Soaring in the Learning Community

Patricia McKay
Biology and Environmental Science Instructor

Environmental Science is both a cognitive and sensory experience.  I encourage my students to “open up their sensory systems to the natural world around them….and learn to take calculated risks to improve their cognition through new experiences”. In kind, my students have helped me, as well as themselves grow through the reciprocal process of instruction – becoming both community mentors and learners.

Helius, a student blind from birth, demonstrated the richness in personal and community education.  Helius benefitted from the support of her parents to overcome infrastructure hurdles such as not having a Braile textbook, trying to navigate D2L which is not ADA compliant, and trying absorbing as much auditorily through PowerPoint Lectures as possible. During the semester I saw her potential and pushed her boundaries – to become confident in group work, synthesizing information and sharing her thoughts and experiences with the rest of our learning community.  She had much to teach our learning community about her challenges and assets.

To me, just walking by myself to my car at night, is a bit scary…putting me on a higher level of alert.  Helius has to confront this experience every minute of her life when she takes on new experiences.  But that did not stop her from trusting new classmates who led her into the Looking Glass River for an invertebrate sampling event.  Helius experienced the feel and sounds of a river current, and many new alien creatures that day. One misstep and she could have fallen into the river, filling her waders. This was more than some of the other students were willing to do.

The culmination of this experience in community and environmental science awareness was Helius’s capstone project.  Instead of needing to be pushed as in the beginning of the semester, she conducted a professional survey of bird calls.  She had to talk with strangers to collect the data. As part of her public presentation, she confidently played a number of bird calls – requiring the class community to identify the birds.  Helius artfully played one bird call that summed up her semester experience and reciprocal role as a community educator.  It was a little chirpy sound that most of us equated with some small bird.  It was actually an eagle. Helius aced this capstone assignment, earning the highest grade in the class. Helius was like that quiet and unassuming little bird who, in reality, truly was an eagle, mastering her environment and teaching us all that we too can overcome our hurdles and soar as a learning community.