by Dr. Frank Robinson
Early in 2004 I volunteered to be part of a University of Alberta task force focused on “the integration of teaching and learning” at the undergraduate level. At the first meeting, I realized I was a somewhat behind the rest of the group in knowing much about the scholarly language in this area. I was given a stack of papers to go through, including an impressive summary of a working group in the US, who looked at how to improve the undergraduate learning experience in research intensive universities in the US (The Boyer Report). I found the discussions that ensued around this issue to be insightful, as we talked about initiatives in our home faculties.
As we prepared the final report, in terms of how the university could implement Boyer, we talked a lot about improving the freshman experience. I realized that there was something that could be done in our faculty, Agriculture, Forestry and Home Economics (now the Faculty of Agriculture, Life, and Environmental Sciences). It became clear to me that the introductory course I loved (Animal Science 200 – Principles of Animal Agriculture), and had taught 18 times, was a good candidate to be resurrected with problem-based learning as the focus. As our committee discussed how the U of A could implement the Boyer Commission recommendations, I started to think carefully about these 6 of them:
- Make research-based learning the standard
- Construct an inquiry-based freshman year
- Build on the freshman foundation
- Link communication skills and course work
- Educate grad students as apprentice teachers
- Cultivate a sense of community
These points meshed very well with what I thought about teaching and learning. The negatives were that this was an entry level course. That posed some problems that would not be there with most of the senior courses. First year courses are typically content intensive as the foundation for the four year degree is poured. Furthermore, freshman classes are a diverse population, with substantial variation in life experiences, educational background and motivation for independent work. I had my doubts, that despite my good intentions, that I could involve problem-based learning in my class
Eventually it hit me that maybe the key factor was “the question” that you ask these students to jump into. What if the questions these animal agriculture nubies answered were the questions that people asked me, when they found out that I knew the intricacies of applied farm animal biology and production. Frequently on air planes, neighboring frequent fliers would see my lap top screen at an oblique angle, but see it well enough to avoid looking away when I was making up chicken gynecology material for conferences. They would become empowered to ask me questions they always wanted to know about chickens first. Then they would gain momentum and ask me about other animals and food production. As we buckled up for landing, general science questions appeared. I have often thought that I have done some of my best teaching on airplanes as the degree of teacher learner engagement soars.
Suffice to say, I have had many interesting question posed to me, and I have gleaned considerable enjoyment out of shocking some learners just a bit to encourage them to sustain the dialogue. While the broken telephone form of communication can yield some faulty information down the circuit, I suspect that much of what I discussed was passed on to family members, co-workers and hair stylists.
With this behind me, I started to write down some of my favourite questions which could excite students, get them doing some research, provide an opportunity for research activity, instil some group project experience and introduce a venue for considerable fun.
The best way to explain how this works and why we call the program what we do goes back to the first ever question this project posed:
If we were to use a methane car, how many cows would it take to get us from Edmonton to Calgary?
- These students talked about the biology of the cow’s digestive system and the role that rumen bacteria played in methane production
- They found that a cow produces about 200 litres of methane each day
- They also found this car in some Scandinavian country that runs on methane and the rest became a math problem.
- They found that you could travel 3.3km/day from a cow or .49km/day from a ewe.
- We now think of Edmonton to Calgary as 88 cows or 600 sheep!
Although these projects have very quickly moved on from straight up Powerpoint to music and drama, and videos the name ‘Heifer In Your Tank’ has stayed constant throughout the lifetime of this program.
If your interested in connecting with us about this program email firstname.lastname@example.org.