Establishing Common Ground

Has someone more knowledgable than you ever started a conversation about something that you had no idea how to respond to? Probably not, because you’re all super smaht, but this has happened to me plenty of times.

When looking at instances like that, I could react in one of two ways: I could get frustrated and down on myself for not understanding what in the world this person is talking about; or I could try and ameliorate the situation by establishing some common ground.

I’ll back ucommon-ground-300x294.jpgp, ask them to define terms that I’m unclear about, give me context, and then we can move forward. This tactic, as suggested by Repko, is “implicit in the concept of integration” in interdisciplinary studies (129). It’s what allows humans to have productive conversations with one another, and it’s what allows the integration of disciplines.

For example, take the two disciplines of natural sciences and education, both of which are integral parts of my degree. Each have their own “truths,” or norms, realities and centralized dogmas. In order to blend these, I need to be able to understand both disciplines’ truths, and they need to be recognized by one another in a sense in order to integrate well. Common ground is a foundation for more complex ideas to stand on. With no basis, nothing can grow, which is why it’s so important to build a strong platform for these disciplines to stand on and interact.


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Uniformitarianism in Earth Sciences

What’s in a uniform? Other than, typically, pants, uniforms consist of invariability. They’re designed to make people look similar to one another. They’re unchanging and static, and aside from small changes in the details of uniforms such as the additions of buttons or collars, uniforms have been unchanging for a long time.

In science, specifically geology, there exists a sense of uniformitarianism, similar to that of clothing. Repko has identified this in his epistemological dissection of the disciplines (106). In geology, it’s theorized that the geological processes that exist today have been acting the same way since the beginning of time. Neat stuff.

So, how is this at all relevant to interdisciplinary studies? Well, uniformitarianism is a very specific concept that’s entirely relevant to Earth Sciences, and not so transferrable to other disciplines such as English or Mathematics. Upon reading this from Repko, I was a little discouraged at the lack of translatability of this concept to other disciplines. Of course I understand that geological uniformitarianism is a very small and specific concept in the sciences, but I was left with a hollow feeling that combining disciplines (what I’m doing for my degree) would leave me struggling to blend them.

IMG_6433After this confusion, I stepped back for a second and realized what Repko was doing; he was demonstrating the concept of epistemology. He was explaining and exemplifying what differs from field to field. As an interdisciplinarian, a part of me wants to deny that the disciplines I’m combining differ that strongly from field to field, because it makes my justification a little weaker for combining them. However, its these differences that should be highlighted. I shouldn’t be worried about trying to seamlessly blend these disciplines because its the unique components of each that will make my degree strong.

(The above photo is of a mesa of sandstone in Arizona – a rock structure whose geological processes are identical to those from thousands of years ago).

So, I can celebrate uniformitarianism as its own, unique concept. There’s no need to find a way to translate that exactly or relate it perfectly to other disciplines. Repko helped me understand ways to isolate these unique concepts in each discipline, allowing me to revel in their differences.


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Degree Justification

I’m picky. That’s proved to be both a blessing and a curse; on one hand, I’ve had the luxury of designing my own degree, but it’s also obnoxious (I’ll admit) that I’d rather hand pick my courses than follow the path esteemed professors have laid out for me. That’s why I’m designing a degree in Outdoor Environmental Education, which is a blend of Adventure Education teaching and facilitation courses, courses in the hard sciences of Environmental Education and Biology, and a few classes with a focus in Geographic Information Systems. I created this program when I was an Environmental Science Major with a Minor in Adventure Ed; I realized that I wanted to be an environmental educator, and so a blend of the following classes is conducive to helping me reach that goal. While having only a minor in Adventure Education would allow me to take a couple classes with a focus in teaching, it would exclude me from participating in the Immersion Semester, where I’d really hone my facilitation skills in the wilderness, which is a big part of Outdoor Environmental Education. This is unlike any other PSU program because this offers an equal blend of science and experiential education, rather than having a focus in one with a few courses in the other.

When creating a degree, it’s important to have logic and a justification behind each course that’s included, in order to form a holistic education. To begin, the course I’ve selected for my QRCO was General Chemistry I (CH 2335), which I took my freshman year at the University of New England. In this course, I developed the ability to analyze quantitative material, and use quantitative techniques to solve problems in chemistry. It was a four credit class with a lab, and the majority of the course involved experimenting, collecting data, and analyzing it through the use of graphs. I chose to include this course because it provided me with the skills listed above as well as a general understanding of basic chemical concepts. As an environmental educator, I want to have a wide breadth of knowledge, and be able to answer questions about thermodynamics, chemical bonds, and material of the sort.

For my TECO, I’ve chosen Immersion Wilderness Expedition (AP 3101). This course is part of a fourScreen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.23.35 PM.png class block in the Fall of my Junior Year, where I spend a few weeks in the wilderness. This course will teach me how to plan and prepare for wilderness trips, practice appropriate risk management, and understand technical and environmental skills. This is relevant to Outdoor Environmental Education because my classroom will likely be outdoors and I’ll need to know how to plan my lessons/trips accordingly, while implementing Leave No Trace ethics, practicing risk management, and transferring technical and environmental skills to my students.

(Above, I’m standing send from the left on a lookout on Mount Osceola, leading a trip for the SOAR Program at PSU. Hopefully, this program will allow me to lead more awesome trips like this, but with an ecological focus!)

For my WRCO, I’ve chosen Tropical Biology (BI 3210). This is a writing intensive course that prompts me to inquire about the diversity of life and the basic ecological processes of tropical ecosystems. This might seem irrelevant to teaching in the Northeast where we live in a temperate seasonal biome, but having an understanding of an ecosystem that differs greatly from our own expands upon my breadth of knowledge and can allow me to make comparisons for my students. It’s important to have an understanding of ecosystems that differ from my own because it makes me more versatile as an educator. I also someday dream of working in a tropical environment such as one in South America because I am almost fluent in Spanish, so having this background knowledge would be incredibly helpful.

Aside from the QRCO, WRCO, and TECO classes, I’ve also selected other classes to comprise my major. I’ll begin with the courses from the Adventure Education department that outline the teaching and facilitation skills I will develop. First, another course from the immersion semester is Immersion Group Management (AP 3301). As explained in the course catalog, this class “presents an in-depth coverage of the theory and applications of outdoor leadership skills and small group management.” This is essential to outdoor environmental education. The classes I will be teaching are small, and the lessons will often be taught in the field, so being able to manage groups in such a novel (but unique) setting is very important. In this class, I’ll hone my leadership styles, get a better grasp on understanding how to read group behavior and dynamics, and I will be able to react appropriately to problems that arise.

Next, is the Immersion Human Nature Relationship (AP 3201). This class encourages exploring the evolution of human’s relationship with the natural world. As an environmental educator, not only am I teaching scientific concepts, but I’m encouraging and guiding students to accept and appreciate their relationship with nature. This will heighten their fascination with the harder science concepts, and allow them to feel closer to nature, which will greatly enhance their learning.

            Lastly, is Teaching Theories and Methods (AP 2210). This class has me developing lesson plans and teaching the skills to classmates, learning physical, cognitive and affective methods of instruction, group management and learning assessment. This is a really significant course because I’m learning how to create engaging, experiential lessons, which are exactly the types of lessons I’ll be planning and implementing as an environmental educator – a field that is entirely experiential.

            Aside from the dense selection of Adventure Education courses in which I’ll be honing my skills as an educator, I also need to have the knowledge of the concepts I’ll be teaching. I may know how to make a lesson plan for teaching the Nitrogen Cycle, but if I don’t understand it fully myself, the lesson will suffer and the students won’t learn as much. For the “science” component of this degree, I will or have taken several classes in Ecology, Biology or Geographic Information Systems. Ecology is an important field to understand because it outlines relationships in nature which are important for students to recognize. Biology is significant because it dissects the concepts from ecology and demonstrates them on a cellular level. Geographic Information Systems is a complex topic, but is important to understand; it is a progressive field, and students can apply a lot of the ecological and biological concepts or interests they might learn by utilizing the technology that Geographic Information Systems can provide.

IMG_4051To begin, I have taken a Practicum in Field Ecology (ESP 2100) at the University of New England, where I trapped, tracked and collected data on Grey Squirrels around campus. I learned how to handle wildlife, dissect scientific journals, and analyze data that I collected manually. These are important, practical skills that will be essential should I assign any field reports or data collection and analysis for students. I’ll be able to explain them fully, since I had such an immersive experience myself.

(Above is a picture of one of the many squirrels we tracked and trapped).

I’ve also taken Intro to Geological Sciences (ESP 2150). This class prompted my investigation of earth’s geosystems, where I identified minerals, keyed out different rocks types and fossils, and used basic geological instruments for measuring. Having a basic understanding of how the Earth formed is essential. I will be able to recognize the pattern of Earth’s geological processes when I’m teaching in a certain area, and I can convey this to students so that they can recognize examples on their own.

Next, I’m currently taking Natural History and Ecology for Adventure Educators (AP 2500). While this is technically an Adventure Education course, it focuses on ecological concepts, rather than any educational skills. In this class, I’ve developed species identification skills, and I’ve enhanced my flora and fauna classification experience. It’s provided me with a foundation of environmental literacy, which is something that is emphasized heavily in environmental education. I want my students to be able to classify species, identify them by asking questions and using field guides, and essentially develop the ability to “read” the environment on their own. This class is helping me learn just that, which I’ll be able to convey to my students easily.

I also plan on taking an upper level biology course called Conservation (BI 3240). This course examines the interdependence of all species on Earth, global economics, consumption patterns, and cultural diversity. Not only will I be learning some of the nitty gritty biological details, but I’ll be developing an understanding of how economics and culture affect the preservation of land and species.  Being an environmental educator means having an understanding of the physical environment, but it also means emphasizing in a subtle way the current environmental issues (such as barriers that suppress conservation). I should not only understand a species role at an ecological or biological level, but the role it plays in a global context, and what steps humans are taking to alter that role for the better.

Another science course that will add to my environmental literacy will be Current Environmental Issues (BI 4800). This class is discussion based, and prompts students like myself to consider the world’s most pressing issues and what steps we can take to mitigate the risk of complete destruction. I can teach my students about these issues, and challenge them to think of ideas about how to help their community, if even on a local scale. It’s this type of urgency that surrounds the environmental issues that is important to instill in students, and this class will give me the tools to do so.

Lastly are the Geographic Information Systems courses, or GIS courses for short. The first one is Introduction to GIS (GE 3370). I will learn about the design and implementation of GIS software as well as gain some experience operating the equipment and applying it to real-world problems. As aforementioned, GIS is a complex skill that, at first glance, doesn’t seem to fit well with the young population of students who are typically taught by environmental educators. However, it’s likely that I’ll be using GPS’s at many points, and in order to better explain the technology behind the equipment, I should have an in-depth understanding of the software it takes to design and create the maps in GPS’s. Also, this field is ever progressing and is one of the most important tools used in environmental science. Not only will these skills help me produce materials for students, but I will be able to help develop their own.

            Two classes that build off of Intro to GIS are Advanced GIS (GE 4270), and Introduction to Air Photo Interpretation and Remote Sensing (GE 3350). Advanced GIS emphasizes the organizational and legal context of GIS use, professional issues and


CC BY 2.0 Eric Fischer – Here’s an example of something you can make using GIS Software

communication between different GIS software and project implementation and management. As I mentioned, I want to have an in-depth knowledge of this material. Also, before I start teaching, I have a desire to do some ecological research so that I am versatile and well rounded as an educator, and I’d like to use this equipment to do such research. This course will help me develop the skills needed and the familiarity with the GIS software I’ll need to carry out the work I want to do before I become an educator.

Introduction to Air Photo Interpretation and Remote Sensing (GE 3350) is a more specialized GIS course, and involved the interpretation of aerial photographs, satellite images, and other remotely sensed data. This unique skill would be helpful in assisting me in complex research before I start teaching. I could use these skills to monitor Wildebeest migration in Africa, assist in environmental land planning, or anything in between. That way, when I start teaching, I’ll have a breadth of experience to draw from, and could even teach these skills to my students. For example, if we’re out on a trip, we could perform an ecological assessment to identify which areas are most ecologically valuable.

There are two “other” courses that I think will be helpful for my degree. The first is a special topic in Hospitality and Tourism Management called Ecotourism (TMP 3000). This well help me market myself as an environmental educator, and should I decide to take my teaching on the road or develop a unique program, I’ll have a foundation for doing so. Some day, I’d like to teach in a remote location, or possibly become a guide at a national park that gives tours about the ecology and natural history of the location. This class is a great match for those interests.

Lastly, I would like to do an Independent Study (4910). I would do this with Christian Bisson, an esteemed professor who has extensive experience in environmental education. We would develop a plan of study where I would read and analyze popular theories and philosophies of environmental education, and I would create my own teaching philosophy. Having my own philosophy is important because it keeps me grounded and rooted to my morals and what I believe is most important as an educator.

My program is interdisciplinary because it blends three diverse fields into one, practical degree. It calls upon the use of multiple intelligences, an essential component of interdisciplinarity. I’ve involved courses that invite the use of logic, such as the GIS upper level classes, and I’ve also included more creative classes such as Teaching Theories and Methods. This will propel me towards a future in environmental education because I’ll have developed a strong foundation in experiential education teaching strategies and philosophies, and I’ll have a solid understanding of the scientific concepts I’ll be talking about to my students. The GIS classes are supplemental, and will help me land jobs in research after college, while I hone my “conceptual” knowledge first before I try and convey the information I’ve learned to young students. I think it’s important to have experience outside of teaching so that I can bring more to the table as an educator. I think I’ve designed a degree that’ll do just that.

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