This post is the fifth in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.
Michael Niedzielski, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of North Dakota
Who among us, as educators, does not want their students to apply classroom knowledge to the real world and to think critically? After my first two years of teaching after grad school and many formal and informal discussions and workshops on engaging students with active learning techniques, problem-based learning and service learning that filled my head with various pedagogical methods, I approached my first year of teaching at UND with excitement as I was ready to incorporate some of these student focused techniques in my technology courses. My experiences with one of these courses, Geog 471/L Cartography & Visualization are the focus of this blog entry.
I wanted to incorporate active learning techniques in this technology course because of the passive, teacher-to-student information transmission that I experienced as a student and teaching assistant in this and similar technology courses. While I personally succeeded in such a non-engaging environment to grow my critical thinking skills, I quickly discovered during my first experiences as a teacher that such an experience is not necessarily true of all students. Moreover, I was not a big fan of separating the theoretical from the meaningful real-world applied context, thinking that it should be possible for students to work on a project that is meaningful beyond the university walls. A cartography course seemed like a great opportunity because maps are communication tools and they can be deployed in the service of a local community. Thus, the idea of a semester-long service-learning community mapping project idea was born. Instead of conventional final projects being mere stand-alone exercises based on faux scenarios, this non-conventional approach allows students to simultaneously demonstrate and apply knowledge learned in class by fulfilling real community mapping needs.
The fall 2011 Geog 471/L course was run as a service learning version. The idea of a service learning course is that the benefits accrue to the students and the community, because the students engage with the local community, experience how their work can help local problems, and expose their work to the larger community, and the community receives tangible products that help to solve local problems and promote community cooperation, and experiences how the academic ivory tower can help them. Specifically, the students worked with the Near North Neighborhood community in Grand Forks, including local residents, the city’s Urban Development department, the area’s city council member and UND’s Community Engagement Center. The students listened to community needs and developed maps based on that input. They interacted with the community for their data needs, and presented their maps at the end of the semester to the community. Maps topics included neighborhood capital improvements by the Knight Foundation, sidewalk conditions, or area services among others.
By some accounts the course was successful, though on reflections some aspects could be improved. Though hard to assess, students seemed more committed and worked harder to produce cartographic output of higher quality than conventional output. Students commented that they felt these maps meant something and that if they failed they would let other people down, not just themselves. After the semester was over, students volunteered to make minor revisions to the maps prior to printing that were then distributed to the local community. One student, being inspired by this project, expressed a desire to perform something similar when becoming a teacher after the doctorate degree. However, apart from one or two students expressing their dislike with service learning and public presentation aspects, some students indicated that they felt rushed and overburdened with work toward the end of the semester. On reflection, that is a fair argument as in the last two weeks of class they were still collecting data for the maps and designing them, preparing for the presentation of their map drafts as well as working on the last, somewhat complex, lab assignment with Thanksgiving in the middle of everything. Tweaking the lab schedule so that there aren’t gaps between successive assignments as well as reducing some less complex labs to one week would help. Another aspect that I need to pay more attention to in the future is to keep track of student progress in the community mapping project, checking in with them earlier and more frequently so that data collection happens earlier and the focus of the end of the semester is more on map design. Some students also indicated they would have preferred more interaction in class meetings. While I did incorporate group work and discussions on map critique, I want to improve that assignment as well as include others on topics that demand critical thinking, such as map projection choice.
As I am reflecting on my almost completed first year at UND, I believe the support that UND provided me has helped me in many ways. The bus tour and Alice T. Clark program have allowed me to make connections with new faculty like myself and other established faculty on campus and continue to think about and expand my engagement with the scholarship of teaching and learning. The formal monthly meetings have been important in that regard, but I want to highlight the importance of the connections made with new faculty that allow informal exchange of ideas on teaching and research and to decompress after the stress of everyday life as an educator.