28 April 2008

Science-in-Society (NEWSSC08): Teaching & Engaging Across Boundaries

It felt good to come back, like coming home. Two years ago, I attended the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change; the theme was Ecological Restoration as Social Reconstruction. That workshop helped frame the National Science Foundation-funded research I am doing on citizen participation in developing Superfund remedies, and it also profoundly changed my attitude & approach toward teaching.

This year, the theme was "Teaching & Engaging Across Boundaries."

The workshop is an intensive 4-day experience with about 14 participants. We workshopped together from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, and then spent several hours at our joint supper, followed by an evening group activity or two. The Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is a great place to host this workshop--quiet in the off season, a small & cozy village that lives for science, and even in the few minutes when you're "off-duty" you will run into the other workshop participants. We slept in double-rooms at Shope dormitory, and it was warm enough that we could eat our take-out meals from Captain Kidd's in the picnic area next to the Eel Pond:

The day's main activities took place primarily in a small room in Lillie Hall:

Workshop duties -- meal takeout for lunch and supper, regulating the time for sessions throughout the day, cleaning our room at day's end, etc. -- are divided so that it is, as faciliator and founder Peter Taylor calls it, a "self regulating workshop." My job was fetching beverages for supper, so that helped get me out on an afternoon walk. I like taking in the feel of the place, such as this "squid art" gate on one of the MBL docks:

The typical humble homes of Woods Hole:

And the beautiful but simple/low maintenance landscaping:

Even the cats of Woods Hole have the wise gaze of a serious scientist (T.S.Eliot forgot to write about this one!):

Each morning, breakfast began with a 7 a.m. walk to Pie in the Sky for coffee and a bagel (the place also has outstanding bakery treats), and there were invariably several other workshop participants there:

The weather was perfect (60s deg F, sunny, gentle breezes), which made it a bit difficult for EcoRover to be in an intensely interactive, indoor setting most of the day. We worked our butts off, as you can see by this typical individual session around the table. Ouch, my brain is sore! [left to right: Amy Lesen, Erich Schienke, Lee Worden, Paul Erikson, Mary McGuire, Jeremy Price, Wendy Hamblet]:

A brilliant element of the workshop is the "office hours" concept, where participants sign up to talk about their teaching or research with other participants. Office Hours normally are in sessions of two people, but occasionally there's a group of three [JoAnn Oravec, Kurt Jax, and Marisa Santos Matias]:

Each day is mapped on a posted page. In part it is scripted by the pre-planned agenda, but much of what happens is based on ideas or plans that emerged in prior days from participant-generated activities (that self-regulating workshop idea, again):

The workshop stresses careful listening and full engagement [Douglas Allchin, Peter Taylor, Kurt Jax, Wendy Hamblet]:

Even during breaks, everyone tends to stay very engaged -- either in small groups, or in working through their own thoughts about what just happened or is scheduled to happen next:

As a participant generated activity, my small group modeled a Forum Theatre exercise. As might be expected, a serious play about the moral obligations of physical & social scientists to various stakeholder groups among the post-Katrina citizens of New Orleans also led to some good (and funny!) improvisational theatre [Wendy Hamblet and Erich Schienke]:

Peter Taylor has a certain genius for organizing the workshop, and it includes one day with a few hours on the beach. We drove to the nearby Nobsca lighthouse:

Hiked down the rocky shore:

Past tidal pools:

Filled with snails and barnacles:

And then to the sandy beach. Where some brave souls bared their toes/soles to the gentle (and surprisingly warm) waters [here, Amy Lesen]:

I waded in too, and had this gorgeous jelly swim past along the bottom, then come up to have a look at me (well, it seemed that it was looking at me!). It's moments like this of deep engagement with nature that make EcoRover's life worth living:

The last night, participants had a superb last supper at the upscale (for me) Phusion Grille (great wine, but yikes does the beer list suck!). Our large group ate out on the deck where it was a bit chilly (note the coats) [Marisa Santos Matias, João Arriscado Nunes, Erich Schienke, Douglas Allchin]:

And the final goodbyes and group photo [Jo Ann Oravic had to catch an earlier flight, and is missing from this photo]:

For those who want to know more about the Science-in-Society workshop, I can offer a short list of my own perspectives on what happened, why it was important, and how it affected me:

1. The international character of the workshop: Marisa and João are from Portugal (Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra); Kurt is from Germany (Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, and Department of Ecology with the Technische Universität München); Wendy is from Ontario, Canada, and is now with the University Studies Department at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro; and Peter is from Australia and now with University of Massachusetts-Boston. In our day-to-day academic lives, we get very ethnocentric about the meaning of environment, ecology, teaching, political engagement, and other interests. Intense and meaningful interaction with persons of other cultures helps disabuse me of my dull ethnocentric practices.

2. The interdisciplinary character of the workshop: For example Douglas is a Science & Technology Studies prof with the University of Minnesota, and most participants did share some interest in and experience with STS. Others, however, brought great interdisciplinary perspectives, such as Mary's work in public history, Wendy's understanding of the philosophy of violence, and Jo Ann's experience with business, economics, and creative communities. The range of creativity and intelligences of the group was amazing, and every interaction seemed to fire neurons that I didn't know I had.

3. The diversity & good will of the participants: Well, we were all white and of European descent, but there are other kinds of diversity. In part, these were covered by (1.) and (2.) above, but there is more to it than that. I've been in other so-called workshops with diverse smart people, but often times things didn't go so well: big egos dominated the sessions, faciliators talked too much or misunderstood participants, or it all felt like "workshop in a can, just add hot water..." Here, the mix of young and old (well, middle aged anyway, I guess I can admit to that) along with the interdisciplinary mix really seemed to work for us. This must in part stem from a good selection of participants, those who are open to what might happen. For example, Amy was very strong in this regard, and could draw on her New York City to Woods Hole to New Orleans experience and bring insights to whatever was happening at any given moment. And Erich's challenging critical attitude never let naieve assumptions pass too easily, helping press all of us to be clear about how and what we valued in the various sessions.

4. The mix of techiques with which Peter structures the workshop:
Peter has spent much of his academic life exploring reflective, critical, and creative thinking, and how these things work out in pedagogical settings. Along the way, he has built up an awesome tool box. He brings structure to the workshop, but also seems to know when to let things happen. Well structured techniques such as "dialogue and dialogic discourse" help make these unexpected but fruitful things happen. A lot of Peter's success is, I suppose, rooted in tacit knowledge. But he could write a great Idiot's Guide to Self Organizing Workshops.

Over the next year or so, slow learner that I am, I'll probably digest this a little better and process it into my teaching, research, and life. For now, I'm thankful for the experience, and there are of course student projects to advise, final grades to submit, graduate candidate defenses to chair, and committee work to be done.

1 comment:

Jan said...

Thanks, Pat - after reading your insightful and wry account of newssc08, it felt as though I had been there too! But now that I've read more of your blog - I see that you are indeed a wonderful writer on all kinds of subjects. Your description of the workshop activities really captured the intensity and camaraderie that make people want to return to Woods Hole again and again. Best wishes from Jan (newssc '06 and "07)