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Thursday, March 4, 2004
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Now in its third year, Spotlight on Learning, a University-wide showcase of the best learning-centered teaching practices implemented in the classroom, continues to bridge the gap between scholarship and instruction and to foster collegiality across disciplines. This year's event is March 4-5 in Baker University Center.

Environmental geography department strives for active learning

By Marisa Palmieri

Americans throw away an average of 4.4 pounds of garbage per day per person, according to "Municipal Solid Waste in the United States," a 2001 Environmental Protection Agency publication. Multiply that by seven days a week, 52 weeks a year - and with 290 million people in the United States - that's a lot of trash.

Geoff BuckleyFor the last few years, students taking Geography 201, Environmental Geography, have witnessed these statistics pile up first-hand. For a week they document every ounce of trash they create, from cigarette butts they toss, to wrappers they crumple and cans they crush.

"I want students to gain a better appreciation for the impact they have on the physical environment," says Geoff Buckley, assistant professor of geography who is in his sixth year at Ohio University. "We are still a throw-away society," he says.

Students also monitor energy and water consumption during part of the quarter by keeping track of how many miles they drive, showers they take and times they flush the toilet.

"Students always say they thought [the journal assignment] was going 'to suck,' but then they loved it," Buckley says. "They say everyone at OU should have to do it."

"A lot of people expressed concern about how much they were throwing away," says Carrie Runser, a teaching assistant for Geography 201. This assignment also helps students to recognize their bad habits like smoking or drinking, Buckley says.

In tandem with the journals, Buckley and the environmental geography faculty piloted a new class format in 2002 with a $19,924 grant from the University's 1804 Fund. The faculty felt that the course they were developing kept with the spirit of the 1804 Fund "to promote undergraduate learning and to foster the development of a 'learning-centered community,'" according to an article in the Journal of Geography.

"It's all in the name of active learning," Buckley says. "We want students to be involved in their learning, not just sit and listen to me."

The reformatted course divides large lectures into small discussion sections that meet for one hour each week. The lectures tend to focus on global issues, while the discussion sessions allow teaching assistants to address local issues and the way environmental issues affect the students directly.

Because most people don't know where their energy comes from, what happens to their water when it goes down the drain, or their garbage once it's hauled from the curb, Geography 201 students also attend a field trip of their choice during the quarter. The trip sites differ from quarter to quarter, but range from a visit to an energy site, to the Athens-Hocking County landfill, or to an abandoned coal mine.

Teaching assistants run the discussion sections and field trips, and Buckley says the department is fortunate to have talented, dedicated assistants who make the course work the way it was designed to.

"[The course] is set up so we learn from each other," Runser says. "Interacting with students has been interesting and educational for me - it's informative to know where they're coming from for broader views on environmental issues," she says.

Buckley says that he and the environmental geography faculty want students to realize that as residents of the Athens community, they can have a positive impact with environmental issues.

"We're trying to have students act now," Buckley says. "We need to realize that there are costs to our consumption."

Marisa Palmieri is a student writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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