Human Health and the Environment is a course offered in the Biology Department for science credit that integrates concepts in ecology and public health through the study of environmental threats to human health. The course also explores connections among the causes of environmental degradation, poverty, and disease. There is also an emphasis on community engagement to learn about and address factors contributing to local environmental public health issues. A sophisticated and well informed understanding of environmental public health issues requires (i) recognizing and analyzing connections among different issues (e.g., the obesity crisis, global food security, US agricultural policies, dependence on fossil fuels and fossil water, and climate change); (ii) extending the impact of personal choices to a larger context, and (iii) exploring means to address these issues. Thus, one of the most important goals of using the IF method was to encourage the development of critical thinking skills that encourage students to seek out varied perspectives and delve deeper into a topic to uncover hidden and complex connections among issues and factors affecting those issues.
My first experience with SLDs as a primary teaching tool in my class was much more successful than I imagined. Not surprisingly, incorporation of the IF method clearly promoted and cultivated skills in civil discourse, and encouraged a more thorough process-oriented exploration of issues. Students gained a greater level of comfort in presenting and listening to diverse perspectives. It is also clear that students from different disciplines were sharing perspectives that made the discussions much richer, and integrating these new perspectives into their thoughts about the issues.
As for its impact on my own teaching, the IF method freed me from having to make all of these complex connections for students (a nearly impossible task). I introduced the subject; assigned readings and students explored the topic at a deeper level during the discussion, reflecting upon those discussions with their response posts. I am confident that most, if not all, students developed more sophisticated critical thinking skills and demonstrated a deeper understanding of the complexity of concepts than in previous semesters. Blog posts, exam responses and course evaluations all indicated that students also enjoyed and recognized the benefit of the IF method. The course also received excellent end-of-semester student evaluations (“best course I have ever taken”; “I would take this course all over if I could”, etc). I attribute this success to a combination of SLDs and community engagement projects. In fact, I think that students would get more from their community engagement projects if they could discuss their experiences with each other. For the future, I will try to incorporate SLDs as a means of exploring community engagement. I will be using this method again, and I intend to integrate it more fully into this course, as well as experiment with it in my Ecology course this spring.