Teaching in Eden: Lessons from Cedar Point

Teaching in Eden: Lessons from Cedar Point

Francis, Charles A

Teaching in Eden: Lessons from Cedar Point By John Janovy Jr.and Routledge Falmer, 2003, 187 pages, paperback, $22.95.

How do we introduce experiential, hands-on learning to a class of 300 in a lecture hall that hosts Introductory Biology? Or to any large class that is convened in a sterile classroom, nearly devoid of context, and far from the real world?

The author begins his quest for teaching relevance at the Cedar Point Biological Station (CPBS), describing the immersion of students in the streams, ponds, and rolling terrain of the Sandhills region of western Nebraska. Prospective students who visit the university and are fortunate enough to meet Prof. Janovy will begin their educational journey by hearing of his experiences and the opportunities for summer short courses at the station, and how this could be the most important component of their undergraduate experience (Chapter 1). The history of the CPBS is outlined as it evolved from a humble Girl Scout camp to a modest research facility with well-equipped laboratories (Chapter 2).

Field Parisitology is described as an example of a summer course with multiple objectives microecology, public health, biodiversity as well as learning patience and humility and how to deal with complexity (Chapter 3). While dealing with these technical details, Janovy weaves the story into current issues such as the march toward civil rights and how activities in the larger world must become part of the total context of any course (Chapter 4). He describes the learning objectives and activities in specific courses, but continually enriches the subject by infusing art, math, statistics, and history into the methods of study. And asks again the question: Can these experiences be infused into the classroom on campus?

The book is full of practical teaching methods acquired over the author’s more than thirty years experience. Assigning creative writing, using materials available on campus, and requiring visits to the campus art gallery are some of the strategies used to urge students to immerse in their local environment and glean the maximum experience from what is at hand (Chapter 5). Janovy contrasts the fertility of streams and marshes at Cedar Point as a teaching site with the relative sterility of campus and classroom, yet outlines very practical and inexpensive materials and methods that are available to anyone willing to think beyond the fancy biological supply catalogs, ready to bring expensive toys to the laboratory (Chapter 6). He urges us to develop in students a love of the materials, the tools, and the process of learning, and to reward creativity and idealism.

In Chapter 7 Janovy implores the instructor to develop students as problem seekers and definers, rather than our typical orientation to encourage problem solvers. He suggests that questions can be lower order or higher order, but in any case should be detailed enough to lead to research that could be published. Must they be practical questions? The product is the process here, and the goal is to develop thinkers who can confront and sort out complexity practicality can come later. Again the author provides strategies for stimulating and affirming questions even in the large classroom. Projects are essential to experiential learning, and the author described the process of discovery when students are motivated to design their own research around questions they have formulated (Chapter 8). He outlines the importance of owning the project, the value of “failure” and revision, and the further quest for new problems rather than only solutions.

Janovy describes the importance of research in undomesticated systems, those that are beyond our experimental control wherever they occur (Chapter 9). These are available near campus, and thus accessible to many students unable to work in the distant field laboratory. He chronicles the feelings students express when dealing with the sacrifice of living organisms for science, and how we must rationalize our intervention in the lives of non-threatened species in the process of science (Chapter 10).

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of teaching is moving the conversation beyond the descriptive and into the realm of ideas (Chapter 11). In fact, big ideas can emerge from discussion across the spatial scale of the natural world, and they can interface with social issues if we can stimulate creativity outside the confines of the conventional classroom. In conclusion, Janovy asks how much of Eden should be integrated into the classroom, how the multiple resources on campus can be exploited, and how the discovery process can be explored in other fields (Chapter 12).

Throughout the book, we build an image of the author as master teacher or better said a dynamic catalyst for student learning. Prof. Janovy continues to innovate, never content with the plateaus he reaches with his students. He has a strong social conscience, and sees every lecture period focused only on the minutiae of biology as a lost opportunity for integrating the subject matter into historical perspective, current events, students’ values, and implications for the future. This is a masterful book, full of practical ideas for teaching large classes, but framed through the mind of a curious naturalist who wants nothing more than to excite the passion of learning in students. This is highly recommended reading, especially for the college or university teacher, but really for anyone concerned about education.

Charles A. Francis

Dept. of Agronomy & Horticulture

University Nebraska, Lincoln

Copyright North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Mar 2005

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