Let me set the scene.
We’ve been collecting debris for two hours along a 100-meter wide swath of Menamkulam beach in Kerala, India. The group, masters and PhD students from the University of Kerala, pose for photos, laugh and joke around. We’re hot, sweaty, and glad to be done with the job. The beach was littered with debris when we arrived, but now it is clean. It’s a small victory considering India’s 7,516 km (4,671 mile) shoreline, but it feels good to have accomplished so much in a short time. We’ve pooled together more than seven large jute sacs of waste.
It is a record surf this week, with two meter high waves thundering onto shore. One wave crests beyond the normal tide line, pushing forward to where we stand. The students scatter, someone mock screams, and we all laugh. Then we look down. The large wave has deposited more plastic waste onto our clean bit of beach. We stop laughing, grab the rest of our gear, and return to the University.
I’ve been working for about fifteen years on global water policy, with projects in the Netherlands, Finland, Kenya, India, and a handful of US states. I’ve been collaborating with students to collect data on marine debris since 2015. Using experiential learning, I try to empower students to understand the problem and work to solve it.
Am I blind to the negative aspects of experiential learning? Traveling beyond the classroom enhanced all of my undergraduate degrees—whether the social sciences, arts, or sciences.
I can close my eyes and in a moment be transported to a field trip I took with one of my mentors, an ethnobotanist who walked us through the graveyards of Charleston to point out the cultural significance of the plants growing there: flowers for remembrance, evergreens for everlasting life, or species symbolic of someone’s homeland.
I could never forget visiting printmaking exhibits at the Gibbes Museum with my etching class. How else to know how an artist approached a problem than by seeing the lines they made, feeling the movement of their strokes, smelling the ink and paper?
For science classes, the experiences are too numerous to count—whether collecting snakes and amphibians in the Francis Marion forest or traveling to a sandy field by Patriot’s Point to find solitary wasps.
To my mind, fieldwork helps students understand complex problems, challenges them to apply what they have learned in the classroom, and creates indelible memories of learning.
But in a study I conducted on my own students in Connecticut in 2016, I found that while their knowledge and behavior scores increased in a statistically significant way during an experiential course, their attitude scores did not. Think about that. They had more knowledge about marine litter at the end of the course. They reported changes in behavior; but their attitudes did not improve by much. I compared them to another class that didn’t include the same experiential treatment (because that’s how scientists do). While my group fared better than the comparison group in knowledge and behavior, the comparison group’s attitude scores improved much more and the change was statistically significant. Their attitudes changed. Why wasn’t this true for my students?
Beach cleanups are a powerful way to teach students. We use scientific methods to collect data and then share the results with policymakers so they can craft policy that fits local conditions. But could it be that it’s not that simple? To my mind, seeing a problem first hand, leaning over and picking up shards of plastic piece by piece—this is a valuable teaching tool. But what if a student sees the problem up close, imagines the beaches of the world and the debris accumulating there, and is more depressed than galvanized?
As teachers, researchers, citizens… how can we find the sweet spot of communicating the dire state of our environment while instilling hope for long term sustainable solutions? How do we show the world the problems without depressing them? Does it balance on the knife-edge of acknowledging reality while not accepting it as inevitable?
I don’t know the answer. It may be unknowable.