Considering Animals Senior Seminar

Kimberly Smith
Environmental Studies, Carleton College

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The Environmental Studies program at Carleton requires a group interdisciplinary senior project (on a theme chosen by the faculty. Fall term of senior year, majors are required to take a seminar aimed at creating a research proposal for this project, which each group will carry out the following term on their own (with a faculty advisor). I am submitting materials for such a seminar on the theme of animals.

Learning Goals

In terms of content related to animal studies, the course is not intended as an introduction or overview of the field. Rather, we will focus selected topics, with the aim of understanding how to apply basic research skills in this issue area. So the content-related goals are as follows: Students should be able to identify several important research questions in the field of animal studies; they should be able to map this issue area and explain its historical context in the United States; and they should be able to engage productively and critically with scholarship on animals from more than one discipline; and they should be able to do original research on a topic in this field.

The seminar includes explicit attention to different strategies for doing interdisciplinary research, including the use of integrative models, historical narrative, and other integrative approaches. Students should be able to integrate at least two disciplines in their research proposal. For specifics on how we evaluate interdisciplinarity, see the rubric provided in the Resources section.

Context for Use

This is an advanced course for students in a program that covers animal-related issues in many lower-level classes and emphasizes interdisciplinarity throughout the curriculum. It's intended to be no more than 25 students. They will follow up this seminar by carrying out the proposed research (in groups of 3-4 students), under the direction of a faculty member.

This is a capstone experience, so the students are expected to have fairly well-developed research skills and a broad knowledge base coming into the course. They should have had a methods course and several courses in environmental studies.

Description and Teaching Materials

The idea behind the class is to use readings from animal studies as examples that will allow us to investigate how to put together a good interdisciplinary research project. For example, we'll investigate how scholars in animal studies have used interdisciplinary research to investigate key controversies, the special challenges of finding quantitative data about animals, and the ethical considerations involved in research on animals.

Currently, the seminar is a 3-credit course meeting once a week for ten weeks, but ideally it would be expanded to 6 credits and meet twice a week. The students will organize themselves into teams of 3-4 students and produce a viable research proposal. (Other assignments include a preliminary literature review and a data report.) The proposed project must include the use of quantitative or qualitative data, it must be interdisciplinary, and it must promise to meet our other assessment criteria. (Many of the skills we focus on during the seminar won't actually be assessed until the students complete their project, at the end of the following term.)

The syllabus contains notes explaining the purpose of each session.

Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Dec10 12)

Research Proposal Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Dec10 12)
Interdisciplinarity rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Dec10 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Tip 1) The Data Report. The data report assignment may be unfamiliar. I don't have a standard format for that assignment; my goal is simply to get the students surveying the landscape of available data before they settle on a research question—so that they can be confident that the data they need to tackle the question is available. I found the reports very useful to me in evaluating how feasible the proposed projects were. However, the students found the assignment a bit difficult; the universe of "relevant data" is awfully big. I've tried to help them learn how to proceed in an iterative fashion from the literature to the data, narrowing down their focus. But I haven't found a strategy for making that process easy.

Tip 2) Reading Past Proposals. One of the most effective strategies for improving the quality of the proposals coming out of this course is to have students read proposals from past versions of the course and apply the rubrics to them. Frequent application of the interdisciplinarity rubric seems particularly effecting in helping students learn how to employ interdisciplinary strategies.


Our goals and assessment come directly from the program's learning goals and assessment strategy. But they should be adaptable to other interdisciplinary programs, since we focus on basic research skills that are used across the curriculum. I have attached a rubric for evaluating the research proposal, which is the chief product from this seminar.

The most distinctive part of our assessment is our attention to interdisciplinarity. I have included a rubric for evaluating the degree and sophistication of the project's interdisciplinarity.

I also assess their ability to work in groups using a peer review system. Three times during the term, the students are asked to provide feedback to others members of the group on their performance (the group itself comes up with criteria by which to evaluate group members' performance). In addition, each student must distribute 100 points among the other group members. The final peer evaluation affects their grade in the course. I add up the number of points each student received in the final evaluation and weight their final grade on each group product accordingly. I've used this system in several courses, and by the time students arrive in the senior seminar, they are accustomed to it and it works quite effectively in making sure everyone is contributing to the final product.

References and Resources