What is the context for this course?
Ecology and Evolution (BIOL2010) is an introductory course that fulfills a Natural Science Core requirement, and is also a requirement for the Biology major. It generally enrolls around 200 undergraduate students the vast majority (almost 90%) of whom are first or second year students.
Why did you choose to use a creative assignment?
I would love to teach this introductory course in a format that had a lab component where students would get outside and practice recognizing and applying the fundamental principles and concepts of Ecology and Evolution. Because that is not a realistic format for this course, I wanted to find another way to get students outside experiencing biodiversity (which is the major theme of the course). I decided to invite students to take a few nature walks throughout the semester where they could practice making scientific observations, look for specific types of organisms we discuss in the class, make real-world connections with additional class content, and get to know some of the green spaces near campus.
About one third of the course content is an exploration of the “Tree of Life,” which introduces students to a wide variety of organisms. Some students find this unit challenging because they have very little familiarity with some of the groups of organisms. So, at the most basic level, the goal of these nature walks is to help students see the relevance of the course content by finding examples of these organisms near campus (or near their home during online versions of the course). In addition to this learning goal, there are many well-documented physical and mental health benefits to spending time in nature that feel particularly relevant to undergraduate students navigating the transition from high school to college. Finally, through this assignment, I introduce students to a “Citizen Science” platform called iNaturalist which allows students to contribute their observations to a public database of biodiversity observations which enables these independent nature walks to also be a scientific data collection exercise.
How did you introduce and scaffold the assignment for your students?
There are a number of components to this assignment over the course of the semester that I scaffold into three phases.
Phase 1 – Introduce the project
- In-class explanation of the assignment. I explain the goals of the assignment, the details of how to complete it, and how it will be assessed. I also provide a written description on Canvas along with a pre-recorded 8 minute explanatory video that students can refer to if they want additional or repeated instructions.
- Make an iNaturalist account and submit a practice observation. There is time in class for tech troubleshooting. This practice observation gets peer-review feedback through Canvas using a rubric so that students can hopefully quickly realize if they are doing something wrong, and so that students can practice giving feedback to each other.
Phase 2 – Nature Walks
- First Nature Walk assignment: Students have a clear rubric for completing the assignment and the first nature walk is completed with that in mind. In addition to submitting at least 5 photographic observations from their walk, they need to write a short post describing their walk and drawing connections to course material.
- The second and third nature walks are similar to the first and have an additional organismal theme (for example plants or fungi). At least some of their observations and reflections must be related to the specific groups of organisms we are discussing in class that week.
Phase 3 – Summarize and Reflect
- After completing at least 3 nature walks (some semesters I might assign 4 rather than 3), students have a final Project Review assignment. In this assignment they need to review the observations they’ve made in iNaturalist and assess the diversity of organisms they ended up observing. They also have the opportunity to to reflect on their classmate’s learning and their peer-reviews. Finally, I invite them to provide me with feedback on the project.
What instructions do you provide to students for each component of the project?
The instructions I provide students for each component of the project are below.
How did you assess student work?
In a large class, my biggest concern starting out was how I would assess multiple assignments from ~200 students. I generally have one graduate TA who can help with grading, but some semesters I do not, so logistical feasibility was a major concern. I initially worked with John FitzGibbon (then at CTE, now in the Center for Digital Innovation in Learning) to come up with a structure for the project that utilized student peer-review. Including peer-review allows students to see a variety of observations made by their classmates which hopefully reinforces the learning objective of becoming aware of the biodiversity near campus. Additionally, the peer reviews make the grading process easier. The grader can use the drop down menu to see the 3 grades assigned via peer-review and quickly identify students who have earned full credit from all three peer reviewers. Those submissions can be graded very quickly, leaving far fewer submissions that require more detailed feedback and more careful assessment. Using a rubric (which I have improved over time to increase clarity) in conjunction with peer-review has been key to implementing this assignment in a way that students receive timely feedback, and grading is manageable. For every assignment, students receive peer-feedback and a separate grade from instructors, both of which are based on the same rubric.
How did the students do?
Since I implemented this assignment in 2020, my students have contributed over 20,000 observations to iNaturalist. These observations are publicly available and easily accessible on this project page. Many students initially balk at this assignment. Having to take walks feels strange and perhaps uncomfortable. Having to navigate a new tech platform can be frustrating. However, there is a clear pattern where many students who initially resist the assignment express feelings of appreciation for the project at the end. As one student said in the Project Review “I didn’t necessarily look forward to walking, but honestly, they were super nice once I got started. It was a time to be mindful and relaxed, and seeing the species in real life was helpful in my understanding.”
In addition to helping students learn the Tree of Life content and influencing their overall academic performance, I am thoroughly convinced that the process of getting outside multiple times during the semester and noticing the surrounding biodiversity has an overall positive impact on students’ mental health. I have included below some summary statistics from the Fall 2022 Project Review assignment that support these
- 85% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I enjoyed participating in the fieldwork exercises (i.e., nature walks).”
- 74% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I found the iNaturalist assignment useful for my learning in the course.”
- 72% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I would like to see more assignments like the iNaturalist assignment in my coursework at BC/Biology etc.”
Here are a few examples of student submissions:
What lessons did you learn?
The more I allow myself to include creative/non-traditional assignments in my courses, the more I become convinced that doing so increases student engagement and facilitates learning.
I used to be skeptical of rubrics. I think this is because when I first come up with a new assignment, I’m not sure what to expect from students. After doing an assignment a few times though, I believe that a clear, specific, detailed rubric is incredibly helpful in terms of communicating expectations to students, and facilitating efficient and fair assessment.
The risk in having students contribute to a public scientific database is that students’ contributions might be low-quality and end up detracting from, rather than adding to the value of that dataset. Over time, I’ve become more and more aware of things students might do incorrectly, and I’ve been able to adjust how I introduce the assignment accordingly.
There are some questions I still have about the project. The student feedback makes me question the extent to which the project actually facilitates relationship building, but convinces me that the project is a good use of student time. I also wish I knew how to assess whether or not the assignment actually helps with comprehension or retention of tree of life content. I receive mixed feedback from students, but I also know that student perceptions aren’t a reliable way to assess that question. Despite those questions, I’m still excited by the kind of student engagement this assignment facilitates.