Campus & Community

Fresh approaches in teaching

8 min read

Arboretum class explores science as Darwin did, in an example of College’s commitment to new ways of learning

As she maneuvered a small dish under a microscope, Anna Lea Albright watched a computer screen, carefully scanning the image until she found what she’d been looking for: a tiny, nearly transparent bulb branching from the filamentlike green strands of a plant sample.

Called a bladder, the bulb was actually the “mouth” of utricularia, one of dozens of species of carnivorous plants described by famed naturalist Charles Darwin.

As William “Ned” Friedman, director of the Arnold Arboretum and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, watched over her shoulder, Albright carefully focused on a single bladder, and used a digital camera to capture the image.

“This is great. This is the bladder here, and these,” Friedman said, pointing toward several nearly transparent hairs sprouting from its edge, “these are the hairs that trigger it. That’s a carnivorous plant. Isn’t that beautiful?”

“That’s amazing,” Alright said.

For students in Friedman’s freshman seminar, “Getting to Know Charles Darwin,” the up-close-and-personal view of the plants was one of many varied classroom experiences designed to give students a hands-on sense of how Darwin developed his theories of natural selection and evolution. Along with reading excerpts of his published works and private correspondence, students make numerous field trips — to the Arboretum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and to a local pigeon fancier — where they see those concepts in action and recreate many of the naturalist’s observations.

Incorporating hands-on, experiential learning with rigorous classroom study, it’s the sort of innovative approach that Harvard has striven to support in recent years, the sort that will play a central role in The Harvard Campaign for Arts and Sciences.

Though Friedman could easily teach the class from a lecture hall in Cambridge, he said that traveling to the Arboretum and looking at the same sorts of organisms that Darwin studied serves to enhance the educational value in a way few other things can.

“This is experiential, it’s the real thing,” he said. “For the students, it’s as though they’re there with [Darwin]. It’s completely unfiltered. They’re not reading a biography. We’re giving them the same items Darwin looked at, and then we’re reading his letters. It gives them a very direct connection with this material.

“Having this teaching lab here in our greenhouse opened the door for these kinds of educational experiences,” Friedman added. “When we put this together with one of Harvard’s most prestigious and unique collections, it gives students a unique set of opportunities.”

Other faculty members in disciplines from human evolutionary biology to entomology have brought classes to the Arboretum to use the collections and the classroom space.

“From my perspective, it’s wonderful to have this FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] lab here,” Friedman said. “It’s an ideal synergy between the students on campus and a part of Harvard that wasn’t as tightly integrated with teaching and education as it could or should be.”

That educational opportunities like those at the Arboretum exist, Friedman said, is a credit to FAS Dean Michael D. Smith and FAS Dean of Science Jeremy Bloxham. Both have been vocal supporters of innovative teaching approaches in the classroom, and supported construction of the teaching lab at the Arboretum as a unique pedagogical space.

“Originally, there hadn’t been a plan to have any undergraduate teaching here,” Friedman said of the Arboretum. “But one of the things I’m very interested in is integrating these 281 acres into the Cambridge campus. So I was able to work with Dean Smith and Dean Bloxham, and together they created a set of funds to build these unique learning labs. Everyone involved embraced the vision we had, of adding something special to Harvard undergraduate education.”

Friedman’s class is an example of the unique learning opportunities that make a Harvard education special, and Smith said Harvard’s dedication to pedagogical innovation should not end at the Harvard Yard gates.

“Teaching and learning are central to our mission, but this is also a particularly important time for Harvard’s voice to be heard on this subject,” Smith said. “There are a number of questions being raised about higher education’s place in the world today, and I absolutely think Harvard should be a leader in answering them.”

Historically, Smith said, Harvard has been a laboratory for innovative thinking about education. For instance, the 1945 publication of “General Education in a Free Society” (also known as the “Red Book”) influenced high school and college curricula around the world for generations of students.

That same spirit of creativity continues through the work of faculty members such as Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, who often takes small groups of students on walks, or Associate Professor of Anthropology Matthew Liebmann, who gives students an idea of the challenges faced by early humans by giving them hands-on experience using ancient hunting weapons, or Jennifer Roberts, the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, who encourages her students to engage deeply with art objects by assigning a project that involves sitting in front of a single painting for three hours.

To help other faculty members develop new approaches, Smith in recent years has strengthened the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, which acts as a clearinghouse for the latest research into the science behind learning, as well as being a center to help train Harvard faculty and graduate students and hone their teaching skills.

“You can think of it as a sandbox for innovation in teaching and learning,” said Robert A. Lue, the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and a professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology. “Ultimately, it’s a place where faculty — junior and senior — as well as graduate students can come and develop new ideas that build on the foundation of what has been validated by research. We want to be a convening center that can create opportunities for faculty to dream big and push the envelope, but we also want to create an opportunity for them to assess whether they have met their goals.”

“This is a rare moment, where our understanding of brain science and of how technology and the Internet are transforming classrooms have come together to give us a deeper understanding of how our students learn, and the most effective ways to teach them,” Smith said. “Our faculty have seized that opportunity, and are poised to revolutionize the way we think about higher education in the future.”

As part of the Campaign for Arts and Sciences, which launched on Saturday, the FAS aims to raise $150 million to support Harvard’s efforts to continue leading in learning.  Harvard’s teaching strategy has three main components: direct investments in faculty activities, programs that support faculty innovation and share best practices, and infrastructure to help faculty teach in new ways.

Funds raised through the campaign will augment the activities and research of the Bok Center, HarvardX, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Learning Incubator.  Additionally, the campaign will provide support for the FAS community’s teaching and learning enterprise, including the development of courses and innovative teaching techniques, interdisciplinary collaboration, undergraduate research programs, classroom infrastructure, laboratories, and modern technology.

For students like those in Friedman’s course, Harvard’s dedication to innovation in the classroom means one thing: better, more enjoyable classes.

“This class is great in the sense that you feel like you’re placed in Darwin’s shoes,” said Ioana Dobre. “He was looking at these plants through microscopes, and now here we are looking at the same things and trying to make the same sort of observations. It feels like we’re taken back to the time period when Darwin was doing this, so we can feel how he would have felt.”

“It’s really cool,” Albright added. “Last week we were here at the Arboretum studying twining plants like hops, and we were able to see how they grow in their environment, and rub them together in our hands and smell them. So we were actually using all our senses in a way.

“This gives me a greater respect for Darwin, because in his book he said he measured these bladders to within 28 1/1,000ths of an inch. But when you’re reading that it doesn’t resonate with you in the same way it does when you’re observing it yourself. This is just really, really fun, and Professor Friedman is awesome. He has so much enthusiasm, you always leave his class happy.”