I’ve been talking about the importance of leaving room for topics that students are really interested in for a long time. Today, I want to tell you about my first experience with this:
Back in 2012, in my first year teaching the “introduction to oceanography course”, a student came up to me after the first lesson and told me that she had a part-time job in a company that builds oceanographic instrumentation: She had spotted one of the instruments the company sells on one of the slides with research cruise pictures that I had shown for motivation and could add some details on how it works. I was obviously excited to hear about her experiences and asked a couple of questions, so after a short conversation about how we both thought that knowing about practical aspects of how measurements are done is super excited, she invited us to a guided tour in her company.
A couple of weeks later, the whole class went on an excursion — with packed lunches and the whole class-trip feeling — and my student’s line manager and the student herself gave us a tour of the company. We got to see a presentation as well as doing a tour of the labs. Especially the labs were cool: My student was wearing the special kind of shoes that allowed her to walk wherever she liked, but the rest of us had to stay within narrow walkways that were marked on the floor with yellow tape so as to not bring any electric signals too close to sensitive instrumentation (or something like this, this was a loooong time ago!). And we got to see how the kind of instruments were produced that we would use on our own student cruise in this course only weeks later!
Even though I can’t remember the technical details of what we were told there (but I DO remember how they had different standards to calibrate turbidity meters with and I thought that was sooo fascinating), I vividly remember the excitement of the class, but most importantly the pride of the student who got to show us her company. The next year we went back with the next class I taught, and it was again exciting, but there was something really special about making time and going to the hassle of driving out to visit the company of one of the peers in the class.
So what I try to do now is to create this excitement and feeling of relevance because we are talking about something that came from within the group of students, by opening up opportunities where I explicitly ask for suggestions. I reserve parts of the class specifically for whatever students want to talk about, and whenever students show a special interest in a topic, I am happy to re-arrange my plans to make time for whatever is on their mind. This does get me the occasional “the red thread of this class wasn’t always clear” comment in evaluations, but I think it is so worth it (also I’m working on making the red thread clear when I return to it after any detour I might take to follow student interest ;-)).
What do you think? Have you tried this and what were your experiences?