The problem that natural resources Professor Jim Lassoie and Ph.D. student Jamie Herring set out to address is one of the most fundamental in all of education: How can teachers motivate students to understand the immediate, concrete importance of the things they're learning in the classroom?
The solution Lassoie and Herring came up with is both simple and effective. Their Conservation Bridge website introduces current, real-world problems -- from Ithaca, N.Y., to Yunnan, China -- through short, high-quality videos and then allows students to work directly with the conservationists in the field trying to solve those problems.
"These aren't our stories; they are cases developed by the practitioners," Lassoie said.
Though only a couple years old, the model has already been recognized by external funders, independent education experts and higher education colleagues. And the benefit flows both ways: Students gain valuable experience while conservation professionals receive hours of free research time conducted by the students.
"The practitioners we work with tend to be isolated and very, very overworked. The opportunity to do scholarly Internet research is just really difficult for them; many in developing countries don't have high-speed internet access," Lassoie said.
Herring creates the videos. He came to Cornell with a background in new media, video and website design, and he travels the globe, collecting stories that span ocean management in the Arctic to integrated conservation development in Africa.
"I think students, especially at Cornell, really want to feel like their work is relevant and what they're doing actually means something," Herring said. "So in terms of motivation, I think it's been key for students to contribute to somebody who's working on a really important project."
Lucia von Reusner '12 has used Conservation Bridge in two courses, including her natural resources capstone course. She and three other students worked with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Skagit Valley, Wash., which has been trying to balance the conflicting needs of farmers and migratory birds. Von Reusner's group helped identify potential solutions, holding regular Skype calls with the practitioners throughout the semester and presenting a PowerPoint to the TNC team at the end of the term.
While von Reusner had used traditional case studies in other classes to develop "theoretical, and thus often idealized, solutions" the Conservation Bridge case studies she worked on "just felt more grounded in reality."
"I thought it was very helpful to talk with practitioners throughout the semester for reality checks along the way and to direct us to variables we might not have thought of," she said.
Edu Inc., a not-for-profit education research group, has evaluated Conservation Bridge using such factors as whether students had increased understanding of key concepts and greater confidence in their ability to understand complex issues. The organization found that Conservation Bridge's real-world case studies improved student learning, said Douglas Spencer, president of Edu Inc. Students were more motivated and engaged.
"Students' analyses were much, much deeper and more complex," Spencer said. "They saw issues as more open-ended. They had a much greater understanding that you need a multidisciplinary approach to solve difficult conservation issues."
Eventually, Lassoie hopes Conservation Bridge will become organic and self-sustaining, with professors and professionals all over the world seeking to connect for everyone's benefit. Lassoie's project has won three competitive grants so far, and when his group queried 125 U.S. environmental science faculty members, 35 responded that they're interested in developing cases for Conservation Bridge and/or using its cases in their teaching.
"This is my passion," Lassoie said. "Over my career I've done extension, I've done administration, I've done research, and I've done teaching, and Conservation Bridge brings all of them together."
Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.