CTE Teaching Spotlight: March 2022
Shannon O’Lear recently set a not-so-modest goal for herself: create an introductory geography course that focuses on climate-related problem-solving, do so without a textbook, make the course as engaging as possible through hands-on learning, and make the most of an auditorium-size active-learning space.
Not surprisingly, she landed on an unconventional solution: The Sweaty Penguin. Not a sweaty penguin. The Sweaty Penguin, a weekly podcast that tries to make issues related to climate change accessible, interesting and solution-oriented.
O’Lear is a Professor of Geography and the director of KU’s Environmental Studies Program. Inspired by CTE’s Flexible Course Design Camp in Summer 2020, she overhauled her Environmental Geopolitics course in Fall 2020, determined to overcome barriers to engagement brought on by the pandemic. Since then, she has continued to experiment with approaches to make her classes more engaging for students and herself. In December 2021, she received a CTE Course Transformation Grant to develop a new course primarily for non-majors. That’s where The Sweaty Penguin came in.
To help her create that course, she recruited three undergraduates to work as partners in brainstorming ideas and evaluating materials. She meets with the students once a week this semester in Lindley Hall and talks through ideas and approaches for shaping the course. She combines bursts of creative energy with careful listening as her student partners offer suggestions and insights.
Which episodes of the podcast would work best for the class? How can the elements of the podcast shape class discussions? What activities would be most engaging for students? What types of assessments would be most meaningful?
In between the weekly sessions, the three students listen to episodes of the podcast and outline central topics and identify key terms and guests on the shows. They also look for connections to other podcasts in the series, identifying potential questions for class discussions and online quizzes, and exploring material that might supplement learning.
O’Lear reached out to Ethan Brown, who created The Sweaty Penguin while finishing an undergraduate degree at Boston University and continues to host the podcast while working at the WNET Group, a PBS affiliate. He and three members of the podcast team met virtually with O'Lear and the students in March to learn about their work. They were excited to hear that a college-level course would be using the podcast and plan to keep in touch about the materials that O'Lear is developing.
O’Lear’s list of possibilities for the new class is growing week by week, and perhaps the biggest challenge will be paring those down and shaping them into a coherent course. She plans to teach the class for the first time in Spring 2023, so she still has plenty of time to sort through the details and to chart a path with The Sweaty Penguin. Her strategy of involving students in the planning process, assembling engaging, no-cost course material, and creating assignments that allow students to work on real-world problems provides a great model for creating and modifying courses. So does her practical approach of working on the project a little at a time.