Tuesday, September 15, 2015

On trainers and teaching, Part V on new courses and old experiences (9/15/2015)

These past two months I have been working on the development of two new courses that I am supposed to be rolling out this fall.  They are both on subjects that I am very familiar with,  so it should be a breeze,  shouldn't it?  Well, not so fast.  I think familiarity makes it often more difficult to explain a subject to a novice in such a way not to blow him or her out of the water.  Making things understandable and a learning experience without being condescending or dumbing it down too much as in being offensive is a challenge.  Up to now I have been relatively successful with it, but I don't want to fail now.

The courses I am working on is a course on wetlands and a course on soils.  Both are geared towards practitioners in erosion and sediment control and stormwater management.  These are people who need to know the basics but definitively do not need to become experts.  In a way they need to be able to interpret reports that they get to review or understand that they need a report when they did not get one.  Having worked intensively as a wetland scientist since 1994 and been involved in soils all the way back since the early 1970s, it is fun developing classes that interesting and applicable.  Thanks goodness, I have a friend, a fellow teacher and a soil scientist (all wrapped up in one person) who is partnering me on the soils class.  David will also be helping me teach it; we make a great team when we are on the road.

For my wetland course I am teaching my students how to recognize a wetland in the field.  So I went out back, behind my home to take pictures, braving ticks, mosquitoes and chiggers.  These trees show clear signs of flooding.  So nice to be out in the field tromping in the woods.  These trees show clear signs of seasonal flooding, the dark wood is how far up (3-4 ft.) the water gets in the winter.

In my class design and delivery I rely on my life experience, dating all the way back to my college years in the mid 1970s.  Yes, I have that advantage, I have all this experience.  However, I feel that in the past six years I have somewhat stagnated in my professional field.  I can't believe that I've been away from field work and into the class room (and class design room) for that long, having to rely on my past experience and on stories that I now hear from colleagues.

This realization that I have such a multifarious experience came rushing back to me these past few weeks or so since I received a surprise email from an old high school friend of mine who lives in a foreign country.  It was fun to hear from her, and in writing back made me relive a lot of my life back then, but also between the time that we parted our ways and now.  I wrote her a very brief email where I described what happened to my wife and I during the passed 38 years and our world travels.  Just thinking about that email makes my head spin, which is why we typically don't mention it to people, because when we do, we mostly get blank stares.  But yes, I (we, my wife and I) need to write (a book?) about our experiences in particular about the time we lived in Uganda in the late 1970s under Idi Amin.

Idi Amin
But come to think of it, all these 38 years worth of experiences are what I bring to class development and teaching, and I hope many teachers do the same.  When I teach, I tend to tell stories, anecdotes, and give examples of what I have seen (no I don't teach about Idi).  It is relatively easy, having worked for almost 40 years.  However, I sparingly use my international experience in my classes.  When I teach the stormwater classes I will mention my experience in Nepal where deforestation resulted in the disappearance of streams, of firewood and fodder for livestock, or worst, landslides.  I sometimes see students look at each other and smile (kind of in disbelieve that I also worked in that field) when I start a story with: "When I worked in the mining industry in New Mexico ..."  But I really did work in the mining industry.  I hope that these stories makes the classroom experience more fun for my students, and of course more interesting and a better learning experience.    For myself, I do think it is so invaluable to be able to bring real life work experience with me in the class room and I even  gladly borrow examples from other people's experience to illustrate points (I will give credit and will not claim them as my own).

I kind of miss being out there in the field and making new experiences.  I am starting to notice that I am getting rusty.  Thanks goodness I still learn and gain other experiences and expertise by fixing my sail boat, sailing and traveling through Virginia; I will never stop learning.  Hopefully I can apply my boat stories to my teaching one of these days.  If you are a teacher I hope you too reach in that big bag of experience you are carrying on your back.

On a work trek with my wife (and one of our two dogs) in the mountains of Nepal in 1982 or 83.  I sometimes had to walk 7 days for a an one hour meeting and walk back seven days.  Thanks goodness it was through the project area and I always had my eyes and ears open to do project (extension) type work and talk natural resources conservation.  This is probably close to the hill (looking at it) that dammed the Kali Gandaki valley by a landslide after this year's earthquake. 

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