before the invaders entered the picture.

"There's been interest in reintroducing some of the species that have been extirpated from the lakes but very little is known about the historical ecology of these species," Schmidt explains. "We don't really know how the species might interact if they were introduced into the current food web structure. I've been analyzing samples of preserved fish that date back to the early 1900s, trying to learn about how the species related to each other in the food web historically, how the food web has changed, and how they might interact with the present day food web."

Schmidt hopes that her research, conducted using stable isotope analysis, a tool that allows researchers to place species in the food web by examining their carbon and nitrogen values to see how and what they eat, will eventually help in the efforts to rehabilitate the ecologies of lakes that have been altered by invasive species.

Schmidt teaching a PEOPLE course -- image credit: personal collection "The research has a strong management base to it," Schmidt says. "We're funded by a fisheries management agency that is interested in what we can tell them about the rehabilitation of some of these species."

She also believes that her research, as well as her larger field of environmental studies, presents a unique opportunity for teaching. "I think that we have a good time teaching limnology because we can go out on the lake. Students can relate to things like fishing and swimming in the lake, and they understand it better when they have those experiences and see why lakes are important. That's very important to me... relating a topic to students' personal lives and engaging a variety of diverse students," Schmidt explains.

While she had been a lab TA and guest lectured in different classes before, Schmidt also was very interested in getting involved in the Delta program to further hone her ideas about teaching. Even though she was hard at work on her dissertation, she decided to get involved. "I'm trying to accomplish the amazing feat of finishing my Delta certificate in one year," she says, "and it's hard, but it's been a great experience."

"Within the first month, I felt like Delta had already had a major impact on the way that I approach teaching and learning, mostly through exposure to the literature and theory related to teaching," Schmidt believes. "For instance, we read a backward design paper, and that just rang true for me. If I'd read it when I first started grad school, my lab sections would have been so much better, and I would have approached these guest lectures differently."

Schmidt hopes to implement some of the techniques that she has refined through her Delta classes and internship in her courses when she begins teaching next year, as well.

"In my IMD class, I wrote and implemented a case study about invasive species in a large lecture classroom, and it was a really exciting experience to implement an active learning situation," she explains. "I think case studies put things in perspective for students - they can see the bigger picture and bring in their own experiences."

Schmidt is excited to continue learning about teaching and learning as she finishes up her dissertation, works to complete her Delta certificate, and begins thinking about her post-doc that will begin at the end of the summer.

"I've been able to build my own teaching and learning philosophy because of my experience with Delta," she says, "and I am always trying to improve assessment. I feel like I can put together an activity or a lesson now, but trying to assess whether students have really learned what you want them to learn and whether that activity is really the reason why students are learning - that's the big thing. I'm sure that there are plenty more things that will come up in the first few weeks of teaching, though!"


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For more information about the ideas in this article:

Wiggens, G. P. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding By Design, 2nd Expanded Edition. Assn. for Supervision & Curriculum Development. (A Google Book preview for this volume may be accessed here.)

Wiggins and McTighe begin Understanding By Design with the assertion that all teachers are designers, even if they may not think of themselves in that way: Teachers are designers of learning, of environments, of students' experience. They claim that instructors can increase the effectiveness of their teaching by employing a process that they call "backward design." Instead of choosing a point from which to begin a unit, lecture, or even semester, instructors should, rather, try to "think like assessors," imagining what students should know at the end of a course unit - the big "enduring understandings" that they will take away - and how they might show their engagement with or mastery of these concepts.