When one thinks of attending a “lecture,” what often comes to mind is an old white man standing in front of a chalkboard droning on in a monotone voice about some obscure corner of existence with little real-world relevance to the lives of the audience. This does not sound fun. And, I expect, that that old white man would be pleased to know that it was not fun, for his corner of existence is serious, very serious indeed.
While this may be the image that still is conjured up in my mind from time to time when I think of lectures, in reality, I have had the great fortune to sit through some amazing lectures, given by engaging, enthusiastic professors, some of whom were old, white men! The enthusiasm of some of these lecturers was what encouraged a passion for entomology within me, and many of my classmates. And, as an aspiring educator-to-be, I am inspired by their example.
Unfortunately, the lecturers that have been truly engaging and exciting in my life are few and far between, their impact like shining stars engulfed by the unmemorable void of droning “educators.” I cannot speak to what would lead someone to pursue a life of education if they cannot themselves find a reason to crack a smile once in a lecture or raise their voice above a hoarse whisper.
I get it, lecturing can be hard. Sometimes it feels like you have given this lecture 1000 times and you just cannot muster the energy to be excited for this 1001st time. But believe me, if you are feeling bored, your audience will pick up on that and return it to you 100-fold. Something that has worked for me in my, admittedly brief, experience as a lecturer, is to use a common method for reengaging the audience that can also help re-engage you. Every 20 or so minutes stop the lecture. Take a break from talking and ask the students some questions, or show an interesting, short, video clip, or have an activity that can make what you are saying to the students more real and tangible.
As I said in my last post, experiential (active) learning is not a new concept for our species, and it works wonders for conveying what facts actually mean. As an example, I have been developing a class project for an intro to entomology course that revolves around the creation of a trading card game (think Magic the Gathering for insects). This game would reflect, as well as possible, how the natural world of insects works. In a basic sense, there would be predators, herbivores, and parasites and they would have to interact with each other in a sustainable way with regards to the limited resources available in whichever habitat the players have chosen for that session (jungle, desert, field, etc.). Players would gain points for such things as having their predator consume another player’s herbivore, or for the number of offspring their parasitoid fly can produce. The game would begin with a few simple interactions, and throughout the semester, students would work in teams to create cards and game mechanics that would reflect the concepts we discussed in class. The game would get continually more complex, with cards based on real-world insects and situations (such as global climate change and invasive species), serving not to frustrate the player, but to impress upon them the interconnectedness of our natural world. A couple times each lecture we would stop and discuss, by consulting the students, how this concept could be applied to our game, and what unforeseen consequences of any new interactions could arise. And, every so often, a day of class would be devoted to test-driving our game and discussing what does and does not work and why.
I have yet to implement this game-design aspect into a real-world class, but I have a pretty good feeling that it could work, in tandem, with conventional, but exciting, lectures. Games engage the human mind in a way that straight problem solving simply cannot by providing a fun, and interesting, method to reach a specific goal. Playing games can unite people from a diverse range of backgrounds that otherwise would not ever interact, and, if designed well enough, can continue to be fun for years to come. Added to that, games can be iterative, and, if the game is successful enough, I envision an online-playable version that alumni, as well as current students, could continue to add to and engage with as research in entomology develops, and new, incredible, stories of insect behavior are discovered.