Professor offers engaging first-year environmental science course

When Gail Fraser received one of York University’s Academic Innovation Fund grants six years ago to change her Introduction to Environmental Science course from an in-person format to a blended style, little did she know that eventually, she would be delivering the entire course remotely.

Thanks to the pandemic, Fraser – a professor and undergraduate program director in York’s new Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change – and colleagues University-wide have turned their talents to remote teaching, and she is especially concerned about her first-year students.

Gail Fraser

Gail Fraser

“I am concerned about the students enjoying themselves, getting good quality information and finding the course engaging,” said Fraser.

To ensure she had all the tools she needed to make that possible, Fraser enrolled in Creative Course Content, a course offered by the Teaching Commons, where the instructor employed a variety of techniques, such as discussion forums, that could be used in remote classes to keep students interested and engaged. Then, Fraser made substantive changes to her syllabus to meet the new needs of the online version of the course.

First came the decision to deliver the course asynchronously.

“As a teacher, I love the interaction with students, but I know that they are all over the world, in different time zones, and synchronous lectures and tutorials could be problematic for them,” she said of the year-long course. “I also decided to do away with exams.”

Fraser records her weekly lectures, which are delivered in chunks so that students can watch pieces at various times or sit through an entire lecture at once. There is a weekly quiz that takes the place of the exams, so the questions aren’t as simple as a typical pop quiz might be. In addition, there are weekly tutorials run by teaching assistants (TAs) and are held live on Zoom for groups of 20 students.

During each tutorial, the students have the opportunity to work on the course’s assigned weekly activity, which is related to the week’s lecture content. They are broken into groups to work on the activity collectively, before returning to the full tutorial where they have a discussion about the activity.

“There are benefits to attending these live sessions, because you can get your weekly deliverable sorted out while earning participation marks,” Fraser said. “It’s an opportunity, too, to get to know your classmates.”

Gail Fraser holding a Leach’s Storm Petrel – the bird on which her research was focused. Credit: P. Thomas

Gail Fraser holding a Leach’s Storm Petrel. Credit: P. Thomas

For those students who are unable to attend the live tutorial, they can watch a recording and read relevant material, but they must do an additional activity if they want to earn participation marks.

In addition, students are all required to complete standalone assignments using SimBio, interactive, inquiry-driven online modules that encourage critical thinking, as well as subject knowledge. The weekly deadlines for assignments help keep first-year students on track – nothing can be submitted late.

To give herself an opportunity to know the students better, Fraser holds a drop-in session on Zoom each week where students can ask questions about the course material or simply chat with Fraser. They can also schedule a one-on-one appointment with her or with a TA.

“I ask if they have questions about the lecture, but I have also ended up talking more about my research than ever before,” she said. “If they’re too shy to talk, they can always type their questions in the chat function, and if they don’t have questions, I show them things, like the decomposition project I’ve started in my backyard, or I tell them about how I got started in my career. Down the road, through the course, I’ll also offer opportunities to talk about what it’s like to do science for a living.”

Fraser says she has the sense that the course is working for the students, but plans to survey them after Reading Week, once they’ve had time to get into the rhythm of the course and accustomed to the remote format. She and the TAs will be able to tweak the course based on the feedback they receive.

“I do miss in-person classes and the interaction,” Fraser said, “but we’re doing the best we can given the circumstances.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus

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