Notes from NABS Day 4

meeting logoIncorporating Service Learning Into an Introductory Limnology Course

Greetings from NABS Day 4!  Tomorrow is the last day of the conference, so I’ll only be making one more post in this series.  I’m also headed home, and a bit earlier than originally planned.  A combination of sleep deprivation and general physical and mental exhaustion due to extensive traveling over the last few weeks (I was gone almost a week right before the conference began) has convinced me that I should go home in the morning, skipping the talks on the last day of the conference.  I’m driving home, so it’s important that I travel during the period when I am most alert, which means missing the talks.  So, I will be presenting something from one of the first four days of the conference when I post my final entry for the conference on Saturday.  What can you do?

Things I learned:

— High school students have a lot of fun going out into the field to collect data (though this shouldn’t come as a surprise – my favorite biology lab in high school was one where we documented the ecosystem of a marsh in Colorado, the same marsh where I eventually did my undergraduate biology thesis!)
— Aquatic insect species that are found in many areas across the landscape are usually found at about the same altitude while insects that are found in a wide range of altitudes are typically only found in a small geographic area.
— This is really re-confirming something for me:  conferences are exhausting!

On to my favorite talk of the day!  I attended the Education in Aquatic Sciences session today because this subject is near and dear to my heart.  I LOVE teaching, so any time I can learn more about how to do it better, you know I’ll be there in the front row.  (Okay, okay – so, I was in the second row…)  My favorite talk of the session ended up being my favorite talk of the day, partly because it was an interesting talk and partly because the speaker, Dr. Frank Wilhelm, was completely inspiring.  Dr. Wilhelm is a professor in the University of Idaho’s Fish and Wildlife Resources Department and teaches a course in introductory limnology to undergraduate students.  His talk focused on a service-learning project that he has incorporated into his class and he described how it works.

Service learning is defined as a method of teaching, learning, and reflecting that combines classroom curriculum and meaningful service throughout the community.  In essence, service learning projects allow students to doing something hands-on that is also worthwhile to the community.  Dr. Wilhelm described service learning as a powerful, motivating, and effective approach to teaching and learning and believes it can be broadly applied in college courses focusing on field-based sciences.  He also believes that it engages students in a way that isn’t possible via other teaching methods and helps the students form a strong connection between what they learn in class and the real world.

Here’s how the service learning component of Dr. Wilhelm’s intro limnology course works.  First, he finds someone or a group of people in the community that have a problem they want solved or a question they want answered.  That person or group then becomes the partner for the class that semester.  Dr. Wilhelm gave an example of a partner from the last class he taught.  In his area, there is a small lake that is surrounded by ritzy homes.  However, the lake was absolutely full of vegetation, so full that it was completely useless for any other purposes such as fishing or boating.  The neighborhood asked Dr. Wilhelm to have his students tackle their problem and became the class service learning partner for the semester.

Students are told at the beginning of the term that they will be doing a service learning project as part of the course.  It is a required activity that ends up taking up the final 1/3 of the lab periods of the course.  During the first week, the students are put into groups that become their team for the semester and the entire class is introduced to the problem.  The second week, the partner presents the problem to the class so that the students know the person/people they are helping and the problem they are trying to solve.  They then identify subsections within the main problem that individual groups can tackle during the course.  Teams decide which subsection they want to focus on and define clear objectives, develop methods, make lists of equipment they require (made available by Dr. Wilhelm from his personal supply), and develop a budget that will help them accomplish their goal.  Dr. Wilhelm allows his students nearly complete freedom to decide which aspects of the problem they wish to tackle, how they wish to tackle it, and what sort of data they will need to collect.  His only requirement is that they have to work toward solving the overall goals of the project.

Then he sets them loose out in the field to do their projects!  By his account, this part is a little chaotic, but the students generally have fun and are learning valuable things while they work.  Dr. Wilhelm also said that students use their travel time to discuss issues related to the project, so there isn’t any downtime – they are constantly learning.

Back in the lab, the students analyze the data they collected in the field and make conclusions based on their results.  Then they present their part of the project to the rest of the class in teams.  The students combine their efforts to create a report that they will present to the partner.  And then they present their data to the partner in person, making suggestions for how the partner might solve their problem.

Dr. Wilhelm said that this sort of project is fairly easy to incorporate into a class that could conceivably have a field component.  (I can imagine how well it would fit into my insect behavior and aquatic entomology labs!)  He said that all you need to get started is to identify a partner for the semester, identify the areas of expertise for which you have sufficient knowledge to successfully guide students toward solving the partner’s problem, and spread the word about the program to get people interested.

Dr. Wilhelm believes the program has been a big success.  The partners have been happy with the information the students have provided them.  The students themselves tell Dr. Wilhelm that they really enjoy the project and think it’s the best part of the class.  Dr. Wilhelm thinks his students have become more engaged in the course since he introduced the service learning project as well.  Perhaps the best measure of success is that, in a difficult senior level undergraduate course worth 4 credits that starts at 8AM, he has nearly 100% attendance!  This just doesn’t happen.  He attributes this spectacular feat to the service learning project experience.

Although the talk was simple and not a scientific research talk, I really loved this one.  If nothing else, Dr. Wilhelm obviously cares about his students deeply and wants them to succeed.  He puts a lot of effort into his teaching and is clearly excited by the teaching component of his professorship (a somewhat rare trait at the big public universities!).  It was so inspiring to listen to him talk about his program and how involved the students become, how much they care about what they’re doing during their service learning project.  I’m hoping to incorporate some of the same things into my own courses sometime!

Tomorrow I’ll finish up Notes from NABS with a description of a talk I heard on Day 3 that focused on the effects that a small wildlife preserve has on a river in southern Michigan.  The vegetation that would naturally surround the river (called the riparian area) has been entirely replaced by agricultural fields – except for the area where it flows through the preserve.  Want to know if this preserve helps improve the quality of the water before it flows downstream?  Check back tomorrow!


Posts in this series:
Day 0 – Introduction to the Series
Day 1
– Invasive Crayfish
Day 2 – Giant Water Bug Dispersal
Day 3 – Dragonfly Captive Rearing
Day 4 – Integrating Service-Learning Programs into College Courses
Day 5 – Impact of a Small Preserve on Stream Health


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One thought on “Notes from NABS Day 4

  1. I’m really digging the “service learning” concept…what a fabulous way to make field-based courses immediately and locally relevant for students! As much as field activities are “fun” in and of themselves, unless students are leaning towards careers in research it’s often a challenge to help them understand practical applications…good stuff!

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