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George McCourt

McGill School of Environment (MSE), Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

I use a variety of strategies. For example, in my Geosystems course, I engage students by showing them how we depend on earth materials for our existence, and by trying to get them to see the links between geology, and culture and history.

For example, why did we settle on Mont Royal? Well, the natives had to get out of their boats at the Lachine rapids, so they set up their tents at Hochelaga. Another example is that in the 1800s J.M.W. Turner, a British painter, painted a number of fantastic sunsets. If you live in England you know there are rarely sunsets like that today! So, where did Turner’s sunsets come from? In fact, there was the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 that put large quantities of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. This dust created these marvellous sunsets.

I am also interested in demonstrating to students the importance of geologic and geomorphologic processes in ecosystem dynamics. Again this comes back to links within systems, and I believe this type of approach really engages students.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

I was never sold on the traditional exam method because once you leave school, you will rarely, if ever, be in that situation again. I believe in creating assessment strategies that are reflective of the real world, and which focus on student-centred learning.

For example in my Geosystems course, students create mineral and rock identification keys, which first require them to teach themselves the basics of mineral and rock identification. I have also introduced open-book, open-discussion lab exams, which, by having students discuss and defend their answers, become much more real-world, problem-solving experiences that students can benefit from throughout their careers.

In another course, Global Environments, an assignment asks students to research and present both sides of a complex environmental issue. This requires them to develop logical, non-emotional arguments that are sometimes against their own convictions, and teaches them to clearly present the actual facts and uncertainties at play.

Oral presentations are another extremely important tool that I use in a couple of courses. Students learn both time management and how to organize critical information into a comprehensible, beginning-to-end format, suited to an audience who may not have the same academic background.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

Firstly, I want students to learn that there are links between geology and culture, history and ecology. I think it’s key to explain why this is important, and not to take the attitude that they should learn material simply because I decided they need to.

Secondly, I want them to learn that things are not cut-and-dried. In my courses, we talk a great deal about evidence and use phrases like “our current understanding is,” or “based on this paper, this is how we interpret.” In the Global Environment course, which is a systems course that uses climate change as the model, we talk about uncertainty. Many students who come into this class have a very black-and-white opinion on environmental issues. But these issues are complex, and we want students to appreciate the “grey areas,” to realize that the current science and information are based on what we know now and that they will change.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

In Evolving Earth, which is a team-taught course, we have students write a primary scientific literature research paper. Sometimes the research topics can be centered on popular culture. For example, the year the movie “Avatar” was released, the students were asked the following question: “Given our evolutionary theories and what we know about evolutionary processes on our planet, does this movie’s depiction of the planet’s evolutionary history make sense?” The students were required to support their arguments using peer reviewed research literature. This is a difficult task for many of the students as this is a first year science course.

In some of my other courses, I incorporate research with opposing viewpoints into my lecture material. For example, I present papers of some researchers who feel that alternative energy sources will not supply us with the energy that we will need in the future. I then introduce other research papers whose authors say alternative energy sources will supply all of our energy needs. I don’t want to give the students the answers. I want to present them with these two opinions and initiate some discussion about the pros and cons of each viewpoint, and then I leave it to them to try and formulate their own position.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role? Why?

My advice is to be passionate about what you are teaching. Look like you’re interested, look like you care. Be aware that strong undergraduate teaching will lead to people going out into society who are convinced of the inherent value of post-secondary education.

Also know that to be good at teaching takes a fairly substantial time commitment. Ask yourself, why is this important? What is the link to the students’ interests? Consider teaching less material in favour of concentrating on specific areas in more detail.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

Do the assignments because my assignments are designed to help you get the most out of the course. Also, ask questions and interact in class, and don’t be afraid to talk to the professor. Be enthusiastic, but don’t necessarily accept everything I say.

Why do you teach?

Because I love teaching, and I want to see students gain something from their education. I find it really rewarding to interact with students, to get them interested, and have them tell me, “I had no interest in rocks and landforms before this class, and now, I can’t walk past a building without trying to identify what the rocks are.”

Also, I’m convinced that we do a poor job in terms of educational institutions. The original universities were designed for the top class of society, but I’m worried about the rest. I don’t think we do a particularly good job of teaching students—that’s why I like to teach. I try to make students think, so when they get out in the world and work, they can make a difference. Students are young, they are bright. They are not as cynical as people my age. They want to make a change.

Email Address: 
george.mccourt@mcgill.ca