"I hate Mulinia!" Katherine declared. It was a typical Tuesday afternoon in Invertebrate Paleontology lab, and the students and I were pouring over a vast array of 2-million-year-old fossils from a local outcrop.
McKenzie commiserated. "I know—I've counted over a thousand Mulinia this afternoon!"
"If you want to ID these last gastropods, I'll switch to Mulinia," Lisa offered, "if that's OK." She looked at me.
"You guys can organize your team however you want to get everything done," I responded. "Remember, you need to finish species identifications this week so I can check them. There are only a few weeks left to tabulate and analyze data and test your hypotheses. And you need to share rough drafts of your sections with your teammates and me so you can make revisions."
I was getting nervous. For 10 years, I'd included a semester-long authentic research project in this undergraduate course to promote student learning. I'd also used the student-collected data in my own research.
Each year, we collect samples of fossiliferous sediment, and students extract and identify the fossils. Each team develops hypotheses and collects and analyzes data to test them. Students collaborate to write a research paper and present the results orally. Finally, several students present our results at a professional meeting. There's always pressure to produce publishable data, but this year was worse. When University of North Carolina Wilmington initiated its Quality Enhancement Plan on applied learning, I jumped at the chance to refine my approach by adding intentionality and critical reflection components. Invertebrate Paleontology was chosen to pilot our QEP, and my colleagues were watching closely. Although I'd already published my pedagogy in the geoscience literature, I wanted to demonstrate its potential across disciplines through UNCW's Applied Learning and Teaching Community. The class would figure prominently in QEP assessment.
But the samples weren't cooperating! I was alarmed when we sieved the sediment and found the most discouraging fossil assemblage in 20 years of incorporating research in my classes. Among more than 60 species to be identified were thousands of nondescript Mulinia a few millimeters long.
"Let's have a contest to guess the number of Mulinia," John laughed. "Winner gets an A!"
"I'll take the winner to Denver to present the projects," I said.
"Ha! You know we're going regardless!" Tim retorted.
Ultimately, despite counting 23,276 Mulinia, students remained enthusiastic and a majority of the class presented posters at the national Geological Society of America meeting.
My educational contributions include pedagogical publications; helping develop UNCW's freshman living/learning community; and developing a general education Evolution Transdisciplinary Theme Cluster. I directed our Evolution Learning Community (2006 - 2009), which observed Darwin's anniversaries with more than 100 UNCW courses, study abroad and continuing education courses, lecture series, art exhibition and theater productions, among other activities. I've directed a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and a National Science Foundation-funded program involving minority middle school classes in authentic research. These contributions are enormously satisfying, yet my work mentoring students provides the greatest fulfillment. I love sharing the excitement of my field, stirring students' curiosity, enabling them to learn by doing, teaching them to think critically and question conventional ideas. In the classroom, the field, even traveling to professional meetings, I am always teaching and learning.
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