Comments by Contributing Authors - George Middendorf and Charles Nilon

Challenges to Anticipate and Solve

The most difficult aspect of this exercise is getting the students to think out of their box. Depending on the class, the student, and his/her experience, almost every student tends to focus on either the environment or the ecology of the walk. That is, they may see the housing conditions or the birds in the trees; rarely do they note both. Our goal is to have students notice and devise methods of data collection for both. Thus, as the instructor interacts with each group along the initial walk, s/he will have to assess the focus of the group and provide appropriate, and often pointed, questions. This may not be true for the class as a whole or even for any particular group, and that is what makes the exercise so interesting. Each student brings her/his own perception and it is this juxtaposition and combination that results in the unexpected synergy and interaction.

During the course of the exercise, students must shift from qualitative observation to quantitative measurement. For the single lab situation, this means the shift must take place between the walk from campus and the walk back. For the multi-week lab, between the first and second lab periods. Although second nature for most of us, this shift is often problematic for students. We have found that this difficulty can be eased if not circumvented by asking the students to identify specific items that they can measure for each of the differences they observed. For example, if students’ noted that that trees were larger at one end of the transect, they might suggest measuring the height or diameter of trees. Students are challenged in multi-week labs by the need to focus on qualitative method and synthesis of results. We handle this challenge by encouraging students to identify a particular context in which the information can be applied. For example, students collecting tree diameter data might be encouraged to identify how the information would be used by an urban forester and required to determine how the data should be analyzed and interpreted for this type of use.

Assignment of grades for individual students participating in group exercises can be difficult. We do not make distinctions among individuals in a group; everyone gets the same grade—regardless of level of participation. We make students aware of this at the beginning of the exercise and we monitor (via the participation rubric) during the early part of the multi-week format. If problems appear, we talk with students as necessary. We do allow groups to “fire” students who must then complete the assignment on their own. But this has happened very rarely.



Comments on the Lab Description

Introducing the Lab to Your Students:

While we provide an introduction to the exercise (see the "Synopsis"), we try to guide students by asking questions about what they observe and to not provide any additional information. In this way, we “force” students to make their own decisions regarding the data to be collected.

Activities in the Lab:

The best way to approach this exercise is to initially plan on devoting 2-3 lab periods. Take a walk around town and locate a “transect” in which you note reasonably substantial variation in housing and/or environmental conditions. It also helps to have gained some familiarity with the neighborhoods through which the transect passes. Often, and especially if you are new to the faculty, it helps to talk to old-timers who have lived in the area for at least a couple of decades. Searches through the newspapers for information about the neighborhoods, e.g., history, demographics, etc., have proven incredibly useful. Then, on the first week take the walk with the students. Provide them with hints and guidance, but let, nay encourage, each group to select its own scientific path. The class discussions will be much more interesting as a result.