The creation, implementation, and value of experiential learning opportunities in undergraduate classrooms
Authentic experiences for teaching science are being increasingly advocated for and incorporated into curricula. Historical paradigms of educational environments are facing increased pressure as institutional focuses shift from the traditional delivery of knowledge via lectures towards the fostering of active learning through authentic experience. Conceptually, active experiences promote a deeper, more natural way of gaining knowledge compared to learning a subject second hand. The relative authenticity of an experience plays a role in learning achieved. As the goals of scientific endeavors are to acquire and explain processes of nature, open-ended approaches should be superior to laboratory activities with predetermined outcomes in instilling an appreciation for the scientific process. Such goals can be reached through a multiplicity of techniques. An example, presented herein, is the incorporation of a small mammal survey experiment into a 4000 level Mammalogy course at Shawnee State University. Students enrolled in the course received training, identified and established field sites, and were responsible for the collection of scientific data over the course of the semester.
The survey experiment occurred in Shawnee State Forest in Portsmouth, Ohio. A permit obtained specifically for this purpose (Ohio Division of Wildlife Permit 15-96) authenticated the experience. Fifteen students conducted a twelve week study during which mammalian diversity was surveyed in six randomly selected transects, each of which represented three distinct microhabitats (meadow, ecotone, and established forest). Two distinct trap types, Sherman traps and Museum Special snap traps, were set and collected once weekly in each microhabitat within each transect. Modifications to the experimental procedure were made as necessary throughout the semester following group discussions involving all participants. Evidence of student learning as was demonstrated in field journals, data sheets, and individualized summaries are presented. Capture rate, which remained low, did not significantly detract from student learning. All students reported the experience to be positive, relevant, and unique among classroom activities experienced. Data collected during this experiment subsequently served as preliminary knowledge for the obtainment of grant funding. In turn, funding provided equipment necessary for a more rigorous experiment conducted by undergraduate research students in the following semester. Such results validate the importance of providing authentic experiential learning opportunities in undergraduate classrooms.