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Why do I teach the way I do?

Akershus energipark
Touching the solar collectors at Akershus EnergiPark. Photo: Sabrina Sartori

Why do I teach the way I do?

I often ask myself how can I promote deep active learning against a superficial one.

Already five years since the beginning of the course Renewable Energy: Science and Technology! After designing it from the concept to its contents, my colleagues joke the course is like my “baby”, with my effort to make it grow up year after year. 

The class is always a good mix of foreign and Norwegian students. Some of the students are in Norway only for a semester, others are doing their master or PhD in Norway or abroad, other participants are working in a company and take this as a single course, others are looking for a change in their professions. Having students from around the world, it is of great interest to share the information the students have from their respective countries, and often this results in exciting discussions. However, besides the enthusiasm I have for the topic of the course, I often ask myself how can I promote deep active learning against a superficial one? Ultimately, why do I teach the way I do?

From front lectures to quiz

Rånåsfoss, turbiner
Learning about Kaplan and Francis turbines at Rånåsfoss. Photo: Sabrina Sartori

To keep the students engaged, my strategy is to give the lectures a certain variation: front lectures are combined with exercises solved in class and in small teams, with discussions and quiz. Part of the lecture is devoted to mathematical, physical, chemical concepts and formula, part to discuss state-of-the-art technology/devices and their evolution in time. Sometimes I show videos of the newest technology “in action”.

Visits in laboratories and power plants complement the course with the hot topics of the moment. Visits to big facilities like we did few days ago (at the power plant in Rånåsfoss, and at the Akershus EnergiPark), also stimulate a lot of interest.

My intention is to offer the students an environment where they can engage in disciplinary thinking and genuinely find inspiration to read materials in the compendium and elsewhere, to discuss and analyse current topics in a critical manner, and to use the basic principles they are learning as a source of knowledge for innovative ideas in the years to come.

Teaching-research nexus

I have been a bit confused about the definition of research-based teaching for quite some time. After recently reading some interesting papers in pedagogic research, my understanding of the teaching-research nexus has now a larger meaning, being  more a way of structuring the teaching through inquiry-based learning than a specific task. Research projects and case-study can help develop the students' understanding of the role of research in a specific discipline. This can encourage cooperation, active learning, constructing and interpreting knowledge with the research methodologies appropriate to the specific field.

In the attempt to realise this vision, in addition to what I described before, every year the participants to the Renewable Energy course are required to do some assignments. This year the students (in team of two) are writing blog posts published weekly at the page “Student voice “ of my blog. Their posts need to be critical and based on quantitative data, and regarding a potential breakthrough material or technology. The class is then involved into discussing (through peer feedback) the content of these posts, for instance analysing what would be the impact of this technology if/when adopted into the power grid, and what is its risk and feasibility, economic impact and public acceptance.

Role plays

Rånåsfoss, turbiner
Students visiting the power plant in Rånåsfoss. Photo: Sabrina Sartori

Another assignment this year has been problem solving, with the students invited to a role play. Divided in groups of five, they played a role as advisors (with five different characters) for the Brazilian parliament to help assess whether to build a new wind power plant onshore or offshore. The final outcome was a recommendation presented by each group to the entire class (the parliament) based on the discussion, data and what they have learned in the compendium about the principles of life cycle assessments. 

The engagement of the students was great, it was amazing to hear how the conclusions converged and how their reasoning – though simplified by the time devoted to the exercise – was confirmed by the papers we subsequently compared from the literature.

Here it is just a matter of being creative, encouraging the students to learn on their own, engaging them in deep thinking, learn by doing, with try/fail/feedback without any judgment, asking provocative and intriguing questions, encourage the students to compare, apply, evaluate, analyse and synthesise, but never only to listen and remember.

I have a long way to go in the never ending process to become a better teacher and scientist, but this is why I teach the way I do.

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