As a TA, sometimes you get a lot of say in what your students do, and sometimes you don’t. For the most part, I have been a TA for courses where I was told exactly what to do and when to do it. For the first time this year I have some flexibility with that. I have worked as a TA for years for a third year course about Community and Ecosystem Ecology and this year, my entire TAship is geared towards helping plan and execute the two field trips that the class takes. Field trips are hands down the best part of this course, and probably most other courses. My teaching philosophy is centered on the idea that a student can memorise and understand concepts from a book or lecture, but the material really sticks when they have the opportunity to live and learn, when they can go outside the classroom and experience things in real life and then reflecting on that in class. Experiential learning is key.
This past weekend was spent busily gearing up for the first set of field trips in this course. Each day this week 20-40 students will board a bus and travel to Little Cataraqui Creek Conservation Authority. Students are warned to dress appropriately, as this trip happens regardless of the weather. Of course, at least one student a day will show up in sneakers, with no gloves and immediately regret this decision, but most students show up prepared and ready to go.
In the weeks leading up to this trip, the students have learned to ID trees in the winter using branch samples and looking at things like bark colour, leaf scars and buds. They have had a lecture all about winter ecology where they learned about different adaptations of animals in the winter including deer, birds, fish, insects, and small mammals. And now, they get to venture outdoors and see all of this for themselves. It’s an amazing experience.
The trip starts with a walk through the woods where students get to practice their tree ID skills on some real life trees, not just branches. Then we search for tracks in the snow. Mice, birds and squirrels are all a common find in that area. Students use their knowledge of the features and adaptations of different local animals to deduce who the tracks might belong to. Then students get to put seed in their hands and chickadees, birds that overwinter in Kingston land right in their hands to eat the seeds. This is always a favourite experience of students in the class. Lots of other topics are discussed along the way. Students get to cut into the snow and look at the different layers, and hypothesize about what animals live in the different layers.
Students really do love this trip. Some students have very minimal experience with nature going into these trips. I have had several students tell me they have never seen a deer in the wild. The first time I heard that I felt sad. I grew up outside so this stuff was just second nature to me. But over the years this is becoming increasingly common.
I realize that not every course has the opportunity to take a trip like this, or would a trip like this be relevant to the course. But really, my point is that experiential learning, and seeing things first hand is so important for a student’s education. After polling other programs of study, some of the living and learning moments for them were doing re-enactments and plays, having guest speakers give a talk to the class, getting students to do projects that involve high school students or members of the public, etc. Basically, if you have the opportunity to get your students involved in something, anything, other than a lecture or tutorial, do it. My experiences have certainly corroborated student success and I would be surprised if others didn’t. If you have any advice/suggestions about experiential learning, comment away!