Natural Systems Teaching Philosophy

R. Hays Cummins

Miami University

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Table of Contents

Natural Systems Area Teaching Philosophy

Quicktime Movies: The '99 "Shore-to-Slimy-Shore" Race!!

Hannah Strange finishes in record time! Everyone had a lot of fun!

The fundamental goal for all courses in the Western College Program science curriculum is to encourage and support student interest in the natural world and, through discovery-oriented learning, provide the means whereby students will learn the values, methods, fundamental content, context, and limitations of scientific inquiry. Toward this goal, the curriculum incorporates: 1) instructor-generated discovery labs, 2) student-generated discovery labs, 3) independent research, 4) a natural science data base, 5) off-campus explorations and 6) the Julia Rothermel Peer Science Center.

Instructor-Generated Discovery Labs

Most students are simply not interested in "cookbook" science labs that only confirm known facts using rote methods. A major facet of the Western College Program curriculum is to incorporate instructor-generated discovery labs in all science courses. By doing so, students become active participants in science. These experiences work best with small classes and direct student-faculty interaction. Successful instructor-generated lab development requires a subtle potpourri of approaches: students are given fewer answers and are provided more options to explore, so that flexibility and creativity can lead to innovative solutions. The student gains a sense of ownership of the lab experience. The instructor is seen as a resource who doesn't just give answers but also encourages questions and exploration.

In discovery labs, content is decidedly important, yet student involvement with the material is even more so, particularly for first and second year students. In this approach, mastery of content and method results from active engagement. By stressing the process of scientific inquiry, discovery-oriented labs impart the content of science in a manner that interests students and matters to them. Making science relevant increases the probability that students will incorporate science into their way of knowing.

These labs can range from earth-sun relationships , a geologic time-scale metaphor project (see Ritger and Cummins, 1991), the frisbee lab : an introduction to statistical methods, a journey into Chaos with the drinking bird lab, genetics of the muck swamp, earth-moon relationships (Cummins et al.,1992), taxonomy and classification , to a study of changes in stream chemistry across a pond or lake. Students address alternative hypotheses, investigate various methodologies, and collect data in their studies of the natural world. Students present reports both in written and oral formats. Recent experience with this approach has been very positive, and long-term data on specific outcomes is being collected.

Student-Generated Discovery Labs

In the true sense of discovery, there comes a time when creativity in science has to come from within--harvesting this creative energy is what discovery-oriented learning is all about. When we first began initiating student generated discovery science, we did so by having students develop "Ways of Knowing" projects where each student investigated natural phenomena of their choosing -- students developed their own hypotheses, designed their own methods, and finally reported to the class the results of these endeavors. The "Ways of Knowing" projects were very successful in nurturing student interest and convincing even non-science students that science is something they can do too!

While the swans watch expectantly, first-year students ready the boat for a study of sedimentation in Western Pond!

Funding from NSF has promoted further development of student-generated labs. In Natural Systems I, From the universe to the duck pond: Exploring patterns and processes in natural systems during the first half of the semester students do instructor-generated projects designed by faculty while in the second half, student groups generate their own discovery-oriented science labs that the rest of the class does. Students are responsible for running every aspect of the scientific process. They prepare the lab manual and do the lab preparation, determine the methods used, and with appropriate faculty guidance, are responsible for the smooth operation of the lab. Students have access to all of the science equipment, labs done in previous years and even have a modest research budget.

Upon completion of the five group projects in each class section, each group then reports to the class the results of each lab. Student-generated topics are many and varied. They include studying lead concentrations along environmental gradients, Jupiter's moons and Kepler's laws, the distribution of lichen on tree trunks, hydroponics, the effects of the Oxford sewage treatment plant on organisms in Four-Mile creek, the effects of caffine on heart rate and respiration, studying plant diversity and how it relates to soil pH, studying the physical characteristics of Western Pond studying the sediment budget for Western pond, and a faunal analysis of the microhabitats within the pond, among many others.

The woods behind Peabody Hall are dominated by beech and maple trees and serve as a natural laboratory for many student projects. Don't forget the amazing Bachelor Woods and Harkers Run! Folks, this is one heck of a natural laboratory!

Check out beautiful Bachelor Pond. (Quicktime movie~1.6 mb).

The class covers at a minimum all of the topics that we would have done via instructor-generated labs. The critical difference is that the students are doing what they selected to do and have taken active possession of their ideas. It is difficult to imagine science having more of a significant participatory impact on first-year students than what is happening here.

For those students who wish to research Western Pond, here are maps of the pond's local watershed and water depths. The water depths can be used to construct a bathymetric map.


Wild Flowers in Miami's Natural Areas

Early April Flowers

Late April Flowers

Early May Flowers

Research and Discussion Topics

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Fall '98: Natural Systems 1

 2/24/98 Human Nature Proposals and Final Reports

Human Nature Project Ideas

Fall '98: Natural Systems 1

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Natural Systems 1, Fall'97 Natural Systems1,Fall'97
Paleobiology  Paleobiology
 Marine Ecology  Marine Ecology
 Climate Change  Climate Change

Independent Research

Recently renovated earth-science, aquatic research, and environmental science labs are always open for student use. Opportunities for research are abundant locally and abroad. Our recent award from Miami's undergraduate initiative " Enhancing Undergraduate Research at Western in the Environmental Sciences: Acton Lake & Surrounding Watershed " has helped support research efforts locally. A beech tree , although dead, is still filled with life. In addition, Miami University has hundreds of acres of NATURAL AREAS that can serve as research sites for a variety of questions. Here is a clickable MAP of the Natural Areas of Miami University.

Miami has 100s of acres of beautiful Natural Areas which lend themselves to research projects! (Quicktime movie~4 mb). On the same walk, I spotted my first garter snake of the spring! In another 1 mb quicktime movie, a pair of mallard ducks lands in Harkers Run in Bachelor Woods

Funding from the National Science Foundation has supported marine research in the Bahamas where many students have participated over the years. We also teach two workshops abroad each year Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica and Tropical Marine Ecology of the Bahamas. These workshops provide unparalled opportunities for students to link field experiences with guided open-inquiry. The Western College Program curriculum fosters more independent research and faculty-student interactions, and the Western Program has made a formal commitment to sustain this kind of science teaching for both science-oriented and non-science oriented general education students.

Take a "silent early spring" (~1.3 mb Quicktime) walk through Bachelor Preserve. Here is a ~3 mb quicktime movie (with the sound) of running water along Harkers Run near the upstream bridge crossing.

Honeysuckle is a serious problem in the forests of SW Ohio. This invasive species (~3.4 mb quicktime movie) is taking over much of the understory of the local beech-maple forests. The ecological effects are currently being studied by Miami researchers

Recent Undergraduate Research & Publications

Amanda and Mark work hard at constructing their sediment traps. Follow the Progress of their Western Pond Study!

High quality research is encouraged. Several presentations at scientific meetings have been by undergraduate students. To make this happen, we spend an incredible, though extremely gratifying, amount of time helping students develop high quality research and presentations. The students did a superb job! These include:

Lynch, T.*, R.H. Cummins, and M. Boardman. 1996. Spatial patchiness and taphonomy of molluscan species in a single core: Relationships in time and space, Grahams Harbor, San Salvador, bahamas. Ohio Academy of Science. * Undergraduate Student

Ison, J.*, R.H. Cummins, and M. Boardman. 1996. Molluscan predation:The record as shown in the death assemblage and how it relates to seagrass cover in a tropical lagoon, Grahams Harbor, San Salvador, Bahamas. Ohio Academy of Science. * Master's Student

Dostal, M.*, R.H. Cummins, and M. Boardman. 1996. Reconstructing benthic communities utilizing molluscan death assemblages in tropical marine sediments: the relationships among species composition, mode of life, ecological role and seagrass density. Ohio Academy of Science. *Undergraduate Student

DeVillers, M.*, R.H. Cummins, and M. Boardman.1996. The distribution of live molluscs as a function of seagrass cover in a tropical lagoon, Grahams Harbor, San Salvador, Bahamas. Ohio Academy of Science. *Undergraduate Student

Bolser, R., Cummins, R.H., and M.R. Boardman. 1991. Preservation potential of clastic and carbonate environments: molluscan size frequency distributions from Grahams Harbor, San Salvador, Bahamas. Ohio Academy of Science. Vol. 91(2):30.

Ison, J., Cummins, R.H., and M.R. Boardman. 1991. Predation in molluscan death assemblages, Grahams Harbor, San Salvador, Bahamas. Ohio Academy of Science.Vol. 91(2):30.

Ward, H., Cummins, R.H., and M.R. Boardman. 1991. Taphonomic signatures and environmental transitions in a Holocene lagoon, Grahams Harbor, San Salvador, Bahamas. Ohio Academy of Science. Vol. 91(2):30.

Carney, C., Folda*, C., Boardman, M.R., and R.H. Cummins. 1991. Petrographic examination of vertical sequences of modern carbonate lagoonal sediments, Grahams Harbor, San Salvador, Bahamas. Ohio Academy of Science.Vol. 91(2):30. *Presented paper


Natural Science Database

Amanda and Zach look like they're having fun!

Track the Latest Student Research Efforts from Start to Finish! Perhaps you have some suggestions and feedback!

Using Apple computer equipment acquired through an external grant, a student-generated database is maintained each year so future classes may access previously collected data to augment their research interests. The result is an evolving " The Natural-Systems Database " that provides the basis for progressively more in-depth and sophisticated analyses of student-generated data. A student from the class of 1998, for example, may use the "Natural Science Database" to examine previous yearly changes in the nutrient dynamics of a nearby pond as part of an investigation of the chemical and biological dynamics of the pond ecosystem. A shared, student-generated database builds synergistic interactions in the natural sciences within and between classes. Copies of each Student-Generated Discovery Lab Manual are placed in the Julia Rothermel Peer Science Center library so future classes can become familiar with prior student research.

Off-Campus Explorations

The core curriculum is being broadened to include more off-campus experiences. Off-campus experiences extend direct discovery of important natural phenomena and help foster an appreciation of the diversity of our regional and natural heritage. Possible sites for field excursions in the local area include: world-class fossil localities (the "Richmondian" and the "Cincinnatian"); a reconstruction of SW Ohio during the last Ice Age at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History; a unique archaeological/geological site that combines an ancient meteor crater with more recent native American earthworks (Serpent Mound, Ohio); the immense cave environments in Kentucky, which include Mammoth Cave; and the nationally recognized live insect collections at the Cincinnati Zoo. Longer trips may include investigations of the geology and ecology of the Appalachians, the Rocky Mountains, Bahamas , Costa Rica , Antarctica or the Florida Keys.

Natural science courses in the core curriculum are being complemented by summer workshops abroad. A sense of discovery is most keen away from the familiar. Experiences in the natural history of other lands and seas yield unparalleled opportunities for intensive education in the natural sciences that students are not likely to forget. We have offered a total of seventeen field seasons in the tropics.



We are committed to teaching writing in the sciences. In our courses writing has included naturalist essays -- free flowing writing on various topics from geologic outcrops to envisioning the moon, stars or clouds -- science laboratory reports, major research and topic papers, student initiated discovery science, and writing assignments on student-generated lab projects. Recently steps have been taken to strengthen the science writing effort by enlisting the assistance of Western College Program Writing Center in the development of student generated lab projects, essays, and other writings.

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Julia Rothermel Center for Science Inquiry

Western College Program

Tutor Duties & Expectations

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Director for Discovery-Oriented Science Instruction: Hays Cummins

The Center for Science Discovery

See the Latest Quicktime Science Center Movies

To further support student interactions in science and to strengthen the undergraduate science community, a Center for Science Discovery is staffed by students with strong commitments to science and inquiry. The center: 1) serves as an important resource for students thinking through student-generated labs or pursuing independent investigations, 2) provides a living link between the Natural Science Database and ongoing student investigations, 3) allows student tutors leadership roles in science education, 4) serves as a central hub where student investigators can use scientific equipment and supplies under the supervision of trained tutors and 5) plays a key role in the implementation of Project Dragonfly (see below).

Peer Science Tutors Andrea and Hayley play soccer outside of the Peer Science Center. Check out this quicktime movie! Say Hayley, did you score any goals for the opposition? See for yourself!

There are seven students that work as tutors, '96-'97. Four are shown below.









Western has had good success with our student-staffed Writing Center and our Center for Computer Assisted Learning. The Center for Science Discovery extends the concept of peer counseling and assistance to the sciences. Many students are more apt to discuss fears or uncertainties about science with fellow students. Also, peer tutors are good role models, evidence that science is not just dense articles in esoteric journals or vague endeavors practiced by their professors.

Student tutors in the center assist in experimental design, methods, hypotheses, data analyses, and other features of discovery-oriented student investigations. Tutors are thoroughly familiar with the Natural Sciences Database and with available scientific apparatus and supplies.

Recently, funding from the National Science Foundation has allowed the birth of Project Dragonfly. Project Dragonfly connects children (grades 3-6), scientists, teachers, and parents nationwide in a common alliance to advance and expand the elementary science experience. Our principle objectives are to involve children in the creative process of science, to help children see how science relates to their lives, to engage minority and at-risk children in science, and to help teachers and parents guide active, experiential learning more confidently.

All the learning centers play a pivotal role in the production of Dragonfly. The Science Center plays a key role in this national effort. This project provides for unparalled opportunities for our students to have a real world impact on science education across the country. In the Western tradition, Dragonfly unites the college and is a socially responsible and meaningful pursuit that may revolutionize elementary science education.

The Julia Rothermel Center for Science Discovery Progress Report



For the last eight years the Center for Science Discovery has been flourishing. Western students serve as role models and colleagues and work closely with students on their science projects, including guidance with student-generated labs. Peer Science tutors also maintain expertise on the use of science equipment in Boyd Hall and knowledge of the natural systems database. The Science Center sponsors numerous community events which are hosted by the Peer Science tutors each fall and spring. This fall, the center has been busy literally every weekday night. It has been extremely gratifying to watch the center become incorporated into Western community life. The Center for Science Discovery has had a significant influence on the improving attitudes students have regarding science at Western.

Student comments concerning student generated labs and the Peer Science Center

"I enjoyed the labs, they were different than any I had done before. I really liked the student-generated labs. It was nice to have the Peer Science Center tutors around to help work for the class and I have become good friends with the one from our class."

"I learned very much from the student generated labs--not just about my own topic but about the trials of and rewards of group work and about eveyone else's topics. Those labs are a lot of work, but I enjoyed them thouroughly."

"I usually hate science but this was one of my favorite classes so.....there you go."

Tutor Semester Duties & Expectations


A Friendly Peer Science Tutor Discussing the Moon Lab !

Our Science Center, as a result of a hefty endowment from the Western College Alumnae Association, will be offcially dedicated as the Julia Rothermel Center for Science Discovery in the fall of '97. As we start a new semester, here are some challenges I'm putting forth.

The Goals of the Science Center

I want our center to be the very best. I want it organized and I want us to be professional. And, I expect a quality effort from everyone. If we dedicate ourselves to these goals during your seven hours each week, we can move to the next level of excellence. As a reminder of the overall goals of our center, I included the wording we used to secure funding from the National Science Foundation. I hope this helps us to focus on our mission. The general goals are as follows:
To further support student interactions in science and to strengthen the undergraduate science community at Western, a Center for Science Discovery is staffed by students with strong commitments to science education. The center will: 1) serve as an important resource for students thinking through student-generated labs or pursuing independent investigations, 2) provide a living link between the Natural Science Database and ongoing student investigations, 3) allow student tutors leadership roles in science education, and 4) serve as a central hub where student investigators can use scientific equipment and supplies under the supervision of trained tutors.
Student tutors in the center assist in experimental design, methods, hypotheses, data analyses, and other features of discovery-oriented student investigations. Tutors will also accompany other students in the field and on field trips. Tutors will be thoroughly familiar with the Natural Sciences Database and with available scientific apparatus and supplies.

Topic by Topic Peer Science Center Tutor Expectations

Lab Stuff

Equipment Organization and Inventory
Every storage draw in Boyd 209 & 231 will be checked for equipment. Equipment items will be inventoried . A Master List will be generated/updated with the location of each and every available piece of equipment put on this list and on the File Maker Pro Database. Everyone will become familiar with what & where each equipment item is located. One Peer Science Tutor will be in charge of organizing this task but I expect each tutor to participate.
- An "Equipment Check-Out" Log will be updated using the File Maker Pro Database. Include the date, name, phone #, the equipment item checked out, and the estimated time of return. No equipment leaves Boyd without following this procedure.

Knowledge of Our Equipment
I expect each of you to gain a working knowledge of most of the equipment. Perhaps we could have "resident-experts" for certain types of equipment, computers, and programs. I want to see ownership and pride in what we have to offer. I need each tutor to write an "abstract" of what their strengths are by the end of the first week. We will post these writings on the lab wall with your picture and hours that you will be working.

Folks, we need to do a better job here. No food in the lab (Rm 231) from this dateforward. Get your students to pick up after themselves. Adopt a workbench and a computer-- wipe down your adoptees each week! A volunteer is needed to organize this effort.

Computer Equipment
Software management and security efforts need to be increased. I need someone to volunteer to make sure this happens.

The Natural-Systems Database

The data base is a top priority . I need one of you to take the leadership role in this endeavor. Continue on what we did last year. I want two approaches: (a) a hard-copy repository of each student-generated project organized by subject/topic in a file cabinet (soon to arrive) and (b) a computer database by title and abstract. Your ideas are welcome on how to improve this endeavor.

As of 8/97:

Communication with the Instructors and Students

Our professors and students need to know just what we have to offer them as a Peer Science Center. I want each tutor to meet with each NS1 and NS2 instructor to offer our services at the beginning of the semester--tell them what we can do to help out! Look at each syllabus ahead of time and offer to lead a seminar/discussion, particularly in NS1. And, I expect each of you to meet with your NS1 instructor ahead of class each week so that you will be informed of, and participate in, your students' work. Be aggressive! Other Suggestions: Remember, we are here to make science more accessibile to your fellow students. Find out when exams/projects are, and set-up, in advance, review sessions for the students. A computer "help night" might be offered on specific programs such as Excel, Voyager and Statview. Undoubtedly, you will have other ideas--coffee houses, astronomy, flower walks, Natural History Museum visits, etc. Then, generate a calendar for the semester with particular emphasis on Peer-Science events. Announcements should also be placed in the FOCUS. I want visibility and a presence in our community! I need a "Publicity Volunteer" for this semester to be in charge of this.

Publicity Volunteers Get the Word Out!


Other Important Stuff

Work Hours/Week

To get these jobs done and make our center a special place, I can pay you for 7 hours/week. Until these tasks are completed, I expect to see you working on them while you are in the center. There will be no unusual "down-time," except on your own time, as long as these tasks need to be completed.

Weekly Reports

Each tutor will present a weekly report on the "center projects" you have been working on. Each tutor will also maintain a log of your performance. And, you will assign yourself a weekly grade.

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