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Go, team teachers, go!
When Terry Wheeler, Marcia Waterway and Martin Lechowicz sat down four years ago to design a new winter-semester interdisciplinary course that could serve as a second-year science primer for McGill School of Environment (MSE) students, they had lofty goals.
"We essentially have 13 weeks to teach the entire history of the planet, how the planet itself is put together and how the life on the planet is put together and how the physical world and the biological world interact," said Wheeler, an entomologist in the Natural Resource Sciences Department.
Big goals led to big rewards -- the team that created "The Evolving Earth" recently learned that they had won the prestigious Allan Blizzard award, which will be presented by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) at their annual conference this June in Hamilton, Ontario. The Alan Blizzard Award is designed to stimulate and reward collaboration in teaching. Université Laval will also be honoured, for an engineering course.
"They had obviously thought through and enacted what they wanted to attain," said Ron Marken of McGill's entry. Marken is a University of Saskatchewan professor who chaired the selection committee that decided on the McGill School of Environment entry. Competition was fierce and the selection process thorough. Each of the seventeen entries the committee received was judged on six criteria: goals, implementation, active learning component, scholarship, student impact, and how well the model could be used elsewhere.
"They received almost perfect scores from one to six," said Marken.
The course was not created out of a desire to win awards, but rather to meet the unique teaching challenges of the interdisciplinary milieu of the MSE.
"One of the challenges with the School of Environment is you have a lot of people interested in environmental issues coming in from very different backgrounds and ultimately going off in very different directions. They come together for this course essentially speaking very different languages," said Wheeler.
"What we're trying to do is give students without a science background the basic understanding of what controls, biodiversity, and ecology are, so they can understand the issues. What we try to do with the science students is to show how complex these questions really are."
Teaching the history of the whole world requires some creative editing. The Evolving Earth looks at representative "slices" of earth's past that best demonstrate how three elements -- chance, necessity and history -- have come together to make the world as we know it today.
Rather than split lectures between professors from discrete disciplines, the Evolving Earth team decided on an evolving curriculum. Each lecture has at least two professors present, who will discuss and add to one another's lectures.
"That gives the student the opportunity to see how different areas of expertise are necessary to see how complex the problems really are," said Wheeler.
To keep this format focused, a few of the professors meet each morning before class to de-brief each other and fine-tune their approach. Such is the dedication to the project that often several professors will show up at these meetings -- whether or not they are participating in the day's lecture. These include Wheeler, Waterway, Lechowicz, and Jeanne Paquette and Don Baker from Earth and Planetary Sciences, as well as geography professors Wayne Pollard and Michel Lapointe. The format -- and the highly praised award entry -- was created with the assistance of Cynthia Weston from the CUTL.
"If something doesn't work well at Macdonald then we've got time between lectures to make adjustments -- it's constantly being refined. It adds to the time commitment, but it really makes the material flow and fills the gaps," said Wheeler.