Posted by Dr. Joe Townsend (IUP)
As a first-time instructor at PLE, I arrived for this course a little more than two weeks ago filled with many of the same uncertainties and trepidations that my students have expressed in their blog posts. Perhaps my biggest question was what I could expect of the students who would be taking the course, and how much I would be able to rely on them if I opened up the course design to be more inquiry-based and project-driven. That is, to take a back-seat and let the ideas and goals of the students drive the direction that the course takes. This can be a risky endeavor in any classroom and that risk can be amplified in a field-based, temporary-challenged format such as the 15 days that contain this course. But I can now feel secure in admitting that I am currently blessed with the most capable, dynamic, and cohesive groups of students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching, without a single exception among them. And that, to me, is worth sharing.
Rather than simply offering them a series of workshop-style tutorials on field-based research methods, I challenged each student to spend time in the field generating a series of research questions they would like to address. They were then, rather unceremoniously, grouped into four teams based on the nature and relative compatibility of their research interests and questions. I paid virtually no attention to the prior experience, gender, or personality make-up of each team, opting to rely on the students to "make it work" regardless of the team composition. And make it work they have, in exceptional fashion.
Groups were formed on Wednesday afternoon of the first week. By the following Monday, each group had to turn in a full proposal for their integrative research project, and give a presentation of the project to the rest of the class. A day later, they were in the field actually carrying out their proposal research. By Friday, they had written up preliminary reports on their projects, which had to be coauthored with equal sharing of workload. To see the quality of the products that each of these teams has produced in such a painfully short period of time is nothing short of remarkable (although they may not believe that I think so, given the amount of red ink on each preliminary report!).
Each group has faced challenges that required them to quickly adjust their methods, schedules, and even principle aspects to their original proposals, and each of them dutifully rose to the challenge. Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this overall group is that, despite the challenges and pressure being placed on them and the adversities that come with field-based research, I actually get the impression that they want MORE than I am throwing at them. What more could an instructor ask for? Students that are positive, enthusiastic, and supportive of one another? Check. Students that somehow have the energy to go canoeing or hiking or have a social activity after a long day in the field? Got that too. These kids literally push the tables together in the dining hall so that we can eat dinner as a larger group, rather than in tables of 4-6.
To say I am pleased with this group of students at this point would be an understatement, and honestly, with any other class I would NEVER share this sort of praise before the class is over, lest it lead to complacency... but I know that with these 19 students, it will, if anything, only serve as more motivation to finish out the course as strongly as possible... not that they need it. This Friday is the last day and students will be presenting their final project results, and I am honestly excited to hear they have to say . What more could an instructor ask for?