Thursday, June 21, 2012

[work] Teaching Environmental Science : Experience & Feedback

After three years of teaching Programming Languages, Databases & Objects, last semester I felt like doing something different. I chose a subject I've never handled. It also happened to be the one that most faculty members consider a nightmare. 'Environmental Science' is one of the driest subjects, according to my previous year students. I never studied it as a student. It was introduced as a compulsory subject for all engineering students a few years ago. I was excited and pumped up until I opened the textbook. It was like I was back in my high school sitting with my chemistry text book the day before my exam. A subject that is always, and I guess, will always be, on top of my hate list.

I promised to myself to never open that text book again. I am happy that I kept my promise. From the designed syllabus, I prepared a set of activities and recorded interesting stories related to environmental issues. This took a lot more time than what it would have taken to prepare lecture notes based on that textbook, but for the results that I was expecting, every minute I had spent seemed worth.

After my first lecture introducing the course and how I plan to take the next few months forward, I screened Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth'. We watched the entire documentary and had a brief discussion on arguments that support and are against Al Gore's theories.

As our next classroom activity I asked my students to review a 'man vs environment' movie each, such that no two students should review the same movie. In our next lecture I was surprised to find 70 students ready with review of 70 different movies. Each student in less than 30 seconds explained the environmental issue addressed by his/her movie. Now we were able to classify those movies by the environmental issues. For example Jurassic Park, Anaconda, King Kong fell under the same category of what happens when natural habitats are disturbed. Wall-E, Erin Brockovich and a few other fell under pollution. We had around 13 such classifications. We were now able to see most environmental issues via the movies that we loved watching. This activity gave a great start to all of us. We knew what we were heading towards in the next few months.

After our lecture on garbage classifications and disposal methodologies, I invited my students to a beach cleanup activity organized by Chennai Trekking Club.

There is no better way to learn about recyclable and non-recyclable garbage than to collect loads and loads of them by hand! The sight of that clean beach after a strenuous 3 hr cleaning with 200+ volunteers was priceless.

When we were discussing about marshlands, I invited Photographer Shaju John, who has been photographing Pallikaranai marshlands for the past 15 years, to give a talk to my students. Shaju took us through a journey to show how this marshland, where thousands of migratory birds rested a decade ago, is now one of the primary dumping yards of Chennai. A sunrise photo where a little girl stands on top of a mountain trying to reach the sun was so beautiful until Shaju zoomed the photo to show that the mountain was made out of plastic bottles.

A week later, we took the college bus to visit the marshlands to see the birds on one side of the road and a huge mountain of dump on the other side.

We discussed effects of consumerism on environment and analyzed impacts of 70 TV commercials. It was around the time when we were investigating policies of various industries towards protecting our environment, I asked students to blog all their activity reports, studies and thoughts on the subject. A few students were hesitant initially but gave me time to convince them why it might make a difference. These environmental blogs I planned to evaluate towards their third assessment.

Our trip to Anna Uyiriyal Poonga, Vandalur pretty much covered one unit of our syllabus, as we walked some 10+ Kilometers exploring birds and animals most of us have never seen. It was the first visit for a big majority of my students. It was a hot day. A few managed to walk the entire stretch and click photos all the way. Check out their blogs (I'll provide links in the later part of the article ) They've published some good photos and write-ups.

Before every lecture I tried to find stories related to the topic of discussion. I kind of got addicted to this habit later. I would rate the story of capuchin monkeys from Super Freakonomics, when discussing Animal Testing, my personal favorite.

We had small student expert groups in our class room. We had around 14 groups specializing in one environmental issue each. Pollution, Over Population, Genetic Engineering, Climate Change are are few of those issues. We consult the expert group whenever we have a doubt. The expert groups also gave presentations on their environmental issue with images, stats and stories. I was not very happy with this part because many students preferred to read long text articles from wikipedia for their presentations. On the other hand, some student presentations were amazing. The way they narrated their issue with examples, stories and even came with solutions was wow.

The blog idea for third assessment worked in a way that at end of our course we had 70 blogs that talk about environmental issues from students point of view. The flip side was that many articles were plagiarized primarily from sources such as wikipedia. Plagiarism in many other countries leads to expulsion from institution and to the loss of degree. I find that we take plagiarism lightly. It has now become part of norms. I see school kids printing out their homework directly from web articles. Plagiarism is not seen as an act of theft here. At the same time I should also accept that many articles carried good research and originality in presenting ideas.

In the end, this course turned out to be the best thing that happened to me in the past three years. I thank all my students for their cooperation and my University for giving me this freedom.

I'll leave you with some feedback from my students and links to some of their blogs.

"Unlike usual learning we do, the current approach of learning and teaching proves more beneficial since we are learning a lot"

"instead of the boring/long lectures you made the class interesting with your short lectures filled with interesting stuff"

"This cannot be called 'teaching'. This is an interactive and innovative method to learn a subject. Now I know more about environment than compilers, dsp,…"

"Creation of blog is a bit too much work. It would be better if you reduce that part"

"many of my other department friends complain that this subject is boring and unnecessary. But you made it a fun and highly informative. I wish all subjects were like this"

"This is the best course in my entire life"

"The weekly assignments were very useful. It helped me to find things about the environment"

"I think every subject should be taught in this way"

"Visit to pallikaranai dump yard made us aware of the waste disposal problem."

"It has ben conducted in a well planned and holistic manner. I enjoyed the pattern of evaluation. It was refreshing to have a pop quiz as one of our internal assessments"

"The questions could have been more well defined and not vague"

"I believe that the way the classes are handled is more relative to modern day standards. I appreciate the informal and free atmosphere during your classes One thing is that you almost never smile in class room"

"Neelangarai beach cleanup was really a useful activity. Your assessment is a refreshment for our minds. There are no negative points to mention"

"Never felt any pressure in your class"

"The only thing is you could have taught the text book content also somewhere in our classes. On the whole the way you handled was different. We need more staff like you."

"I now effectively segregate waste in my house. Thank you for making us aware of these issues." 

"In a week filled with excessive work and deadlines, your classes were stress relief for us. Field visit to Pallikaranai and Vandalur was a great experience"

"You always make sure that the classes are informative with stories that ensure long standing in our minds."

"The best part of the course was the screening of 'An Inconvenient Truth', It really did awake the 'do-something-to-save-earth' self in me. Student presentations was a good idea, I wish it could have been meticulously planned. This is one of the best courses."

"Capuchin monkey story for Animal Testing lecture was funny and thought provoking. Liked all your stories and how you quickly relate them to the topic and make us go wow."

"Creating blogs is a tedious task. No mini project please"

"Activities enabled us to learn many new things. The way of conducting assessments is also interesting and enhances our creativity." 

Links to my Environmental Science Students' Blogs :


Aravinth Babu said...

We too enjoyed the course very much. Thank You Sir

மதி (GS) said...

Brilliant .. Kudos to you.. I have attended such courses, evaluation patterns using blogs and field-activity learnings during my MBA .. At those times I would simply wish longfully for engineering education also to adopt the same route.. Your initiative is a positive step

மகேஷ் (Magesh) said...

Very interesting. Wish I had such a teacher in my college days :) By the way, how did the students manage the final assessment tests if the course was not taught using the book?

Aruna Panchu said...

Hi sir, we thank you for teaching the subject was innovative and interesting made us think in new dimensions and be creative. it has also motivated me to latch on to few principles to save our Environment..:)
Thank you sir for the unforgetable experience.Proud to have you as our Environmental Science Lecturer..!!

Meenakshi said...

Hey, awesome Karky.... I have been an environmentalist myself. I never throw stuff except in the dustbins and I tell whoever I see to do the same. I am sure your 70 students would be people with civic sense. Appreciate it!! :) :)

Bavs said...

Haven't seen or even heard of such an interesting EVS classes..Good one Karky Sir.. Envy on those students!! Wish to attend such classes..But Time never goes back!!!

Kanthu said...

We too had this subject in our university. We had a paper on it with 50 MCQs and had to score 18 to clear it. I remember that, almost all of us just glanced through some 200 MCQs the day before the exam and cleared it the next day. Now I feel that we too should have had something like this. Great job.

Krishnapriya P said...

Hello sir!! Nice blog.. This is an awesome effort.. It would be nice if all the subjects are taught this way:) Keep going!!

Bharathi Ramalingam said...

We really enjoyed your new way of teaching Sir.Thank you so much for enlightening our knowledge and thoughts about our environment.

மேகதூதன் said...

Thats different approach. Good start I think. All the best.
Our lecturer was straight from Industry. A retired plant manager, he took 2 weeks for Chernobyl, 2 W for Bhopal and one more. Those 3 were enough for us to understand the gravity of importance. I think its important that Ethics and Environment engineering should be thought with free mind and never be limited to the book.
Great going..

Founder said...

Sir we studied this paper with enjoyments... please write about programming papers.. It will usefull for many of students :)

நீச்சல்காரன் said...

You have Brilliant Theme and Team. Good work

Chockkalingam Karuppaiah said...

Great way to teach Environmental Science. Keep up the good work!

the critics said...

kudos to you and all those students......hope it will kindle their beautiful mind and ll will become wonderful citizens concerned and dutiful with nature...... i will read all those students blog surely in time ..............cheers to you team .......

shakthi said...

Hats Off, Karki.. Every time I checking out your blog, getting jealous on ur students :-)... surely these kind of activities elevate student's view & responsibilities about Environment(the ultimate goal of that paper,I think). Keep rocking...

விஜய் said...

Hello Sir,
I'm a teacher too (Physics! And a poet too!!) and I too have taken up EVS, but I do envy you for I couldn't do all that you have done (partly because I haven't tried them yet, but primarily because I work with a private institution, wings chained!)

With all envy, this was a great work, kudos as a fellow teacher... Keep rocking :-)


live2bshiv said...

Madhan - you might remember me from your first course at Anna University, "Advanced Databases" from 2009 :) I just stumbled upon this post and I'm really glad to see you continue to push the boundaries with our courses, you class was the best from my four years as well.

I'd love to meet you the next time I'm in Chennai to get your thoughts on education and CEG. I hope you continue to inspire change in students as well as other professors' mindsets - Kudos!


Gandhi said...

I got goosebumps while reading this. Primarily because when I took this course I thaught someone will handle the course like this. What all happened was the opposite.

Also I don't see any mention of centre for environmental studies department in ceg. Did you used materials from that building..