Teaching ecology through creative writing: An assessment of an innovative, interdisciplinary course
The disciplines of science and the humanities are rarely integrated in higher education, leading to a characterization by Snow of the Two Cultures in academia. Odum suggests ecology is uniquely qualified to bridge that cultural divide. We argue that a pedagogical approach combining ecology and English can bridge that divide and enhance educational outcomes. We tested the hypothesis that by engaging students in the process of writing and analyzing ecological fiction while simultaneously teaching ecological principles, students will gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of science and the humanities and increase their creativity. We (Skillen, an English professor, and Bowne, a Biology professor) collaborated to create and teach a course titled “Ecology in Short Fiction” that satisfies both “Creative Expression” and “Natural and Physical Sciences” general education requirements at Elizabethtown College. For each ecological theme, students read, analyzed, and discussed a variety of classic and original works of short fiction in terms of plot, character development, setting, and underlying ecological concepts. Students also practiced creative writing and formally learned ecological principles. We formally assessed student learning outcomes by use of pre/post examination of ecological concepts through multiple choice and short answer formats, a Short Scale of Creative Self, an exercise in divergent thinking, and a culminating original short story in which an accurate portrayal of an ecological topic was required.
Student interest, as measured by enrollment in this elective course, was high in both semesters offered (spring 2014, 2015). We report results for the 2014 class because the 2015 offering is in progress. Students demonstrated a significant increase in understanding of ecological concepts (p < 0.001) from the beginning to the end of the semester. Students also reported increases in creativity such as personal identity (p = 0.001) and self-concept (p = 0.003). In an exercise in which students were asked to observe a specific environment for three minutes at the start and end of the semester, both the number of reported observations and reported interactions significantly increased (p = 0.006 and p < 0.001, respectively), thus indicating both the quantity and quality of their observations increased because of the course. With a few exceptions, students were able to create original works of fiction that successfully integrated ecological concepts. By fusing ecology and creative writing, we improved learning outcomes in both disciplines. We argue that simultaneously targeting science and creativity gives students greater ownership and capacity to apply their knowledge.