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This month, Steph Jeffries, a teaching associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, speaks to the benefits of making student work public.
Making Student Work Public
When my colleagues, Marcelo Ardon and Zakiya Leggett, and I started teaching Introduction of Environmental Science, one of our primary goals was to make class personally impactful to each student. After all, this was our chance to teach environmental literacy to hundreds of students across campus. We wanted them to see that their actions mattered.
At the end of the semester, students made a change to their personal lifestyles to benefit the environment. They could do whatever they wanted — but they had to explain their idea and figure out how to quantify it. After measuring their normal habit for one week, they had one week to implement their change, measure and scale up their impact. Finally, we asked students to persuade others, creating a digital media piece using a single slide.
Students composted. Others started walking or carpooling to campus. Some tried a meatless Monday. They switched to reusable coffee cups, grocery bags or water bottles. Others timed their showers. Some needed to revise their original ideas; the Chick-Fil-a lover could not become vegan overnight. But maybe they could eat vegan once a week.
I loved the projects and the personal impact they had, but I also wanted students to have the chance to share their work. However, with 250-300 students, even a timed slide show would take over 2.5 hours.
So I reached out to the folks at the Hunt Library, to find a way to display projects simultaneously. Then, I told my students that their work would be displayed in the Hunt Library’s Teaching and Visualization Lab as one of NC State’s Earth Month events. “Earth Day, Every Day” was an event that showcased the work of these students in Introduction to Environmental Science. Here the students shared ideas and encouraged others to change their habits to benefit the environment.
Talk about Think And Do! Here’s what happened.
Raising the Bar
Making student work public instantly raises the bar on student engagement. I did not have to force peer review — students wanted feedback. I also scaffolded the project to help students create high quality projects. For example, I invited Dr. Jean Goodwin from NC State’s Leadership in Public Science Cluster to discuss how to change people’s behavior (shocker for this scientist: the answer is not another graph!). Students considered their take-home messages and how to frame their research findings.
Work That Matters
Earth Day, Every Day, a three-hour drop-in activity, was part of the Earth Month events hosted by the NC State Sustainability Office. Students invited their roommates, parents, children, and spouses to the drop-in event. They were proud that our event was part of Earth Month, and talked with visitors about their projects. One student reflected, “On top of being satisfied with the way it turned out, knowing that other people were able to see the message I wanted to share gave the whole project a purpose. Seeing my infographic on display let me know that my lifestyle change could have a much larger impact than what I was able to do alone.”
After working on these projects for several weeks, students enjoyed seeing each other’s final products. They voted for their favorites for the Viewer’s Choice Award and explained what made each digital media piece effective. One student commented, “Sharing it with an audience was really cool. It is rare for our work as undergraduate students to be portrayed in front of fellow classmates, VIPs, deans and the public. I also really enjoyed the room in the Hunt Library and how it portrayed projects on all the walls, kind of like visual surround sound.” And another: “It was cool to see the impact of the choices that one class could have. I was also surprised at how many new issues I learned about in such a quick amount of time.”
Ending on a High Note
Environmental science can be a depressing subject. Our event was the second to last class, and I wanted students to celebrate their efforts, feel empowered to make changes, and finish the semester with hope. On the last day of class, I presented “best-of” awards for categories like Waste Reduction, Energy Conservation, Food Choices, and Water Savings, as well as the Viewer’s Choice Award. Free scoops of Howling Cow made great prizes.
One category winner reflected on her experience. “It was exciting to show my findings with others in hopes they will be able to implement some of the changes suggested…seeing the projects of other students put many things into perspective with how I live daily. From water usage, straws, and even using paper towels, we all have an effect on this Earth…I do think there can be a significant change beginning with the students in the class. It was exciting and unexpected winning the Best Waste Reduction Idea! I hope that it will impact at least one person somewhere out there.”
Find meaningful ways to share your student’s work! Earth Day Every Day! will again feature our student projects the last week of the fall semester. Also, we will be partnering with University Library Specialist Mara Matthews to create a rotating exhibit of our best student projects at the Hunt Library.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the late Dr. Erin Lindquist at Meredith College, whose original Lifestyle Change Project inspired the ES 100 teaching team; Jason Jefferies and Mara Matthews, who helped make sure our event ran smoothly; and our teaching assistants, who patiently helped with unwieldy logistics.
Steph Jeffries is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources in the College of Natural Resources. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also on Twitter at @scissorsrunning.