November 16, 1998
Volume 51, No. 12
Challenges, solutions to folding research into curriculum
My research specialty is ichnology. Yes, I know-you have never heard of it. In an attempt to explain this research specialty to you, I might easily lapse into terminology that only other ichnologists know, thus adding little to your understanding of it and perhaps alienating you to the point where you stop listening, which not coincidentally marks the time when you stop learning.
We may recognize this same problem in communicating our research interests with friends and family members, but nowhere is it more acutely apparent than in an undergraduate classroom where students are fulfilling their General Education Requirements (GERs). If we eagerly begin to relate our fields of expertise, the paramount question in many students' minds in such classes is, put succinctly, "So what?" Most of my students are very bright and motivated, but the reality is that they simply and justifiably want to know why this seemingly esoteric research interest of mine should also be interesting to them.
In the geosciences program my colleagues and I probably encounter the "So what?" inquiry more than any other program or department on campus because we are the only program in Emory College that does not have majors, minors or co-majors. Hence, nearly every student in our classes attends because they feel as if they must be there to fulfill their GER for a science class (sometimes under the mistaken impression that our science is "easier" than biology, chemistry and physics).
For the most part, our students consider themselves "non-science" people, hence any deviation from basic concepts covered in their textbook throws them into an exalted realm of unimagined mysticism and subsequent terror or, worse, boredom. They also may want to get through our classes with the minimum coverage of the course material because it does not (in their minds) relate to their majors or, more broadly, to their lives. Here are a few proposals for solving these problems:
(1) Make your research subject immediately accessible to students. This means temporarily suspending the jargon we use to communicate in treehouse-club code (complete with "secret handshake") with the fewer than 100 colleagues worldwide who share our research interest. Find explanations for major concepts in your specialty through terms understood by an undergraduate non-major, then later introduce the terms used in your profession where necessary. If you see this as "watering down" the subject matter, I assure you that ordinary explanations of extraordinary concepts still bestow a considerable intellectual challenge to students.
(2) Do not tell students your research specialty right away. This is not being deceptive but rather introduces the material as equal to other facets of knowledge in the overall course. I have seen students get nervous when they perceive me as an expert on a specialty they only expect to learn in a rudimentary way. Exam questions on my research topic in particular are dreaded because students might justifiably fear that I require answers equal to those of my peers. Be sensitive about this, please!
(3) Use hands-on examples from "real life" to bring across some of the major concepts of your research specialty. If you cannot relate your research specialty to students' lives, then you have a well-established warning sign that you are not effectively communicating its importance. Think about how students can discover the concepts for themselves through exercises that require their active participation, rather than you telling them about your views. Then they will feel more like co-discoverers.
(4) Extend your enthusiasm for your research specialty to other topics covered in your class subject. I have personally experienced courses where the enthusiasm of professors for their research specialty has overwhelmed other topics in the class. Keep this positive energy level, which you normally reserve for your specialty, in mind throughout the entire duration of a course, not just part of it--and keep it in perspective with other topics that deserve your attention.
Oh yes--what is ichnology? It is the study of modern and fossil traces left by animals and plants. Dinosaur footprints are probably the most famous of fossil traces, but worm burrows, beetle borings in wood, leaf cuttings made by a caterpillar, or sea turtle nests are also represented by fossil traces.
Students and I can literally walk out of the classroom and quickly find examples of modern traces, even in an ever-more paved campus like Emory's. In class we can look at rock samples containing fossil analogues and modern traces, supplemented by slides and a web page I have written on ichnology.
A hands-on activity that uses ichnological concepts was devised last year by me and one of my colleagues, Anne Hall, where the students studied a sidewalk on campus that has dog tracks, made when an innocent canine walked across wet concrete years ago. We used this trackway as a proxy for a fossil trackway. The students identified the probable trace-maker, measured the tracks and spacing between them, and applied mathematical projections to estimate the dog's probable walking speed. A few weeks later I showed them slides of a trackway made by a large reptile, seen in 225-million-year-old rocks of Petrified Forest National Park, and informed the students I had done research on this trackway using exactly the same methods they used in their lab exercise.
The students immediately realized that the gap between my research specialty and the subject of the course was not so vast, and they made this connection, as scientists, through their methods. My suggestion is to impart the same essence of your research in your undergraduate GER classes so that students find the artist, historian, psychologist, scientist or sociologist in them through their own discoveries and carry that with them. This is one way we can erase the artificial boundaries we place between research and teaching, especially for those GER classes where students may ask, "So what?"
Tony Martin is a senior lecturer in geosciences. This essay was written
for Conversations on Teaching, periodic columns in Emory Report