As the school semester winds down, lessons for the Aquatic Ecology class I've been teaching have been easier to prepare. For the past three weeks, we've been taking field trips! Field trips are so important to learning; while those experiences may not have included the most informational content, the knowledge gained was always so much more memorable. They also open opportunities for creativity and questioning that seem closed off in most students (and teachers) within the confines of a traditional classroom.
To start, we explored a park along the Meramec River in search of wetlands to delineate. This was part two for wetland ecology, as I had gone through a brief explanation of the concept of wetland delineation and how to identify soil type a few weeks ago. During the field trip, the challenge was actually more about finding areas in the park that were NOT wetlands. The river had just flooded the previous week.
Before the semester started, it hadn't crossed my mind to include a trip to a fish farm for an ecology class. Fortunately, I have Megan to toss ideas my way. She worked at the St. Louis Fish Farm while she was an undergraduate and, when I was trying to figure out what we might want to do during a lake/pond field trip, she mentioned that Mike, the owner of the fish farm, would probably be glad to host us. What a great idea!! Not only did we have a chance to explore a different ecosystem, but there were opportunities to consider the support systems are put in place at a fish farm, what ecological function these systems serve, and why the farm pond does not provide these services without human intervention.
During the visit, several students had an opportunity to try to catch a fish with the nets - each of them took several tries to catch a fish and some never did get one. I wanted to try, but made sure that all of the interested students had a shot first. I was a bit concerned that I would somehow embarrass myself - not only did I manage to catch a fish, but I got it on my first try! I was pleased to represent the Knouft Lab so successfully!
Initially, our field trip to the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center was scheduled for early April. Unfortunately, the flooding on the Mississippi River forced us to postpone the trip. On the other hand, this trip was completely worth the wait! The class split into two groups: one group toured the NGRREC research facility while the other group went out on the Mississippi in the research boat to explore monitoring methods for big rivers. It was very interesting to compare how methods change when you move from a wadeable stream to such a vast aquatic habitat.
I expect that anyone reading this has at some point been a 'learner'. By that, I mean that a teacher in a classroom has tried to divest some kernel of knowledge to you. This semester, I have truly traded the role of learner for the role of teacher for the first time. This isn't to say I have no teaching experience. I have been a substitute teacher several times when professors were out of town. I have given presentations with the intent to educate on many occasions. I have run educational programs at fairs and festivals. I even taught two sections of Freshman introductory biology. But this is the first time that I am responsible for a full semester of teaching and the content of the lectures is of my own design.
This is not to say that I am lacking outside guidance. Even the most skilled and experienced teachers draw upon lesson plans and resources developed by others. For my part, I have looked to faculty members, syllabi from the internet, and a couple of text books to ensure that there aren't any topics that I'm missing and to get ideas of activities that are both logistically possible and academically practical. I'm afraid I'll have to skip the field excursions to coastal habitats since the 16 hour road trip was discouraged. And since we recently completed phase 1 of moving our entire department, my prep time has been cut far shorter than I would like, so I was unable to find equipment and prepare chemicals that might have allowed a more technical laboratory experience.
One side-effect of putting the course together as a bit of a last-minute proposition is that I am prone to making little mistakes. A perfect example of this happened this week when I was teaching about aquatic invertebrates, a topic I feel tremendously comfortable with. To provide a top-notch lab experience with large and interesting specimens, I reached out to a friend at the DNR to see if they had anything they could loan me. Instead, Randy gave me a second Christmas! He had a large collection of aquatic invertebrate specimens, all from Missouri, that were collected 10 or more years ago - they only keep most of their specimens for a few years since they eventually become brittle and are prone to degrading. On Saturday, I was handed a quart jar that was about a third full of all sorts of critters! On Monday, I hurriedly identified invertebrates and prepared four sets of "communities" with different levels of diversity so the students could get a little experience thinking about richness and abundance. I also placed individual invertebrates into numbered petri dishes so the students could practice identification before they got to their more complicated diversity samples.
I started class on Tuesday with a short lecture and slide show, pointing out some of the important traits to look at when identifying each group of invertebrates. Then I pulled out the petri dishes of individuals to let them try their hands at identification. Everything was going so smoothly! They were having some minor challenges, but for the most part they were getting it. Somebody had a little trouble with the crayfish. I thought that was odd since that one is usually pretty easy. Then another. I looked more closely at the petri dish and saw....not a crayfish. The student with the petri dish said, "It looks kinda like a shrimp." And that is when this teacher learned that Missouri is home to, not one, but two species of freshwater shrimp! I had grabbed the shrimp out of the jar and my brain registered: large crustacean = crayfish. Nevermind the lack of claws and the many other non-crayfish traits! I'm not sure if the color drained from my face or if I turned beet red in embarrassment. I tried to take it in stride, I made a clarifying remark to the class, and they were all pleased at the prospect of a free point on their lab assignment.
So, I'm definitely learning to teach, and as with most subjects, the best lessons are hands-on and include at least a few mistakes. But I'm also teaching to learn. So far I've been covering topics where I was confident that I have expert-level knowledge. In the next few weeks, I'll start teaching in areas of less familiarity, areas where I have plenty to learn. I expect that this will allow me to take off the hat of 'expert' and put on my hat of 'facilitator,' allowing the students to explore and maybe teach me a thing or two.