Geoffrey Pearce

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A. Introduction

 Prior to WID I had success in teaching technical geographical skills, concepts, and theories, but the quality of essays was often substandard, with many unstructured “data dumps”. In hindsight, I assume much of the blame for these underwhelming essays. Teaching geography, I did not see it as my responsibility to spend much time on reading and writing skills. I could simply insist on standards and grade accordingly.

 Taking part in WID was a great experience for me and I would say that it has benefitted my teaching in three ways, in particular: 1) I have developed – and continue to develop – a set of tools to help students through the writing process; 2) I have increased the variety of writing assignments and activities that I use, and; 3) I have improved the clarity of my evaluation criteria and cut down on grading time. I now see it as my responsibility to help students to think and write geographically, whereas I used to think that I could achieve the former while paying scant attention to the latter.

 

B. Environmental Studies Project

 I participated in WID in the fall of 2014 and in the winter of 2015 I taught Advanced Environmental Studies for the first time. The course is a 400-level social science course whose main objective is for students to complete a project where they research and analyze a local environmental issue. It was fortunate timing to be able to apply tools and concepts from WID in creating a class whose focus is a term-long project.

 A major theme of this course is design: whether the source of an environmental problem is a product, process, or system, many environmental problems can be seen as opportunities for improving design. Another major theme of the course is prosperity: it is clear that achieving individual prosperity has some material requirements, but the degree to which our prosperity is tied to material possessions and consumption thereafter is ambiguous and subjective. Combining these two concepts, students are asked to consider how the environmental problem they are analyzing is caused by substandard environmental design and/or social values and attitudes and to outline potential solutions.

 I designed the term project so that the topic has to meet at least one of the following conditions:

1)     It represents a threat to the health of local people or ecosystems

2)     While not necessarily a direct threat to the health of local people or ecosystems, it contributes to a global environmental problem (ex: climate change) or a problem whose affects are felt acutely elsewhere (ex: electronic waste)

3)     It is an example of an individual or group that is working against an environmental issue that fulfills one of the first two conditions

 I incorporated tools that I gained from WID to try to guide students toward accurate, structured, and logical writing through the different phases of the term project and to provide them with enough structure to complete their project from among the following formats: essay, podcast, short video documentary, conference-style digital poster, and website. My motivation for encouraging multi-modal project submissions is summarized by the following three ideas:

 1. There are students whose writing skills are weak but who have other valuable communication skills such as narration, sound or video production, website creation, or use of other digital technologies.

 2. Allowing students to develop a project in a multi-modal format can play to their strengths and generate enthusiasm, and also require written work as part of the development of their project. My idea was not to remove writing, but to show how writing can be a valuable component of the process of creating quality projects in a range of formats. If a student prefers to complete a project in an audio and/or visual format, they still have to demonstrate the ability to read, understand, and write about environmental texts in the first two phases of the project. I emphasize that writing in the first two phases enhances the clarity, depth, and accuracy of their final project, whatever the format.

 3. Audience: student essays rarely gain exposure. I do not say this as an indictment of essays, but to outline that project formats that are more conducive to broader audience exposure can generate enthusiasm and provide extra incentive for completing work. Since many students will go on to create or work within a range of mediums, I see it as beneficial for them to be able to draw from scholarly sources and to apply academic standards in a range of contexts.

 To me, the potential benefits of multimodal work are aptly summarized in the following section from chapter 1 of Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers, “For students, such instruction is often refreshing (because it’s different from the many other composing instruction experiences they’ve had), meaningful (because the production of multimodal texts in class resemble many of the real-life texts students encounter in digital spaces), and relevant (students often sense that multimodal approaches to composing will matter in their lives outside the classroom).” (Takayoshi and Selfe, 2007; chapter 1, page 4). 

 

Project Format

 My portfolio incorporates the following tools that I developed by participating in WID: informal writing assignments, scaffolding, rubrics, and multimodal work. The backbone of the portfolio is the three components of the term-long research project: proposal, secondary research paper, and final submission. Informal in-class activities were also incorporated into the process to foster brainstorming, sustained engagement, and peer-review. 

 I developed the term project so that it proceeds from choosing a local environmental issue in the proposal assignment, contextualizing the issue by finding professional sources about the environmental issue in general and summarizing them in a background research paper, and then completing the final phase of the project so that it connects the background research and theory to the case study.

 Scaffolding

 In Engaging Ideas, Bean (p. 245) suggests designing the last assignment first for courses that have a choose-your-own-topic research paper due at the end of the term. I decided to apply this strategy and to develop the assignments so that they proceed from informal to increasingly formal in terms of writing style. I was drawn to the idea of beginning with informal writing assignments because they can help to “…create a questioning, problem-posing environment for the course; they immerse the students in complexity without being threatening” (Bean, p. 121).  I prefer to have students wrestle with their topics and arguments in an informal way, at first, so that I can offer feedback before they get ahead of themselves in a project whose basic assumptions and framework might need reconsideration.

 Phase 1: Brainstorming, Topic Selection, and Proposal

 Early in the term we discuss environmental issues that pertain to Montreal, and we generate a long-list over the course of a class (with guidance and vetting on my part). Students have to choose from the list of issues and identify an example to develop into a case study. To prompt them to choose an environmental issue, I use a worksheet that functions as a prompt to reflect on their proposal (Appendix 1).

 After receiving feedback on the brainstorming activity, they have to complete a proposal (appendix 2). In their proposals they must provide a brief outline of their environmental issue, the case study that they will be focusing on, and (tentatively) what format they imagine their project taking. Furthermore, I ask them to include 5 concepts (and definitions of them from reliable sources) that they think are central to understanding their topic. The proposal has to include a bibliography with at least 2 professional sources, with each source being cited at least once. I used the following rubric (appendix 3) to assess their proposals, often providing detailed commentary and suggestions.

 Phase 2: Secondary Research

 With their topics established and some background research completed, the next phase is to write an overview of their environmental issue and case study using scholarly sources (appendix 4). The overviews have to include at least 3 scholarly sources and use APA formatting. Students are also encouraged to find and use newspaper articles, webpages, or other non-academic secondary sources in researching their case study. 

 Phase 3: Final Project

 At this point I have discussed and outlined the conventions for the different formats with each student/group in individual meetings. For those who have taken non-essay formats, I encourage them to present their work during the last week of the term in an informal and supportive environment.

 

C. Reflections

 Having taught the Advanced Environmental Studies course in the winter of 2015, I have made some revisions to my project guidelines before teaching it for a 2nd and final time in the winter of 2016 (it is taught on a 2 year rotating basis and any social science teacher can apply). Here are my main points of reflection and revision:

  • The first time that I taught the course I allowed students to propose final project formats apart from the options that I provided, but I have decided to limit the options this time. Some students proposed projects that were really interesting and had a lot of potential but that I had to reject because they were either not suitable to the course objectives and discipline (ex: a children’s book), or involved too little work for the scale of the project (ex: a small pamphlet to distribute to the public to raise awareness about an environmental issue).
  • Scaffolding has been really useful for this project-centered course, but I have since found it useful in all of my courses. In many courses the final assignment is the most complex piece of work, synthesizing skills and concepts considered throughout the term. Beginning with the final assignment and working backwards has helped me to develop clearer goals for my courses.
  • Peer-review can be really effective. I often ask students to bring a printed draft of their work to class and I provide everyone with two copies of the rubric that I will eventually use to grade the assignment. I randomly/anonymously assign everyone another student’s paper. I then give them precise guidelines on how I am going to grade the assignment and ask them to do the same using the rubric, keeping their names off of the rubric. I encourage constructive but honest criticism, reminding them that they would not be doing the student whose work they are grading a favor by lapping on undue praise. I have found that this technique has resulted in grades that are usually stronger, but never weaker, than their pre-peer-review draft. I then take in the completed rubrics and repeat this process to try to diversify the feedback.

 Appendix 1: Project Topic Brainstorm

Instructions: Complete this sheet and hand it in at the beginning of next class. This activity will help you create a stronger project proposal, and I will be able to give you feedback on this before the proposal is due. To begin, select a topic from the following environmental issues (you may also propose a topic that is not on this list):

 Water pollution, air pollution, soil pollution, traffic congestion, food waste, garbage, energy use, climate change, urban heat island, noise pollution, biodiversity/habitat loss, urban sprawl, and electronic waste

 Answer the following questions directly on this sheet:

 What environmental issue have you chosen? What interests you about this topic?

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Describe a potential case study (i.e. local example) of your environmental issue that meets the following conditions:

 1)     It represents a threat to the health of local people or ecosystems

2)     While not necessarily a direct threat to the health of local people or ecosystems, it contributes to an (i.e. regional or global) environmental problem elsewhere (ex: electronic waste)

3)     It is an example of an individual or group that is working against an environmental issue that fulfills one of the first two conditions

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What do you think you should learn about to become familiar with your topic? (Ex: to learn about water pollution in Montreal you might want to learn about common and toxic water pollutants, wastewater treatment, regulations concerning water quality in Montreal, etc.).

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Appendix 2: Project Proposal (5%)

 Description: in this project you will conduct research about a place in Montreal that is an example of a broader environmental issue. The project will be broken into three parts: a proposal (5%), a background research paper (15%), and the final project (30%). In order to begin, you must select a case study (i.e. local example) of an environmental issue that meets the following conditions:

1)     It represents a threat to the health of local people or ecosystems

2)     While not necessarily a direct threat to the health of local people or ecosystems, it contributes to an (i.e. regional or global) environmental problem elsewhere (ex: electronic waste)

3)     It is an example of an individual or group that is working to address an environmental issue that fulfills one of the first two conditions

The project proposal should include the following pieces:

1)The case study that is of interest to you. The case study must be well defined and the scale of the issue in general (i.e. is it an urban, regional, or global problem?) made clear. For example, if you wish to discuss water pollution you should first discuss the scale of the type of water pollution that you are focusing on and then identify and discuss a specific location in/around Montreal where pollution is a concern. Discuss the environmental issue and case that you have selected in a few paragraphs (~250 – 300 words)

2) The format. You can present this project in a range of formats: an essay, a video/documentary, a podcast, an oral presentation, a website, or a digitally formatted poster. A short description of each of the potential formats is at the end of these instructions (a more detailed description of each format will be provided in upcoming weeks). Discuss what format you might choose and why you think it fits your topic in a paragraph (~75 – 100 words)

3) Background research. Find two scholarly sources (i.e. books or book chapters and scholarly articles are best) that discuss the environmental theme in general. Each source must be cited at least once in your proposal. Present short annotations (a short paragraph for each) beneath each source that summarize their content, and provide APA style references for your sources

4) List 5 terms or concepts that are important in understanding your environmental issue. For each term, provide a definition in quotation marks and list the source.

 Format: Present your proposal as a typed document with your name at the top. No cover page is needed. Use size 12, Times New Roman font, and 1.5 or double spacing. You may also propose to present your project as a small group (no more than 3 per group). If you choose to work as a group, provide a brief description of the potential contribution that each group member might make (~a paragraph per member is fine).  Your proposal is due at the beginning of class on February 16th. A late penalty of 5% applies for the first day, 10% if it is not submitted within 24 hours of the deadline, and the 10% applies for a week thereafter (after which I may not accept the assignment)

Project formats:

  • Essay: you may complete the project as an essay between 1500 – 2000 words in length. The essay should address the following themes: the environmental problem in general, the case study of the environmental issue, and potential solutions to this issue. Group work is not permitted for an essay format.
  • Video documentary: you may complete this project as a video that addresses the same themes as outlined in the essay format. Conventions and guidelines for this format will be discussed. The video should be 5 – 7 minutes long if working alone, and 8 – 12 minutes long if working with a partner or in a group of 3.
  • Audio documentary/podcast: You may complete this project as an audio documentary that addresses the same themes as outlined in the essay format. Conventions and guidelines for this format will be discussed. The audio project should be 10 – 12 minutes long if working alone, and 15 – 20 minutes long if working with a partner or in a group of 3.
  • Website: you may design a website to present your findings. The website should address the themes outlined in the essay format. There are many web platforms that are available for free and that do not require programming skills. The website should feature multiple pages (divided by theme) and integrate material from the background research project.  If working in a partner or in a group of 3, the website should integrate material from each member’s background research paper. Conventions and guidelines for web design will be discussed.
  • Digital poster: you may complete the project as a conference/science-fair like digital poster. The poster should address the themes outlined in the essay format. I will provide a poster template that can be used and modified. If working in a partner or in a group of 3, the poster should integrate material from each member’s background research paper.
  • Other: you may propose another format, but should clear it with me before completing the proposal assignment.

 Appendix 3: Project Proposal Rubric

Criteria

100-90% Excellent

89-80% Very Good

79-70% Good

69-60% Pass

59-0% Failure

Discussion of place and topic

– Place of study is clearly identified and described

– The relationship between the place of study and an environmental topic is outlined

Discussion of project format

– Proposed project format is outlined

– If in a group, the contributions of individual members are tentatively outlined

Background Research

– Sources are scholarly and peer-reviewed

– Sources discuss environmental topic in general

Formatting

– Proposal is within required word range

– References are presented in APA format

Writing Style

– Writing style is clear and incorporates proper terminology

– Writing is written using professional grammatical and syntactical conventions

 

Grade:      /5

 Appendix 4: Background Research/Literature Review

 Overview: The goal of this assignment is to present an account of the current state of environmental knowledge relevant to a topic area and to complete secondary research on your case study. This assignment is the second of three phases of the term project and you will use research from this assignment to complete your final project (whatever format you choose for your final project). This assignment will be split into two sections: in the first you will discuss your environmental topic in general, and in the second you will present secondary research on your case study of the environmental topic. This assignment is worth 15% of the final grade.

Section 1 – “Think Global”

In this section you should answer the following three questions:

  1. How does the environmental issue that you are investigating relate to the health of people, other organisms, and/or ecosystems?
  2. What are the causes of this environmental issue?
  3. How has this issue developed, from a historical perspective? In other words, try to describe when this issue came about, whether there have been attempts to address it, whether there are signs of improvement or if the problem has continued to worsen, etc.

In this section you must refer to a minimum of three academic, peer-reviewed articles or books.  These sources must be authoritative (based on research or expert analysis).

The actual text of the literature review should be about two to three double-spaced pages (~500 – 600 words).  There should be approximately 4 – 6 paragraphs with clear topic sentences.

The review must be written using the rhetorical stance of referential writing (passive voice, past tense, formal language).  You, as the writer, must be “missing in action” (i.e. no “I” statements). The text must contain in-text, APA style citations for each of the three sources with at least one reference to each source. Avoid quoting directly (as a rule of thumb, no more than ~15% of your assignment should be quotations). It must be organized as a synthesis and not as a sequential list of the sources.

The literature review will be evaluated on the basis of:

  • quality and relevance of sources,
  • degree of synthesis and organization,
  • quality of writing and formatting

Section 2 – “Think Local”

 In this section you will present background research on your case study of the environmental issue. Focus on the local problem, group, or situation that you are studying that is reflective of the larger environmental issue that you summarized in section 1. This section should follow the style and formatting guidelines as outlined in the instructions for section 1. Focus on answering the following questions:

  1. How does case study relate to the environmental issue outlined in section 1? Try to make links by discussing how the causes of the problem on a global scale can be connected to activity in Montreal.
  2. What are the dimensions of your case study? In other words, discuss the “who” and “where” of your topic. If your case study involves a pollutant, are some places/people/species more affected than others? If your case study focuses on a group taking action to address an environmental issue, where are they located?
  3. Are actions being taken, or solutions being proposed to address this issue?

It may be difficult or impossible to find scholarly sources for your cases study, so consider looking for the following types of secondary data (3 or more sources are needed):

  • Documentation from government agencies and organizations (e.g. official statistics, annual reports, budgets, public records…)
  • Publications from Non-Governmental organizations, private organizations, and international agencies (e.g. reports, records from meetings…)
  • Survey research results (polls, market surveys…)
  • Communication/media output (from web site, news sources, radio, television, films, documentaries, internet, blogs, public announcements…)

You may also choose to integrate primary data, such as interviews, correspondence, or field notes, but it is not necessary for completing this assignment.

Assignment submission and format: Present your proposal as a typed document with your name at the top. Use APA style cover and reference pages and in-text citations (with each source cited at least once). Use size 12, Times New Roman font, and double spacing. Use titles to separate sections. The total length should be ~1000 – 1200 words (not including the reference section). A late penalty of 5% applies for the first day, 10% if it is not submitted within 24 hours of the deadline, and the 10% applies for a week thereafter (after which I may not accept the assignment).

 

 

 

 

 

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