Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

The Anthropocene

August 30, 2016

There’s some press today about the recommendation for the declaration of a new epoch – the Anthropocene – by the International Geological Congress. The basic argument is that humans have changed the Earth system to such an extent that it is identifiable in the geological record. The evidence presented ranges from the impacts of nuclear test and global warming to the proliferation of plastic pollution and chicken bones.

Whilst the definition being accepted would change nothing physically about the Earth system, I think that it would be a powerful statement about our ability to make long-lasting changes to our environment.

Indeed, this was the reason for including the term “Anthropocene” in 2nd Year title of our new BSc Environmental Sciences. Even if the new epoch is not accepted then the examination of the evidence by our students will give them experience of critically analysing scientific findings and thinking about the implications for science and society.

Of course the real problem is to work out how to solve the environmental problems caused by humans that led to the Anthropocene. We’ve left that to the 3rd Year of the degree…

BSc Environmental Sciences at Brunel University – a new course for September 2017

August 14, 2016

I’ve been busy over the last year!

We decided that the time was right for Brunel University to develop a new degree in Environmental Sciences and I put myself forward to lead it – I’d refreshed a few of our MSc degrees recently so thought the time was right to take on a bigger challenge.

And it was hard work… but a lot of fun too.

The team that developed the degree took a fresh look at how to structure an undergraduate programme and we came up with the idea of a story that develops throughout the 3 years.

In the first year we’ll work on a theme of “Dynamics of Natural Environments”. The students, who could come from a wide range of backgrounds, will spend this year learning about the interdisciplinary principles and processes that govern the environment. This will include the physical, chemical and biological knowledge required to develop a holistic Earth system perspective.

In the second year the degree moves on to focus on “Environmental Change and the Anthropocene”. Here, students will examine how Earth systems have changed over time, with a particular focus on human influences. This includes a lot on the “grand challenges” of environmental science such as climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, land-use change and sustainability. We’ll also look at the effect of these changes on environmental and human health will be investigated.

In the final year, we’ll start to look at “Environmental Solutions”. Students will analyse and evaluate potential solutions to environmental problems. This will involve a lot of creativity and application of the knowledge from the previous years. (We have an MSci as well where the 4th year look at “Environmental Practice”.)

There’ll also be all the other things you’d expect – UK and overseas field trips, work placements, lab work, computing sessions, embedded professional development, problem based learning, optional modules – but I really like this idea of developing a narrative through the degree.

I’ll write more about these other aspects as we finalise them and when we run them for the first time over the coming years.

Book review: Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston

March 27, 2012

Click to find it on Amazon

Short version

Brilliant, even if you know what you’re talking about. Loads of ideas for making university teaching and learning far more enjoyable for everyone.

Long version

So, the first module that I’ve had to coordinate on my own turned out to be something that only overlaps slightly with my research area – I got the Sustainable Development module. In this respect, the title of TWYDK jumped out at me as a potentially useful resource. UPDATE (28/03/2012): when I first posted this I didn’t mention that the book is based on American universities – I am assuming that analysis and ideas equally applicable elsewhere.

I suppose I could’ve just shown the brilliant xkcd comic on this topic (see below) and called it a day but I’m not sure that the students would have appreciated that.

Joking aside, the prevalence of academics teaching at university level on subjects that they have little or no expertise is something that Huston discusses at length from the perspective of the teacher and the student. The argument that I most associated with was that for “survey courses” or “cutting edge courses” (which I hope my SD module was) the experts are many different people for different topics and these topics develop very fast. In that respect, having a module led by someone with only limited experience in the area is not much of a problem.


I decided quite early on to go down the Problem Based Learning route for my module as I’d helped teach on a module at the University of Manchester that used the PBL model and I’d seen many of the students really engage with it. Huston also recommends this as a useful method of delivery for “content novices” as the key is defining interesting and relevant questions rather than compiling hours of lecture material.

As I’m now approaching the end of my module for the first year I’ve run it, I’m glad I did it this way and definitely feel that TWYDK gave me a bit more confidence to try something beyond a standard “Module = 12 x lectures + 1 coursework + 1 exam” model. I think that most of the students have taken to it as well and I’ve jotted down more ideas from TWYDK to improve the module again next year.

More than just TWYDK

Whilst going through the book, however, I started to pick up ideas for other lectures I give on topics that I do know well. In some cases these were very simple ideas but maybe being a “content expert” means that you ignore the little tricks to try to get the students to actually “learn” in favour of just delivering all your hard-earned wisdom.

I suspect that I engaged with this book because it tackled a specific problem but, in the process of reading it, made me think about more general teaching points. This is probably where TWYDK is such a success where more textbook-like higher education manuals barely get opened (you know, like that one with the blue stripe across the middle of the cover and pristine spine 😉 that you see in most lecturers’ offices, mine included).

Things I wasn’t so keen on…

Well, most of the book is based on a series of interviews with university teachers, I think Huston says that it’s around 20 interviews, I could be wrong. Whilst this set off my anecdote vs. data alarm bells I suppose a good teaching idea is still a good teaching idea so I’m willing to let it go! And other parts of the book are based on more robust stats so that made me happy.

My only other point of concern is that the book just kind of ends. In the introduction Huston suggests dipping in and out of chapters as you need to know stuff but I found that it flowed quite well and read it cover-to-cover. The only disappointment with this is that there isn’t a chapter bringing it all together. (In fact, the final chapter is advice for administrators, which I still read and found useful as it gave me a different perspective on my contribution to the department teaching load.) Still, who am I to talk? I couldn’t be bothered to think up a decent end to this blog post.


Pages: 330
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN-10: 0674035801