Brian T. Johnstone

my little space here on the web

Integrating Knowledge – The Art and Science of Nature

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Bucks County Community College is home to a team-taught, writing intensive program called Integration of Knowledge (INTG).  Content for these courses varies by instructors.  We conduct a course called “Art of Science and Nature.”  It is the aim of this course to help students foster a sense of caring for the natural world around them (biophilia), to develop observation skills, to both draw and write about nature, and to advocate for the natural world in a meaningful way.  Together with my teaching partners, Caryn Babaian and Marian Colello, I have been teaching this course for several years.

Our course is taught as a “Hybrid” section, meaning we do not gather weekly in the classroom.  Rather, we gather a few times throughout the semester for orientation, lessons, progress reporting, and a final poster session where students share what they did in their group advocacy project.  The rest of the time is spent working on individual assignments or working on the group project.  We utilize the college’s learning management system to facilitate weekly discussions, collect written essays, and hold regular communication with one another.

The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner serves as our text for the course.  Discussion is utilized in this course to tie text material with student’s everyday understandings and beliefs about the environment and Biophilia.  This text was selected to encourage thought and open discussion.  Each chapter requires students to not only read opinions concerning the environment, but also to consider and respond, through thoughtful discussion, to serious environmental pollution challenges that our world is experiencing.

INTG classes require students to work in groups.  Our Group Advocacy Project has been designed to incorporate service learning while focusing on environmental challenges.  Students have the opportunity to determine what topic they would like to advocate for, and then strive during the semester to gather background information, consider the challenge and design an advocacy project that impacts issues of pollution, animal abuse, restoration and reconnection through education.

Through experience essays, students must write about observations from various ‘experiences’ as well as explore some analysis from varying points of view—cultural, social, and scientific in particular, as well as spiritual, emotional, and other viewpoints.  Sometimes our experiences may cause a “wound” within us when we visit polluted places, damaged places, or institutions such as overcrowded animal shelters.  Other experience may fill us with a sense of wonder about the natural world when we visit forests, preserves, or other natural places.  Some papers are based entirely on the exercises found in Buhner’s book; all papers are designed to focus student efforts on a particular experience.

A nature journal requires students to develop visual literacy.  Exercises help students both observe and draw what they see.  Students are not evaluated or critiqued for their artistic abilities.  Rather, it is the aim of the visual literacy sketchbook to open the mind of the student to a deeper level of observation of the world around them.  By putting pencil to paper it forces you to view what it is you are drawing in a new way.

I think our particular INTG course is very successful.  Students especially like the Group Advocacy Project because, unlike other group projects where the goal is to create a paper or presentation on some topic, this project has students out in the world doing something that they feel makes a difference.  This can pay huge dividends.  Students feel proud of their work and it’s something they can carry on if they desire.  Further, successful projects generate artifacts in the form of feedback from the community including letters from college administrators, members of congress, and the community at large.  These artifacts, along with the individual student work, are hallmarks of the success of this course.  I think it is very evident that by the end of the course the students have fostered a better sense of biophilia and an appreciation and respect for the world around them.

While it’s not possible to completely sum up student response to the course, I leave you with some student comments from the end of the Spring semester.

  • At first, I thought this class was going to just be another ordinary class, but once I started reading the text and participating in the discussions…I knew it was much more. The experience essays and helped me see myself, as myself, flowing through time. It even helped me reach back to my inner child that has never died. That alone made this class worth the time.
  • This class has really been eye-opening to both the outside world, and the ideas I have and have newly formed.  Working as a group has given great perspective into the thoughts and feelings others have about the relationship between humans and nature.
  • I think this course was really interesting.  The weekly discussions really brought a lot of thoughts to mind that people don’t ordinarily think about.  The group advocacy project had the same effect.  We had to think of something to advocate for, and once researching, I really learned a lot of new things.  I didn’t quite understand the extent of the problem before the start of this project.  Being able to see what all the other groups did, and learn about their causes was great too.
  • I liked this class very much:). I think it made me feel differently about nature and environment in which I’m living. I enjoyed doing group project, because gathering together outside of school, and meeting almost every week was amazing… Our group was the best!
  • I would first like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this class.  The weekly discussions were rather interesting and insightful.  The experience essays and the sketchbook allowed us all to take a step outside of the box and look at things differently.  And this group advocacy project really taught us how to take charge of an issue.  I for one enjoyed working to make a change in the community; it was really interesting to see how people responded to our task.
  • This class taught me a variety of lessons. The most important lesson I believe was the importance of nature and the environment. I no longer take those things for granted and have learned a greater appreciation for nature.
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One thought on “Integrating Knowledge – The Art and Science of Nature

  1. Brian,
    I think you did an excellent job of describing the class. Didn’t know you had this website! Buhner has another really interesting books on plants called “The Secret Teachings of Plants,” which discusses how human physiology is synchronized with plant physiology and this just confirms the evidence for medicinal plants. Very nicely done.

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