25 Open up and say “PBL”

Amy Villamagna

Summer 2019

Looking back

To start, let me just say that I have truly enjoyed the opportunity to engage with faculty and staff outside my program and discipline. I am happy that I decided to pursue the CPLC. The experience was different than expected in many good ways and I believe that the ultimate goal of this summer has been achieved – we have developed a community and in doing, started to shift the pedagogical culture of PSU. I initially expected to emerge from this summer with a clear plan (i.e. syllabus draft) for a co-taught INCAP that would integrate my research into a PBL course.  But, as we close up the summer, I am excited to say that I am walking away with less of that in exchange for new ideas, practices, and tools to run with. Engagement in CPLC reignited my dedication to learner-centered teaching and has motivated me to continue on my own personal pedagogical pathway. I believe the community we have developed is one rooted in effective pedagogy and that these pedagogical practices will be at the heart of our cluster approach.

The ideas that have resonated with me most this summer have largely been related to project-based learning and openness. Interdisciplinarity is who I am and who I have been since 18-year old Amy V decided to switch majors from biology (pre-vet) to environmental studies. But, I will say that watching others see the glory of interdisciplinarity definitely reaffirmed who I am as a learner and teacher. Emphasizing interdisciplinarity in our pedagogy is an amazing and much-needed shift in higher ed culture. I consider myself a stronger and more creative thinker and problem solver because of my interdisciplinary education, but would be lying if I didn’t say that I have always felt others considered it a weakness. Someone once told me I was like a train with too many cars attached to it because I didn’t spend my entire career narrowly focused within my discipline. I laughed then and I laugh now thinking about how narrow thinking like that gets us all in trouble in the academy and most certainly beyond.

Looking ahead

While project-based learning wasn’t new to me – I have been both student and teacher in PBL courses- this summer gave me the confidence to jump in (and maybe go under) here at PSU. I will be teaching Watershed Systems, a required graduate course in Environmental Science and Policy, using the PBL approach. I can’t tell you how many bike rides, car rides, and dog walks I have spent thinking about this new prep. I have gone back and forth about a million times about whether this PBL would work with an outside partner, whether the students would experience group work and client-based PBL fatigue, whether we would have a book, whether students would work in groups, what sequence our readings would follow, what I want them to get from the course, etc. I have notebook pages filled with alternative plans and coming into university days I was plagued with indecision and mounting anxiety. Then it happened… sitting in a CPLC session during University Days, my vision for the course solidified and I transitioned power from me to the students. I’ve given me and my students space to plan and prioritize the content and skills together, to be deliberate in our choices and mold our 15-week path together. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve scaffolded the course. I’ve selected the vehicle for this journey and, to a certain extent, the destination, but what we load in and where we stop along the way is fair game. In this same course, I’ve decided to pursue a project website as an authentic product that, I hope, will empower the students while providing some fantastic, and multi-tiered, professional development experience. I am cautiously optimistic and look forward to our first meeting next week.

Opening up

Textbooks are expensive. They can also be lame. But, they provide students with an easy source of information. They make the content accessible and they don’t require being on an electronic device that can be a Pandora’s box of distractions.  I started last academic year wanting to find a more up-to-date textbook that was cheaper for my students. When I was choosing a book for my first semester Environmental Science & Policy course this fall, I hunted and hunted with no luck and kept the same textbook as years past. I looked into OER, but looking back I wish I came to the CoLab first because, as C. Wixson said at UD, it can be incredibly hard to find what you want when you don’t know how or where to look.

Last spring I started to develop course assignments in my upper level courses with products that could be used in my introductory courses. I described this as a clear intention of the projects to my upper-level ESP students and they thought it was pretty cool because it meant their work would contribute to another’s learning, but I now realize I could have done more and could have embraced these upper-level projects as the co-creation of an OER. Over the summer my perspective on OER has shifted dramatically. After UD in particular (thanks to Christin W) I feel like I could make the shift and have the support to do so. My baby step toward this is project website to be developed in the graduate course mentioned above. I hope that the project website will become part of an OER for my introductory course and hopefully other courses in ESP. That being said, I’ve decided to challenge the students in the PBL course to think about how they learn, to engage in systems thinking, and to co-create a website that would be accessible to different learning styles. The students creating this soon to be OER (fingers crossed) will get to decide what information they share and how they share it. I am psyched!

While I have adopted a textbook for the intro course this fall, I have opened up the course to include more self-regulated learning. I’ve built in a semester-long, two-part assignment for students to share environmental news and resources (news articles, documentaries, podcasts, etc.) with each other using a non-Moodle tool…O365 Teams and then (during weeks 10-14) to dive into (i.e., research) a theme or combination of themes that interests them. This decision to use Teams in lieu of Moodle was made after much contemplation and discussion with more experienced folks. This is one of two Fall 2019 “experiments” and given that, I am ready to adapt. But with any luck, the combination of this tool and the openness of the assignment will be received with enthusiasm and engagement.

Continuing along the CPLC pathway

I really enjoyed the last two CPLC sessions of the summer and very much want to see them continue throughout the semester (formally) or at the very least at the end of the semester or during January Jamboree. I want to learn from others that also took risks this semester. I was thinking that perhaps we could reconvene after the Student showcase in December since that is when the TWP (along with other) students will be presenting. I think it would be awesome time for reflection, sharing, and celebration of community. I would also lobby for more sessions in January Jamboree AND University Days 2020 that share teaching practices and connect faculty with the support and resources we need to feel empowered to be the best versions of ourselves as teachers, researchers, and colleagues.

The end… for now…

zine collage page of this chapter

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