33 Guideposts

Brigid O'Donnell

Summer 2019

Over the past three months, I have come to a richer understanding of the core tenets of cluster pedagogy/learning. Through independent reading and community-based conversation, I have a stronger sense of the conceptual underpinnings of these critical ideas and in turn, I have generated a set of forward looking strategies intended to weave threads of interdisciplinarity, project based learning, and open education into my teaching practice. My reading has included How Humans Learn (Eyler) & Generous Thinking (Fitzpatrick) and bits and pieces/select chapters of An Urgency of Teachers (Morris & Stommel), Interdisciplinary Approaches to Pedagogy and Place-Based Education (ed. By Shannon & Galle) and Creating Wicked Students (Hanstedt).

While there are challenges to adopting these pedagogies into my teaching, these approaches offer the ripe promise of a rewarding and transformative experience for my students and myself.

Below I articulate some ideas that are percolating for me with respect to my own personal teaching practice, linked to tangible goals for the next year of work in the CPLC.


Abby Goode’s framing of slow interdisciplinarity struck a chord with me, and has led me to question where, when, and even if our students are explicitly exposed to the epistemologies of the disciplines, particularly what these approaches have in common and where the differences arise. In the past, I have asked my students to think about this by asking them how their major/disciplinary background interfaces with topics we are covering in our course. This is a challenging question for them, and thus is suited for more exploration.

An emergent concept in my teaching practice (related to slow interdisciplinary) is the idea of structural guideposts in learning, or the framing of inquiry at the outset of an investigation (or course). Early in the semester, I frame out the scales or hierarchy of biological organization for my students to help to orient them to the scope of the course they are enrolled in (I find myself doing this in every class I teach these days.). My thinking here is that this provides a coherent structure for what we will learn as the semester progresses. It serves as a touchstone or guiding post for us, such that at any point in our work we can stop and get our bearings as to where we are working on this hierarchical map. I’m starting to think about how I might incorporate a similar, early semester exercise in disciplinary foundations (a disciplinary map, so to speak) that will allow students to grapple with and eventually articulate the research methods, approach, assumptions, mindset, biases, and values/ethics of the field of biology. This would be an instrumental step to working towards interdisciplinary investigations that are predicated upon firm footing in disciplinarity. In the past, I have casually engaged discussions of disciplinary bias (for example) in conversation with my classes, but to strategically dedicate time and space to create a disciplinary map seems like it would bear fruit for my students to better understand their own discipline and others. This would help us to identify the particularities of their disciplinary background and to cultivate respect for other disciplinary backgrounds, a necessary precondition for any work in the interdisciplinary realm.

In action for the upcoming year: These ideas are critical to inform the development of two new learning opportunities for students: Ecological Gen-Ed (Thematic Pathways; linked GenEd courses, to be piloted Fall 2020), and From Genetics to GIS: Beebe River Brook Trout (new INCAP, to be piloted Summer 2020/2021?). In both experiences, students are required to grapple with different disciplinary approaches as a precursor to the creation of some new “thing” that arises at the nexus point(s) of their intersection.

  1. In the case of the gen-ed linked courses (existing SIDI and SSDI courses), Abby Goode (English), Jonathan Couser (History, Philosophy, & Social Studies Ed), and I will have our students explore how to think ecologically/envision wild spaces and beings (we are unsure of our titling at this point) using different lenses (scientific, literary/cultural, historical, etc.) and will have all students meet collectively for ~1hr per week in an incubator that fosters cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary conversations. While we envision these courses to push towards students development of the Integrated Perspective Habit of Mind, there will be elements of PBL and OpenEd in this endeavor as well. This academic year will be a critical one for the three of us to meet and mold how we might capture these goals for the fall 2020 offering.
  2. For the development of the new INCAP, Amy Villamagna and I envision a course that draws students interested in wild brook trout from across campus. We have in hand large and diverse data sets collected since 2016 for students to take deep dives into exploring and integrating different types of data in novel ways. We also see opportunities for students interested in the unique and important history of the Beebe River forest in the 20th century, for graphic design/marketing of goods related to the preservation of our state’s wild brook trout populations, for the creation of artistic works inspired by the work, and for the creation of public outreach platforms (WordPress site, Instagram, etc.) to broaden the audience and impact of this collaborative work. We plan to offer this course for credit each summer session and would welcome juniors/seniors in any majors. This new course offering will also incorporate elements of PBL and Open Ed, and this academic year will be used to frame out a plan for this new course.
Project-Based Learning

I attended the WPI Institute for PBL this past June with several PSU colleagues and my key takeaways related to the impactful nature of this type of learning for students and new approaches for bringing PBL into biology courses, and doing so with best practices in mind.

In action for the upcoming year: I plan to apply several key ideas in PBL to improve the process of writing a research proposal in my fall WRCO course (Ecology and Development). In particular, I want to allow for more student choice in the project focus, to structure in more opportunities for my students to reflect on their writing process as it happens, and to invite Christin Wixson to lead a working session that illuminates powerful strategies for locating pertinent resources. I envision what I learn/enact this semester to spill over into my other upper level biology courses, so I see this semester’s work in this realm as pivotal.

I also plan to canvas biology faculty to compile an inventory of all courses that employ PBL to highlight successes and discover new opportunities for PBL in our curriculum. There are many opportunities to improve and grow our PBL-based curriculum in biology, and towards that goal, I’d like to first take stock of where we stand.

Open Education

Of the three elements of cluster pedagogy/learning, my personal learning curve is the steepest in this realm, but I intend to take first steps in the coming year to envision new ways of having my students act as creators of knowledge in my courses. I am curious to learn more, but also hesitant/cautious to adopt strategies without fully understanding how these approaches can benefit my students in a given course. I am fully sold on the utility of Open Ed approaches, but am mindful to proceed with intentionality and purpose.

In action for the upcoming year: Within biology, I will begin the conversation of how we might meet our bio majors’ financial struggles by adopting open-access materials for our courses and by making resources for our required curriculum more readily accessible/available in Lamson on reserve (particularly by highlighting the critical nature of change for our students in this realm).

I am also adopting the use of Hyopthes.is this academic year to cultivate collaborative working spaces.

zine collage page of this chapter


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