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"
"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 :