Experimental Learning in NRS
Traditional classroom teaching will continue in subject areas where it works best. Most faculty believe that for any area of academic focus, a core body of knowledge must be learned by students, and often that core is best delivered through traditional lectures and labs.
Our new curriculum, however, emphasizes experiential learning, and includes bothextramural opportunities (internships outside of the University) and intramural opportunities (research apprenticeships and teaching practicums within the University). Internships with governmental and nongovernmental agencies and private industry give students an accurate window on what professions in Natural Resources are really like, and provide valuable contacts with potential employers. Intramural experiential learning includes opportunities for undergraduate students to interact with researchers and educators within the University. Students will work alongside professional researchers and educators in our department and function within the context of a “vertically oriented team.” Such teams are composed of senior scientists, research associates, graduate students, senior-level undergraduates, and lower-level undergraduates. Undergraduates contribute to the team’s efforts and learn from more senior workers on the team. Through the establishment of a new set of experiential learning courses, an appropriate amount of credit is given to all undergraduates participating on a team. Students are allowed to take up to 24 credits of experiential learning courses, as well as taking courses that have “hands-on labs.”
Throughout their 4-year curriculum, students benefit from setting their owneducational and professional goals and from reflecting on how they are proceeding toward those goals. Students work with a coordinator and an academic advisor to set their objectives and goals, and then periodically reexamine these and make mid-course corrections as they proceed through college. Each student produces his or her own “Professional Development Portfolio (PDP).” Included in PDPs are a statement of goals, an Experiential Learning Curriculum Plan that the student has formulated, and examples of her or his academic work.
Synthesis of knowledge is the fourth component of our curriculum. A designated set of courses with “hands-on labs,” along with new capstone courses, provide a nexus of knowledge for students. Students are required in these courses to bring together knowledge from a variety of subject areas to address real-world problems and issues.
The freshman year represents a critical opportunity for linking students and faculty, and for beginning each student’s professional development. All Freshmen entering the University who have declared an NRS major will participate in a special course, NRS 101, Issues and Inquiry in Natural Resources Science (1 credit). The course is held the last 7 weeks of the fall semester, and is designed to follow the existing 7-week course, URI 101, Traditions and Transormations: A Freshman Seminar. Freshmen taking NRS 101 are introduced to the research, outreach, and teaching mission and activities of the Department, and interact with faculty and staff on a weekly basis. Also, Freshmen begin to formulate their Professional Development Portfolio with the guidance of the Experiential Learning Coordinator.
NRS 101 includes a day-long field experience in late fall at the W. Alton Jones Campus of URI. During this inquiry-intensive experience, students will actively participate in 2 to 3-hour modules on various NRS topics such as:
- interpreting soil profiles
- introduction to field ornithology
- forest ecosystem processes
- ecology of soil microbes
- a primer on wetland ecology
- citizen water quality monitoring
- introduction to New England’s mammals
This field course gives Freshmen direct and immediate exposure to NRS faculty and graduate students, its courses, research programs, and outreach activities. The Freshmen field day may have the added benefit of giving greater relevance to basic science classes that students take at that stage of their education.
NRS 101 is a stepping stone towards a career in the environmental sciences. Students get firsthand exposure to inquiry-centered learning, and begin to accept this learning style. NRS 101 also provides initial exposure to what the Boyer Commission said was crucially important: “new stimulation for intellectual growth and a firm grounding in inquiry-based learning and communication of information and ideas.” NRS 101 excites Freshmen about the wealth of academic possibilities offered by the NRS Department and serve, as the Boyer Commission Report stated, as a “bridge between high school and home on the one side and the more open and more independent world of the research institution on the other.” The course also creates connections between freshmen and NRS faculty who tend to teach more advanced courses.