Teaching with technology doesn’t have to be pedestrian

Faculty Focus: Peter Motavalli, Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences

I was once ticketed for jaywalking and ordered to attend what was called “Pedestrian School”. During this three-hour session, the instructor diligently proceeded to help us avoid any confusion that might arise with the wide array of electronic “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signs that advise pedestrians when it is safe to walk across the street. Despite the ludicrous nature of the subject, this instructor was following what I consider a fundamental objective of teaching which is to provide useful tools that students can employ in their future lives to be successful in their personal and professional endeavors.

In scientific professions, these tools include basic study and communication skills, statistics, laboratory methods, and approaches to solve applied problems. A major step in the development of my use of technology for teaching at the University of Missouri was learning about the results of a survey of alumni that the MU Campus Writing Programconducted in 2000 that indicated that 95% of the former non-science majors and 88% of former science majors strongly agreed that writing was a critical skill for success in their field. However, what I noticed in the classroom was that many of my undergraduate students in the area of soil science and environmental science had inadequate writing skills. In addition, they had little experience communicating with the diverse audiences and in the wide variety of formats and media that modern scientists use in their professional careers.

One step I took in addressing the challenge of improving writing and communication skills was to provide students with a real audience for their writing beyond simply writing for their teacher, to have them focus on relevant issues, and to create a product that would have lasting value. My first effort was the creation of a student environmental publication that was put together by the students in the classroom and edited by students from the journalism program at MU. The effort transitioned to a web-based publication that was designed by the students in the agricultural journalism program and eventually became a wiki-based publication that students produce and can be stored on the Blackboard course site from year-to-year. Moreover, my students now publish in the MU online student writing journal, “Artifacts” and have won several prizes related to student environmental writing.

Because of technology, we have been able to extend the audience for the students’ writing beyond the classroom and it is a powerful motivator. In my soil fertility course for upper level undergraduate soil and plant science students, the students have produced a web-based extension publication in Blackboard with the audience being the Introductory Soil Science students. The Introductory Soil Science students then read and evaluated the individual student writing using the survey tool. The results were then compiled and shared with the original student authors.

During one semester, students in my soil fertility class wrote a manual for soil and plant testing that was requested by the Missouri National Guard stationed in Afghanistan who were setting up a soil testing program to support agricultural development in that country. These are great opportunities for students to see the value of their writing and knowledge and extend the boundary of the classroom through use of technology.

In recent years, I have surveyed students in my classes regarding their expertise with technology and have noticed that many of them have little experience with developing new media whether that be designing a web page or producing their own video. Additional skills in entering geographically-referenced environmental data and mapping are also important for success in environmental science-related professions. Because of this identified need, one of my assignments requires student groups to combine several technologies to produce an MU environmental tour with an environmental theme of their choice. The students first map out the tour using the My Tracks app and then upload the track and waypoints to the My Places feature of Google Maps. In Google Maps they then add text, video (YouTube) and pictures (Picassa) to each waypoint to describe the significance of the point on their tour. The whole tour is then presented and described by the students in a Tegrity recording that’s provided to the other students on Blackboard.

Blending technology with these new pedagogic methods may lead to a classroom which will be far more enriching and diverse than the traditional lecture and laboratory format that has been a central feature of the university experience in environmental science and other natural resource fields. In addition, student use of web-based tools and other technology is better preparation for the needs of a successful scientific career which will be strongly based on use of technology and improved formal and informal communication. These technologies also allow for an expansion of the classroom to cross institutional, disciplinary and geographical boundaries. They also provide increased opportunities to enhance learning, create a database of information and products that outlive the end of the semester, and enlarge and diversify the audience to which students communicate and interact.

By the way, since I attended “Pedestrian School”, I have been successfully crossing the street for over 30 years.