Carthage College’s Interpreting Nature: Effective Visual Communication About the Environment course was designed to bring interdisciplinary teams together to complete community-based service projects to facilitate learning about ecological concepts and conservation issues. During the course, Graphic Design and Communication majors partnered with students from Biology and Environmental Science to produce environmental education materials for a local state park. Projects ranged from newly designed exhibits for an indoor nature center to large interpretive signs to be placed at visitor overlooks. Throughout the course, students worked collaboratively with the community partner to learn about relevant ecological concepts in order to effectively communicate the desired messaging to the public. For example, students developing a brochure about the “Burn an Acre” program learned how fire is used to control invasive species in a prairie community, thus learning about prairie communities, adaptations of native and exotic species, conservation issues related to small population size in remnant prairies, etc. The course sought to engage non-science students in the process of learning science in a non-threatening, team-based environment.
The service-learning aspects of the course were extremely effective in engaging students and motivating them to produce high quality projects. Repeated interactions with the community-partner during the course also helped to develop a deeper understanding of the ecological and conservation topics addressed in the class. The team-based approach to learning helped to produce excellent final products, though a few groups tended to partition tasks in a way that allowed the students to use their previous areas of expertise without achieving the full interdisciplinary integration we had envisioned. The final projects exhibited student learning about a variety of ecological topics, ranging from the conservation value of home gardens for native wildlife to the ecosystem services provided by wetlands. As with our previous course, Focusing on Nature: Exploring Biodiversity and Conservation through Digital Photography, we found visual imagery to be an extremely powerful tool in engaging students in the process of ecological learning.