Rollins Immersion Project Offers Down to Earth Lessons

March 20, 2008

Muir Woods
Associate professors of environmental studies Barry Allen (seated first on left) and Lee Lines (standing) with their students at Muir Woods National Monument in California.

Rollins associate professors of environmental studies Barry Allen and Lee Lines learned as much from their curricular pilot project as their students. Dubbed “Down to Earth: The Hidden Landscape of Food in America,” the experimental project consisted of 13 first-year students and two peer mentors who spent the entire fall semester participating in four linked courses focused on the issue of food and sustainability.

Last spring, Vice President for Academic Affairs & Provost Roger Casey approached Allen and Lines about doing something innovative and fresh in the area of sustainability.

“The result was an ‘immersion’ project organized around the concept of sustainable development,” said Allen. “The idea here is similar to learning a foreign language … you concentrate on one topic for an entire semester.”

Allen and Lines chose 13 first-year students from approximately 60 who expressed interest in the project. “We weren’t looking specifically for environmental studies majors,” said Lines, “We were looking for students with a curiosity about contemporary social and environmental issues and a passion for learning.”

Having all students take only the four linked courses eliminated course scheduling conflicts for both students and teachers. It has also allowed for much more flexibility for outside course-related activities, which included a 10-day field study trip to California in October to examine innovative practices in sustainable agriculture.

“Typically, you have to conduct the field work before or after the course,” said Allen. “In this case, students benefit more from the field component because they’re prepared to see what they’re going to see, and our subsequent discussions are informed by their field experience.”

 Students visit an organic farm in California.
Students get “down to earth” at an organic farm during a field study trip in California.

Student Sarah Griffis thought that the California trip was one of the best learning experiences she’s ever had. “Reading about things in a book is good, but seeing these things first hand makes a huge difference,” she said.

For Griffis, the California field work had far-reaching impact well beyond the classroom. “It’s intriguing to think about where our food comes from," she said. "I think about it constantly now and I’ve actually cut a lot of things out of my diet … no more red meat or pork for me.”

For Allen and Lines, there have been many other unexpected benefits.

“Everyone was on a first-name basis much more quickly and two-way communication is much stronger, said Lines. "Students are more engaged because they’re more comfortable with one another. This aspect of the whole experience has been greater than anticipated. We also have a much better opportunity to stay on top of their overall academic performance.”

The benefits to the duo’s teaching skills were also unexpected. “Since we alternate teaching, each of us is a student in the other’s classes,” said Lines. “A second set of eyes in the class helps us see how students react to various teaching methods—what works and what doesn’t. We’ve team-taught before so we have enough trust to provide candid feedback to one another.”

Allen agrees. “We’ve been able to check a lot of the things for one another that we take for granted as professors,” he said.

While teaching in the field requires a different skill set than teaching on campus, the rewards make it well worth the effort. Last fall, the class headed out for two days of camping, canoeing and conversation in Wekiva Springs State Park.

“Our goal with the project is to create an interdisciplinary learning community centered around big questions and open dialogue,” said Lines.

And while the topic is “down to earth,” it seems the sky’s the limit for these students as they learn together about the issues surrounding food and sustainability.

The environmental studies immersion course was so successful that students decided to continue the experiment into the spring semester and live and learn together with Professor of English Bill Boles in his course "Writing About Movies."

"Even though two of the 13 students had writing credits from high school, they opted to stay together," said Boles. "The dynamic is intact, and in fact, they know each other so well that it has been successful in 'workshopping' papers." Future plans call for more immersion courses for first-year students and upperclassmen.

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