Archive for July, 2013

A Different Classroom Experience

I’m trying a new pedagogical approach to the sophomore-level undergraduate course that I’m teaching this fall.  The course is called “Systems Thinking”.  I’m trying to avoid creating a boring, lecture-driven class for one of the undergraduate required core in ASU’s School of Sustainability.  Inspired by some of the recent work in Problem- and Project-based Learning (PPBL), I’ve come up with the following alternative.  Because this is a lower-level undergrad course with a number of topics that I want to make sure we cover, I didn’t think that we (I?) could handle a class that had a very strong outward, societally-driven, real-world project at its core.  Instead, I’m trying to build a forum for discussing ideas.  I’ve implemented parts of this in class before.  Just never to this extent.

The typical class session is structured like this:

Announcements, Framing the class session – 5 minutes

Discussion Leads – 10 minutes

Think-Pair-Share – 15 minutes (2 minutes thinking independently, 5 minutes with partners, 7 minutes with a few of the groups sharing with the entire class)

Lecture – 10 minutes

Rapporteurs – 5 minutes

Concluding comments – 5 minutes


Let me expand on the discussion lead role and that of the rapporteur.

Discussion Leads

Most classes will have 2 discussion leaders.  Discussion leads will have three roles or tasks.

The first task will be to meet with me in the days before your class session, typically at least 2 days beforehand. These meetings will be short, but they will help organize thoughts on the readings.

The second part will require carefully reviewing the readings for the class session.  Leads will then write a 1-page memo on the readings, guided by our meeting and the key questions that I have identified for the class period.  The memo should accomplish several things.  First, it should provide initial answers to the questions.  Second, it should raise any questions or areas that were unclear.  Third, it should provide “access” points for a facilitated discussion in class.  Feel free to discuss any differences or disagreements that you have with the author, weak arguments, etc.  The memos will be due the day before the class that they discuss.

The third part will take place in class.  The Discussion Leads for a given class will lead the class discussion.  This should introduce the topic, provide initial answers to the key questions that I raised for the day’s readings, and bring forward any other issues.  This will cover roughly 10 minutes. This will lead directly into the “think-pair-share” period.

The Rapporteur

Rapporteurs’ tasks are to take notes at meetings of importance, such as this class.  In parallel to the Discussion Leads, the Rapporteurs will keep track of discussion in class.  In particular, they will note areas of confusion, questions that need further exploration, and important points that were raised.  After the lecture, the rapporteurs will provide a synopsis or wrap-up of the class.

Beyond the class structure, I plan to have guest speakers for a few classes to bring in real-world examples.  I also have a field trip to ASU’s Decision Theater planned (

If anyone has thoughts, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to share them.


Worldviews and the Edge of Science

I happened to glance at an Economics forum where advocates from two different sides of a policy debate continued to launch “scientific” salvos at the opponents.  The debate was about the Fed and real versus nominal interest rates effects on the market, but nevermind.  It could have been International Relations scholars debating Realist vs. Liberal policies, policy wonks from the Cato Institute arguing against policy wonks from the ACLU, and so on ad nauseum.  In my mind, this specific debate sparked a couple intertwined thoughts.

The first goes back to my academic mentor, Elinor Ostrom.  I always found it interesting, humorous, and bizarre to see various groups take her work and twist it to support their (policy) agendas.  Whether it was some of her public choice work being seized upon by right-wingers, her small-scale, development work in developing countries by left-wing idealogues, or some other mix, it amazed me to see her work cited and utilized across the political spectrum.  Each group seemed to think that she was in their camp.  This seems quite unusual with many scientists, particularly social scientists, identifying and identified with certain ideological groups.  Think about the role of several other Nobel Laureates – Milton Friedman on the one hand (right hand, as it were), Paul Krugman or Joe Stiglitz on the other (left) hand.  This lead me back to a long-running discussion with a colleague of mine as to whether these scientists would/could ever come to the same conclusions scientifically.  My colleague insists that “science is science” and the data will provide the answer.  I take the position that this may hold for a small treatment conducted in isolation, but my gut tells me that the science generally supports the scientists’ worldview more generally.

Clearly this varies across the disciplinary spectrum, but it seems likely that once we leave the natural sciences this problem becomes pervasive – compare astrophysics (perhaps less of a problem?) with sociology or political science, for instance.  To further complicate matters, scientists are increasingly taking normative positions up front.  The Society for Conservation Biology, for instance, has a mission to “advance the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity”.  Many climate scientists have similar belief systems regarding earth system science.  ASU’s School of Sustainability mission is likewise normative calling to “develop practical solutions to some of the most pressing environmental, economic, and social challenges of sustainability.”  Similarly, the Planetary Boundaries literature takes scientific research and seeks to “mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policy-makers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20 [emphasis added]”.

With these, and countless other examples, how do we reconcile our science and our worldviews?