I’ve been blogging my way throug the redesign of my upper-level general education course, “The Control of Nature,” using a course design tutorial from SERC. I’ve talked about what’s gone wrong in the past, about who my students are and what they need from the class, and about my tentative goals for the class. I’ve been mulling over the problem (and also going back to classes after spring break), and I’ve finally worked through the next part… the course plan.
When it comes time to put a course together, I’ve got some bad habits. For instance, when I don’t have any good ideas, I start by making a table that includes every day that the course meets. Then I put topics into the next column, and go through the textbook looking for appropriate reading assignments for the third column. It turns the course into a list of things to know (kind of like my list for Callan’s meme), and, well… students are not dictaphones. When the end of the semester arrives, I hope that they will be able to do something more than repeat my words back to me.
The point of this course design tutorial is to break professors out of those kinds of habits. It does so by asking three questions:
- What do your students need practice in during the semester in order to achieve the goals?
- What will be the order of content and concepts in each broad content topic, and how will you give students goal-related practice as they encounter content and concepts?
- How does the practice that you plan to build into the course build independence over time?
Because this is an interdisciplinary course, my goals are different from the ones I would set for a course for geology majors (or even for an intro course that might produce both geology majors and educated citizens):
- Analyze responses to historical, recent, and future disasters in many parts of the world.
- Evaluate possible strategies for preventing or responding to natural disasters.
- Critique the response to a potential natural hazard (or to a recent example not discussed in class.)
As for the things students need to practice… I wasn’t as certain about this. Some of the practice is fairly geological: I think students need practice figuring out what hazards might affect a place, or what caused a particular disaster. (But this isn’t a survey course. I can’t tell them everything. And can they figure it out on their own?) Because I’m a geologist, I also want to make sure they realize that humans are puny little creatures with a ridiculously short period of direct observations. (In other words, don’t trust your grandmother when she tells you that there are never hurricanes on the Jersey shore.) Some of the practice has more to do with creative thinking about possible solutions, and about the possible effects of those solutions. (And when I mean “creative,” I mostly mean thinking outside their individual comfort zones. Getting the engineers to think about regulation as well as building stuff. Getting the sociology majors to think about the economic impact of their proposals. Getting the business majors to think about the human cost as well as the dollar cost.) And I want the students to get practice looking for information – using Google Earth to learn what a place is like, or evaluating information they find on the Internet.
I’m thinking of going through each of my three topics (flooding of deltas, volcanoes, and fire-related debris flows) using a similar pattern:
a) Some background on the hazard
b) Ways people deal with hazard in the McPhee reading
c) Some other kind of case study
For instance, here’s what I’m thinking of doing for volcanoes:
Topic a) Types of volcanic eruptions + hazards from volcanoes – lava, ash, gases, pyroclastic flows, lahars – some on Iceland, some not.
Practice: Lecture burst on types of volcanic hazards, then go through types of volcanic eruptions one at a time, figuring out which hazards are likely from which type of eruption.
Topic b) Using plate tectonics to predict possible eruption types.
Practice: Lecture burst on plate tectonics + Google Earth exploration – for each type of plate boundary, find volcanoes that are found on it. Then figure out what types of eruptions occur, and predict what types of hazards are likely.
Topic c) Ways people deal with different types of eruption hazards
Practice: Brainstorm possible responses to eruptions? Start with list from McPhee’s description of Iceland, then add possibilities descriptions of Hawaii and Etna, then add other possibilities?
Topic d) Uncertainties in volcano monitoring/forecasting/”In the Path of a Killer Volcano”
Practice: Lecture burst, then “In the Path of a Killer Volcano,” then some kind of discussion of the types of monitoring used in the movie and what warnings led to what choices.
Maybe exercise simulating decision-making based on volcano monitoring.
Topic e) Chaiten (or other recent eruption)
Practice: Exercise searching for information about Chaiten, listing political/economic/social/cultural/geologic issues, listing possible responses, commenting on effects of each possible response.
My plan for flooding of deltas is somewhat similar, but complicated by my desire to discuss Hurricane Katrina as well as the river flooding issues described in McPhee’s book. I’m not sure if my tentative plan to do deltas first is good, or if it’s bad. We may be able to come up with one list of solutions based on McPhee’s book, and then return to the same place with different complications by discussing Katrina.
I’m planning to talk about landslides last, and end with a field trip and discussion of issues in our own community.
My struggle, right now, is that last question from the tutorial: How does the practice that you plan to build into the course build independence over time? I think this will depend on what I have students actually do. Are there ways that I can give them more autonomy as we go on? Maybe rely heavily on McPhee’s information about flooding on the Mississippi delta initially, but have students try to add more possible solutions as the discussion goes on? Maybe come up with some way to have students do more and more of their own guessing about risks – have them look at the mountains around San Diego as well as Los Angeles, and try to figure out if the hazards are likely to be the same?
The next step involves considering various teaching techniques. Maybe when I start choosing them, I’ll find a way to progress toward more student independence.