Thursday, October 4, 2012

Teaching Ecology as an English Language Course: Project Snow Leopard brochure

Final products of 'Project Snow Leopard' Brochure

As I have said, my students are mostly non-science students, thought some clearly have more background than others.  It turns out that the Biology students have a schedule that is different than the students who are taking a language curriculum  and their schedules conflict with the time of my classes and so I don't really see them.

The other challenge is that even if they could attend my class, they are not good English speakers and apparently are intimidated by the prospect of trying to understand in English so they do not tend to participate in courses offered in English..  I know it is a challenge for the University to try and incorportate English into the other curriculua since the default language for international publication and communication is English.  Its a big discussion here at Gorno-altaisk State and also, I think I understand correctly, a directive from the Federal Government to Universities to step up the learning and incorporation of English into programs.

This is Vasil. He reminds me of some of my PSC
students. He seems to know quite a lot of the ecology and cultural ecology of the Altai, he is currently not attending classes because he has a job taking a group of German and British Hunters out in the Moutains on an expedition. He has a family to support and has to take such opportunities. His English is very good and he really participates in class

We have it so easy in the English speaking countries!! I often feel embarassed that other cultures work so hard to learn English to be successful globally and we hardly incorporate other languages into our educational systems, because we dont HAVE to.  Case in point; I , who speaks no Russian (well I am trying hard... more on that in another blog) and only a smidgeon of French and even smaller smidgeon of Spanish (4 years of Latin is the best I did), have the great opportunity to come to Russia, work with students and have colleagues for 3 months.  If I were a native Russian speaker with no English.. I would not be able to come to the United States in the same capacity because no one speaks Russian (or most other languages for that matter).  Hmmm , I feel really lucky, but seems like there is some great inequality there....

Tak (so), back to my class and the challenge to improve English skills while engaging students in my passion and mission here - Ecology...

Here are the objectives I gave my student on the first day of the course:
Course Objectives
Upon completion of this course, students will be able to / по окончании данного курса слушатели смогут:
·       In English, describe the variables that influence the distribution and abundance of organisms / описывать факторы, влияющие  на распределение и численность организмов, на английском языке;
·       In English, define some concepts that are central to the understanding the study of ecology / давать определения ключевым экологическим понятиям на английском языке;
·       Practice reading, discussing and analyzing published papers, in English, from ecological studies / читать, обсуждать и анализировать научные статьи из англоязычных изданий экологической направленности;
·       Link ecological concepts and knowledge to the process of developing simple hypotheses that can be tested with empirical data collection / устанавливать связи между экологическими концептами и теоретическими знаниями и процессом разработки простых гипотез, которые могут быть проверены при помощи эмпирических данных;
·       Conduct a simple ecological inquiry (study) and draw conclusions from the data they collect including simple correlations and relationships among ecological variables using a statistical program/ проводить простые экологические изыскания (исследования) и делать выводы, основываясь на полученных данных, включая корреляции и взаимосвязи между экологическими переменными факторами, используя статистическую программу

 Lucy and Alice (from  The Snow Leaopard Conservancy in California) had just been visiting the University and met with some students at the time of the Snow Leopard Festival that I took part in and wrote about earlier.  A Snow Leopard population exists in these Altai mountains, and so I was keeping with my desire to teach ecology 'in place' and address my third teaching objective - "Practice reading, discussing and analyzing published papers, in English" (which I think also allows for the learning of concepts and definitions fundamental to Ecology) by choosing a conservation biology paper describing and reporting on  a program to help protect farmers livestock and the tiny remaining Snow Leopard population in part of the mountains in Pakistan.
In the interest of full disclosure and in case you are interested, Ive included the link below.  It is an interesting paper and not hard to read.

Protecting the Snow Leopard and Enhancing Farmers' Livelihoods

Author(s): Shafqat Hussain
Source: Mountain Research and Development, 20(3):226-231. 2000.
Published By: International Mountain Society

 I explained to the students, that while this was not a science paper per se, it would be easier to read.  I also explained that having science knowledge doesnt make change, it only informs change.. Change only comes when we use our knowledge of ecological problems and link it with human psychology and reach people where they are.  You have to address peoples problems if you want to make progress on environmental problems.

Erlan and Vasil develop their brochure
My goals were to have students read, and understand the article, choose important informational points that justified the study and then have them develop ( in groups) a hand written three fold brochure that could be delivered to another village (with the cooperation of the village government) to convince those villagers to be involved in the insurance program that would pay them back or their predated goats, and reduce retaliatory killings of Snow Leopards by the farmers

DAY 1 - Reading the Abstract. and locating important points in the article
All the students had been sent a copy of the paper, but, like many of my PSC students, neglected to bring it to class, though they were asked to:-).. so we made a couple copies and I put up the abstract on the smart board at the front of the class... I asked students to work in pairs or groups of three to read the abstract together in English and find all the words they didnt know and come up and write them on the board.. some of the words were:

There were maybe 10 words that we needed to define and I needed to explain - which was fun - and then we read together, me at the front of the class pointing at the words and explaining...

After we had the general idea of the article and what it was about, students worked together for the rest of the class to cruise the paper and look for important justification sentences in the introduction to use in the developent of the brochure next class.

DAY 2 - Making the brochures - good old fashioned paper, scissors, glue, regular and colored pencils, and figures and pictures cut from photocopies.....were the materials I brought and what we used for class. Once the students got going and gained confidence, it was really fun.

Elsa (my daughter) and Vika and Masha (Masha is 15 and comes from the secondary school) discussing their brochure

The final brochure of Beckjon and Mirlan (not pictured here)

 I still have to give feedback on photocopies of the brochures, correcting sentence structure, adding articles (since Russian has no articles (the , a ) they are often left out...
I think this would be a good activity for entry level science students as well.  Shouldnt we be improving our English, writing and organizational skills in all our disciplines.. I will use this type of exercise again in my own classes someday:-)



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