Authentic Problems, Transformative Learning
By: Lindsay Key
April 16, 2018
Master of Natural Resources (MNR) faculty member Dr. James (Jim) Egenrieder recognizes that students need to explore. That’s why, as a teacher, he’s always made a point to plan unique experiential learning excursions—”field trips”—for his students, most often in the form of an outdoor adventure.
When Dr. Egenrieder first began his teaching career at Virginia Tech—after careers as a field biologist, Capital Hill policymaker, non-profit leader, STEM high school teacher, and SCUBA instructor—he received a grant for developing an interdisciplinary field course in Watershed Science, Education, and Leadership for VT’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, the School of Education, and the College of Engineering.
For the course, Egenrieder encouraged students to invest in good river shoes, and get fishing licenses for the collecting activities they would complete on twelve excursions to surrounding watersheds. They experienced firsthand the history, water quality, hydrogeology, and various plant and animal species within Northern Virginia’s watersheds.
Demand for the course from a broad collection of Northern Virginia graduate programs led to a new course format at Tech’s Falls Church graduate center. Students met on Monday nights for discussions and presentations, and optional Saturday morning watershed hikes and field experiences, often in National Park land along the Potomac between Arlington and Loudoun Counties.
It may come as no surprise that the opportunity to teach online courses, as part of the Online Master of Natural Resources graduate degree program, for CLiGS gave Egenrieder pause. For so long, he’d made a point of offering his students tangible, in-person explorations that provided real-world examples and the confidence to lead their own trips. The virtual classroom, and the re-titled Watershed Stewardship course, would be a very different kind of endeavor.
But Egenrieder soon discovered that an online course could provide a different type of adventure and course design.
“I decided that I was going to flip it around,” he said. “Instead of taking everyone to my favorite watersheds, I had the students—who were participating in the course from all around the world—to identify cool places they wanted to explore and understand, and to take the rest of us there virtually.”
Every student teaches me something new. ~Jim Egenerieder, PhD
Egenrieder says he now sees his role as providing students with the tools they need for categorizing and classifying the ecology of the specific places they choose to live and work, and from there students discover they can teach others. He emphasizes the development and use of online resources, tools, and media formats.
“I rely on students to tell me about what’s unique, special, critical, threatened or endangered in their corners of the world,” he said. “I’ve polished my approach to this every year—every student teaches me something new.”
Egenrieder also encourages his students to identify problems in their areas that are relevant and authentic to them, and to design projects and products to solve them. He encourages them to share the products of their projects with the public, facilitating discovery using a variety of online media formats.
“That combination of authentic problems, authentic audiences, student voice and choice, and having the students become the instructor is the key to providing a meaningful, transformative graduate experience in my project-based courses,” he said.
Dr. Jim Egenrieder has a background in biological field research and applied technology, with more than a decade of agricultural and environmental policy experience on Capitol Hill and with federal and state agencies. He was President and Agriculture Student Council representative for the Penn State Chapter of the Wildlife Society while completing a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science in 1986. In 1997 he began a Master’s degree program in Science and Math Education at Virginia Tech, which he later ran while beginning a doctoral program in science education and STEM education program evaluation. In addition to teaching for the Online MNR program, he serves as Director of the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab at VT’s National Capital Region. A creative makerspace/classroom, Thinkabit Labengages students from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds in unique STEM experiences that have a positive impact on their thoughts about careers and engineering.
The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Chhaya Kapadia; Jim Egenrieder; VIA Agency; and Jonas Witdoek.