Faculty Spotlight: Professors Sharon Akabas and Eleanor Sterling on Creating a Collaborative Course Environment

by | Jul 11, 2018


After teaching their Food, Ecology, and Globalization course for several years, Sharon Akabas, Associate Professor in Pediatrics and The Institute of Human Nutrition at CUIMC, and Eleanor Sterling, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, had begun to notice recurring trends. Their students entered the classroom with varied backgrounds in science education, which led to large differences in their students’ knowledge and skills. The issues presented in their class —for example, the connection between agriculture and climate change—didn’t lend themselves to easy “right answers,” and many students struggled to learn and apply the skills to address complex social issues.  

As recipients of the Provost’s Hybrid Learning Course Redesign and Delivery award, Akabas and Sterling redesigned their Food, Ecology, and Globalization course by increasing emphasis on a “flipped” structure that incorporated group and collaborative hands-on learning exercises. By introducing new tools and conceptual frameworks, they were able to help students acquire the information and skills to assess science-based claims and information as future professionals.

Describe the course you teach at Columbia. What aspects of the course did you want to improve or change?

Sterling: Food, Ecology, and Globalization was taught from 2011–2015 as a broad survey course for science and non-science majors with a focus on the inter-related factors that influence how humans produce, market, use, and dispose of foods and the implications of diverging choices across many scales.

The redesign sought to address two recurrent challenges in the course. One was the need to develop process skills in many students, such as systems thinking and critical thinking, that would help students in identifying the links between the various topics presented and in critically evaluating related evidence. The other challenge was that the course attracts students with a broad range of content backgrounds, especially varying backgrounds in science.

It was your first time using video in the class. What was it like making your own videos?

Akabas: We were very deliberate in creating the video used in class. Biotechnology and genetically modified organisms are complex and contentious topics. We wanted to give students a solid background in the science underlying these topics before they came to class, as well as the social, political, environmental, economic, and ethical aspects.

Drawing from extensive research on the topics, we designed a video that lays out the technical aspects in a matter-of-fact way. We used a pre- and post-class quiz to gauge how students responded, and found that that every student showed learning gains between their assessments. During class, we discussed some of the most common misconceptions addressed by the video. Students then incorporated this scaffolded understanding of a complex issue into their analysis and group presentations on the topics.

How did you structure the course and the assignments to develop systems thinking skills in your students?

Sterling: Understanding the complexity of current social and environmental issues requires that the next generation of graduates possess systems thinking skills that allow them to integrate concepts across disciplines, understand the structure and function of linked human and environmental problems, and identify leverage points for system change.

In our course, we scaffolded content in key systems thinking concepts like complex adaptive systems, interrelationships, boundaries, feedback loops, emergence, and leverage points alongside content in food and food systems. We introduced students to habits of systems thinking as well as systems thinking methods and tools, starting with relatively easy techniques and then moving on to more complex methods. Both in class and for their assignments, students used the systems thinking tools and skills they had been building to tackle societal-scale questions about food systems.

Students responded positively to this approach, and many expressed interest in the multidisciplinary applications of systems thinking. They articulated ways they would use these skills and tools in their academic and professional work and also share what they learned with others beyond these settings.

In addition, we felt that it was important to focus on building skills in critical thinking and evaluating evidence. Students built skills in researching primary literature, evaluating claims and arguments, and assessing evidence. They used these skills in the assignments and reflected on their progression in journal entries over the course of the semester.

You’d tried group work in the past and had run up against some challenges. How did you overcome student reluctance, establish guidelines for group work, and create a collaborative course climate?

Akabas: We focused on creating varied groups, sorted by students’ experience and self-identified confidence in the course subject matter. When we composed the group we tried to emphasize the fact that we all have gifts and the more varied the gifts in the group the better the outcome of the group. Many of the classes had opportunities for students to work together and understand things at a deeper level. For our final project which was a group assignment, we scheduled regular check ins with groups to gauge not only progress in their assignment but also group dynamics.

How did you devise task-oriented activities for in-class time?

Sterling: In order to build a foundation for the entire course, we introduced students in the first class to the concepts of metacognition, learning about learning, active teaching, and student-centered learning, and we referred to these foundations throughout the semester both in lectures and in instructions for journals and other exercises.

We integrated task-oriented active learning approaches in class and assignments. For example, in one class, students did a snowball activity focused on specific claims relating to a study about food and the environment. We posed the real-life context that we face as professionals, “You are an expert not affiliated with the studies. A journalist has called to get your reaction to the claim. What would you say?”

We had pairs of students discuss the claim and then sequentially form larger groups to deepen the discussion and arrive at a consensus statement within a group of eight. Most students really enjoyed this class. They found it to be dynamic and challenging, and it allowed them to broaden their thinking by debating with others but still be focused on the task of the consensus statement.

What were the lessons learned or take-aways from your course redesign experience? What advice would you have for other faculty?

Akabas: The institutional support we received, particularly in the form of regular meetings with our CTL project lead Amanda Jungels, was instrumental in our successful redesign. She was able to review materials, provide resources to help with pedagogical framing and practical advice, and critically evaluate our progress throughout the semester. Without her support, we would have faced many more challenges during the semester.

We also benefited tremendously from our participation in the 2017 CTL Active Learning Institute in advance of the course. It was absolutely critical for us to step back, leverage the principles of backwards design, and map out the class and assignment structure.

Do you have any teaching tips for faculty who are team-teaching or working with other instructors?

Sterling: We love working together and Sharon is unbelievably smart and caring so that helps in any team teaching. I miss her when we are not teaching together. We also had phenomenal help from our TAs.

Team teaching does not mean serial teaching. We attended all classes we could, sitting along the side but interacting as appropriate while the other professor was leading the class. Sharon and I have very different knowledge sets but we are curious about learning from each other and often did so in front of the students. This modeled real life where we don’t have the option to know everything but instead need to be open to learning new perspectives and to courteously providing different perspectives on the same topic.

We both knew what was going on throughout the entire course and we shared observations on how our hands-on activities were doing, on students we thought could use some additional attention, on how to best support the TAs, etc. We worked together to standardize grading responses.

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