Making and Sustaining Change
Consideration of context
Karen: At Reynolds, I am the sole full-time geology faculty, and my primary peer interactions are with other science faculty who teach in biology, chemistry, and physics. When I started the SAGE 2YC: Faculty as Change Agents project, I realized I would have to consistently think with a broader perspective. I have considered how I could adapt the content I was learning to share with my science peers, while still striving for connections with other geoscience faculty at other VCCS institutions and beyond. Since this project began soon after I entered my position at Reynolds, participating in this project has helped me to feel more connected on campus. I have been able to identify myself as someone willing to engage and share in conversations about effective ways to reach our students, particularly within a STEM framework.
Lynsey and Pete: Over the past four years at Thomas Nelson we established new, permanent leadership at the Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Science and Engineering Technology levels. We were fortunate that our administrators saw value in learning about our SAGE 2YC experiences and recognized our interests in enhancing our students' education and opportunities. Although we were both at TNCC, they are based at two different campuses approximately 45 minutes apart. The students and resources at each campus are different, which could in some ways compare to Karen's experience as a sole geoscience faculty member. However, we also had the advantage of pooling together our efforts and resources to reach a broader audience of students and faculty through joint committees and campus events. Another fortuitous development at TNCC during this project was the college's interest and efforts in general education. Lynsey played a significant role in researching general education evidence-based practices and helping to introduce, establish, and infuse these evidence-based practices throughout the curriculum and across the institution. In many cases, research-based teaching strategies and examples of how to facilitate change at an institution, gleaned from SAGE 2YC experiences, were complementary and valuable in her efforts.
Things that worked well that we would do again
Karen: I believe my greatest success related to this project has been the intention that I now apply to my teaching. While it is all certainly still a work in progress, I have discovered ways to be much more reflective about my courses. I more deeply consider why I present material in certain orders or contexts, how I attempt to engage students through different active learning methods, and what I want students to be able to do and understand upon course completion. And I try my best to actually communicate this to my students as we go along. Just this last week, a student noted during lab, "This all just makes sense, how we saw those sediments under the microscope last week, and now we are talking about the formations on the map, and then we get to do the field trip...cool!" Additionally, I would say that I have a greater confidence in my teaching abilities, and my understanding of current topics in higher education. Together, these have led to increased opportunities for leadership (serving on various internal and external committees, as coordinator of the Honors Program), which has extended my professional network among geoscientists and other academic colleagues across the state. Finally, I feel in many ways, this project has allowed me to feel more connected to students. I've always taken an interest in getting to know the folks I spend several months with each semester, but I find myself more open to considering the impact of their perspectives and experiences on their education, asking for more specific feedback when activities go wrong (or right!), and strongly urging interested students to consider careers in geoscience and then connecting them with resources to find out more.
Lynsey: Like Karen, I think my greatest successes are related to my teaching. I say greatest because I've seen the impact that even small changes in my teaching have had on students, and students have been very forthcoming in sharing their insights and experiences as well. While I know the overall project focused on work in three arenas (our classes, our institutions, and our region), the biggest and most visible changes have been in the classroom. Interestingly, though, I think these changes are having an indirect effect on the institution. I have had a number of students express sentiments like the following, "Why is this the first time I've ever heard about metacognition?" and "I wish other faculty would talk to me about these things." The students, well not all, get excited about learning new strategies that help them succeed, they like the increased interaction with their peers and the instructor, they appreciate engaging with each other and thus learning about each other and different perspectives, and they are surprised at the diversity of geoscience careers. And they want more! Thus, they talk about it, and share it with other faculty too. It is almost like a very slow grassroots change at the institution that is being student driven, yet since we've had the opportunity to engage with colleagues about the same topics, they are also slowly starting to be more willing to try new things too. I think by working in the three arenas a broader, institutional change is starting, albeit slowly, and it might just stick because more students want it and more faculty are willing to try it, particularly since other college initiatives are also happening concurrently, and we, as change agents, know it works, so I see positive changes on the horizon.
Pete: There were several key aspects that led to success with this project. First, Karen and Lynsey were inspiring to work with at all stages of this project. I appreciated how we could feed off of each other's ideas, brainstorm about ideas, and then put those ideas into practice. I was often reminded of how special it is to find colleagues who bring out the best in you, provide motivation, and elevate your efforts. Our partnership will remain as one of my most valued professional experiences of my career and I cannot stress enough the importance and benefits of seeking out supportive, collaborative, and professional colleagues. Secondly, we had access to high quality resources through workshops, books, and articles which emphasized research-based evidence. Importantly, we also had face-to-face interactions with faculty who were motivated with the same values of wanting to improve their teaching, their students' experiences, and the broader geoscience community as a whole. Thirdly, having a focus on change and impact at different scales (classroom/program/institution/region) was a helpful way to organize ideas and efforts and to strategically plan where to place efforts, especially over the duration of four years. Finally, the project leadership provided excellent support by breaking down tasks, fostering meaningful experiences (workshops, both in person and virtual), and offering guidance at all stages. Their support was comprehensive, yet provided the space to tailor efforts to our specific communities.
Supporting faculty change
Karen: From a broader perspective, one of our regional goals was to foster more interaction among VCCS geoscience faculty. I do think that we have had moderate success in getting folks together at our various workshops over the past four years. Our peers will engage if we reach out with personal invitations and work within the frame of existing professional development opportunities.
Lynsey: Our institutional peers are much the same, in that they were receptive if we initiated the contact and organized all of the activities. We were available to help, but assistance was not commonly sought.
Pete: We promoted our activities through personal invitations and broader email "blasts." Having a dedicated website for workshops was valuable because it helped us (the facilitators) articulate exactly what we wanted to convey, and it provided a structure for participants to use afterwards. All faculty that participated in our workshops were engaged and I was most surprised by the number of faculty outside of the geosciences (and science, in general) who participated, especially at our on-campus events. There was generally little interaction with faculty afterward, but based on evaluations, I believe these helped increase the visibility of the Geology Department as a whole, and highlighted our personal interests in sharing evidence-based learning practices to our community.
Strategies for overcoming challenges
Karen: Time has been my biggest nemesis while participating in the Change Agents project, and I certainly haven't overcome this yet! There are always too many ideas and not enough time to explore them all, but this project has given me a better sense of how to focus on the changes that will have the biggest impact. For example, adding more active learning strategies in the classroom (and changing them up periodically) helps students learn and helps me avoid burn out. Another personal challenge I have faced is my general desire remain purposeful through the change—but sometimes, you have to just jump in! I have been wanting to revamp the "walk through time" part of historical geology for years using a "spheres" approach with focus on the lithosphere, biosphere and atmosphere. The time needed to really think this through has been holding me back. However, based on conversations in a Change Agent discussion group last fall, I decided to take the leap this spring with very little lead time to my changes. While it has been an admittedly rough first pass at this restructuring, students are enjoying the material and have been providing me with useful feedback as I continue to improve the new approach.
Pete: I think our greatest asset in overcoming all challenges was our team. No matter the scale of setback, I found that we were able to calmly and strategically work through all challenges. Sometimes this took the form of simply talking through frustrations with minor logistics, other times it required more comprehensive thinking and developing a timeline of approaches/interventions to address our concerns. I also found it valuable to draw on our "champion team," which was a suggestion shared early in the SAGE 2YC program.
Lynsey: Several factors, common to 2YC institutions and out of our control, served to challenge our opportunities for making and sustaining change. They included declining enrollment and thus a budget shortfall, diminishing support for professional development opportunities that required travel, and a turn-over in administrators. However, the work we did was acknowledged, and verbally supported, but it was difficult to make changes on a larger scale within the institution and initiate new activities outside of our department. To help offset this, and still engage with colleagues, we decided to connect our regional events with pre-existing opportunities. This was one of our greatest successes, and we will continue to offer some similar opportunities at events like the Virginia Geological Field Conference and Virginia Community College System sponsored annual events.
Things to think about before you start this type of project
Karen: One of the most surprising, yet disappointing, aspects to this project was the acknowledgement that not everyone back home would share my enthusiasm and willingness to try new things in the classroom. Some folks just aren't going to change. The goal is to align yourself with colleagues who share your vision, help foster the culture you want to create, and together, you work within your zone of influence, however far-reaching that may be.
Pete: Find excellent team members and partners. With whom do you easily and comfortably work? Who complements your leadership styles, values, and skill sets? Are there other resource groups on campus with whom you can partner to receive support (e.g. student support services, student affairs, learning resource center)?
Lynsey: Be realistic! Not everyone will be as excited. I won't have time to re-do all of my classes every semester. And, that is okay. Small, sustainable changes will make a great impact, and we've been able to see that play out!
Karen: One of the most successful aspects to our Change Agents efforts has been the student career mentoring workshops in advance of the Virginia Geologic Field Conference. It is our intention to continue to organize these with collaboration of the officers of the VGFC.
Pete: Our institution's development of a Center for Teaching and Learning will likely sustain not only the information and strategies that we've learned, but also maintain and develop the momentum we've developed exploring how best to support our students, be it through specific study tips, increased opportunities for student engagement, professional development experiences for faculty and beyond!
Lynsey: Yes, and yes! Looking forward to continuing this work, and working with a great team in Pete and Karen!