In my professional career, I have been a Professor, a Consultant, a Corporate Head, an Entrepreneur and have worked with UN Bodies, Governments and Financing Institutions across the world. Amongst all these roles that I played, it is teaching that has given me the most satisfaction. Teaching to me has always been a joy – and a never-ending opportunity for learning. You feel blessed.
I remember days at Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay where I was a lecturer in 1984. All of us, as teachers, used the blackboard then with a box-full of chalks to “construct” what we wanted to say and “communicate” to the students. Use of Overhead Projector (OHP) and the plastic foils was just emerging.
Using the blackboard required teachers thorough understanding of the subject, confidence or the command to convince and of course the creativity. There were no “props” like the plastic foils where the content to be spoken was already written. You needed to ensure that your writing on the blackboard is neat and in the right font size so that it can be read by a student who is sitting on the last bench. You also needed to draw well, especially the diagrams and use chalks of assorted colors for the required emphasis. A big advantage of blackboard based teaching was that it made the students write and take their own notes as you erased the board once done with your point or topic. Today students are not simply writing!
OHPs are now replaced by LCD projectors where teachers use PowerPoints, animate the slides and insert videos to make teaching interesting. This is great. But still, I find writing on the blackboard very effective and challenging. You feel more of an Actor in the classroom as your voice modulation, pauses, movements across and towards the blackboard matter.
When you draw a stretch of river and show discharge of untreated wastewater and then “narrate” what happens to the Dissolved Oxygen (DO) profile by drawing the DO-Sag Curve, you essentially build the “situation” step by step. You speak as you draw. The communique to the student therefore “brews”. Its not the matter like instant coffee!
Well you can do this rather dramatically with the help of animated PowerPoint slides. But to me developing the situation real time on the blackboard is like offering a freshly squeezed juice as against providing a canned juice! The fizz of the subject is simply lost when you have something already prepared or cooked that you many a times “mechanically” deliver.
I remember each time I taught the DO-sag curve, the visualization on the blackboard was different – as ideas came to my mind on “real time”, sensing the pulse of the class and more so as I kept on learning. In this process, many “lateral” questions used to come up as I would sometimes show a case of Sag going below 2 mg/l of DO and then question the students whether the first order kinetics of BOD degradation was still valid. On some occasions, I would invite a student to draw DO sag due to discharge of a non-point source such as fertilizer laden runoff from agriculture fields. Posing these situations would make students a bit uncomfortable, but then such “expansions” created ground for me to slowly build the complexity of water quality modelling beyond the basic equation of Streeter and Phelps. This matter was however put rather logically and humbly!
When we talk about complexity, teaching subject like environment, requires out of the box thinking on part of the teacher and an innovative strategy. The sheer complexity and uncertainty of environmental science is really exciting to teach. Nexus is the crux that needs to be “taught” and that is where a teacher is needed to introduce the relationships, generate discussions and motivate building of scenarios. It’s the free thinking that is to be introduced. The cross-connect in teaching environmental management of today and for tomorrow is to emphasize on the nexus. I hate teaching in silos like air pollution, water pollution, solid wastes etc.
Nexus is best communicated through story telling. You don’t start teaching atmospheric chemistry of smog formation first – instead you tell the story how the flights to Delhi in the winter are significantly delayed. And how these persistent delays affect people’s lives and the economy. Then ask why does this happen? The story “compels” the students to unfold the science behind the smog episodes and so the relevant chemistry comes in.
You tell the students a story where recycling of plastic was used to make toys for toddlers. Isn’t recycling of plastic waste a clever idea? You ask the students. In this story you then tell how the recycled plastic when used to make toys led to adverse impact on the neurological functions of the toddlers who loved to chew these recycled toys ! These adverse impacts were found much later. Well these adverse impacts could well be questioned and argued. The probable reason was the use of flame retardants in the used plastic that had remained “unabated”. The story illustrates the case of ”irresponsible recycling” and throws up several technical and policy related matters for a discussion.
A teacher is needed to tell such stories in the right or clever sequence pointing out the science, economics, social concerns, policies and of course the politics behind. Imagine if a teacher uses a bank of 30 such well identified and researched stories to “teach” students a full course on environmental management. While stories open up the minds and makes one aware of the realities; the underlying science is read by the students as essential supplements – but not in the class but “off-line” – by reading notes, research papers on googling the web. Meeting in the Classroom is to get narrative of the story from the teacher, discuss and appreciate complexity of the subject to understand the nexus and multiple or different points of view. I enjoy teaching when I run a course full of stories. And indeed, this is close to the “flip” method of teaching.
I have prepared a matrix of “teaching stories” covering local, sub-national, national, regional and global scales across various thematic. Examples in the thematic of air pollution-health-economics nexus are
- Did Substitution of Petrol by CNG in Delhi work at all? (Local scale)
- Asia Brown Cloud over East Asia – Is it a significant issue? How much has it affected the health and economies of the ASEAN? (Regional scale)
- What are the new challenges due to phase out of ODS, especially on the formation of Short Lived Climate Pollutants? (Global scale)
We have several newspaper headlines and articles on such questions and they often become the starting points of the stories.
But teaching does not have to be only in the class room. A lot happens when you take students on a field trip that is well planned. These field trips or “yatras” provide great experiential learning opportunities, in a group, and often in an implicit manner. So, if you organize a field trip to Ralegaon Siddhi (a transformed village in the State of Maharashtra in India), students understand the linkages to the development and environment and the complexities. They experience the story. Perhaps in a course of 36 lectures on environmental management, spending weekends at 4 interesting locations for such learning will be very effective.
I must tell you about my experience and experiment at one of the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCB) in India. When the Member Secretary (the Administrator) of the SPCB asked me to train some of Boards staff, I told him that I would do this a bit differently. I asked for a desk on the first floor to sit and parked myself there. “Let me first be part of your staff Sir” I told the Member Secretary.
On the first floor, I was in a room of few Senior Environmental Engineers. One of them was Bala. I saw a heap of files on Bala’s desk. I noticed that Bala stayed late every day clearing the files and carried several files home in his car. He looked stressed.
I walked up to him next day and talked to him about his problem. “Is there a way that we could make three heaps, one heap of files that requires your priority attention; one that is of cases that do not need your attention and your sub-ordinate can manage and the third heap that is simply not relevant to you and hence is to be returned”.
“Oh, you have a point Dr Modak, my assistant stacks all the files as they come in. Can you help?”
There was a blackboard in the room which did not seem to be used much. I walked to the blackboard and started ideating the schema of prioritization for applications made by the industries. As I started developing the criteria, Bala joined and started commenting and making suggestions. Others in the room noticed this discussion and pulled their chairs around us. It soon became a classroom of “students” and I was the “teacher”.
In the next two hours we developed a schema that Bala and his assistant could use to stack the files in three heaps. I then unfolded the science behind and exposed the team to some of the criteria and tools used by other regulators in the world. When we ended the session with a tea, few asked me for some reading materials. Next week onwards, Bala’s desk had only one heap of files and he did not carry files home anymore.
Member Secretary understood my method of teaching. He asked me to move and take a table now on the second floor! “You may like to teach there like you did on the first floor” He said with a smile. Thats the joy of teaching.
I wish my “last lecture” is in a room with a blackboard with students sitting around me – eager to learn. I will enjoy teaching them through “story telling” and it will be a great joy to see their faces getting slowly illuminated. This makes life worth living.
God – bless me please.
Cover image sourced from https://ctl.yale.edu/teaching
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