Summary of Beltane Twilight | Engaged Teaching and Learning

On Monday 20th November, we held a small but perfectly formed Twilight discussion about engaged learning and teaching (or is it teaching and learning?). This was the penultimate in our series of Breakfasts and Twilights in 2017. The Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) kindly hosted the session, and attendees came from the University of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh Napier University.

The guest speaker at the session was Andy Cross. Andy is ECCI’s Impact Coordinator and is a member of the University of Edinburgh Geosciences Outreach Course organising team. This course is a great example of how undergraduate learning and teaching can combine with community engagement to produce research impact. Key features of the course are:

  • It’s undertaken by fourth-year Geosciences undergraduates at the University of Edinburgh
  • Student develops a ‘product’ for the community partner, who acts as a ‘client’
  • Students work with local primary and secondary schools, and also local community groups (about a 60/40 split)
  • Student projects are supervised by a core team of staff, although PhD students (most who have previously done the course) are being brought in to help with this
  • Current course capacity is capped at 30 students
  • The programme now has around 100 community partners, many of whom are long-standing partners
  • Partners are usually found by the core team, although are occasionally suggested by the students
  • 15-20% students have historically got a job as a direct result of the experience
  • Students receive 20 credits for 200 hours (although some have done much more than this)
  • Each student requires an average of 5 hours of staff contact time
  • Students are given workshops on Creative Commons to help them with publishing any resources they develop
  • Students usually work on individual projects, although group working seems like a possibility under this model

The course is used as a route to research impact: students use current research to inform the product they are designing for the community partner. It’s anticipated that these elements might contribute to a broader REF 2021 Impact Case Study; they may also count under the potential ‘impact on teaching’ element that might appear in REF 2021.

With respect to the Pathways to Impact employed by the UK Research Councils, the course has provided a route to research impact for ‘blue-skies’ research, where it is traditionally trickier to identify ways to realise research impact. Geosciences researchers have actually been writing time into the Pathways to Impacts sections of research funding applications; the aim of this is to get cash to cover the time of staff involved in coordinating the course. In terms of evidence of engagement for tracking impact, the downloads and ratings of student-created, research-informed resources posted on Open.Ed and TES Connect are possibilities.

The course has been great for fostering internal links, both within Geosciences and across the wider University community. Other parts of the University of Edinburgh are interested in adopting the model (and some have already done so). However, setting up the course comes with some challenges:

  • Staff time needs to be released (or added to) so that staff have time to undertake the coordination and supervision involved
  • Fourth-year students may be reluctant to try something new when their final degree class is at stake…
  • …but running a course like this for earlier undergraduates, when courses have so many students on them, would require a great deal of staff time
  • New approaches to assessment may be needed
    • Students may not like these
    • Client feedback may not be that helpful in differentiating students performance, as community partners are often so appreciative of all reasonable efforts
    • If group projects were allowed, then group assessment poses specific challenges

If all this sounds like a lot of work, then it’s worth keeping an eye on the prizes. As well as research impact benefits and the – hopeful – benefits to students and community partners, students are a phenomenal resource: not only do they sometimes have time to do what staff cannot do on their own, but  they often bring a fresh perspective to problems and skim barriers with ease (especially when still undergraduates).

At the Twilight, we also heard a little about a new community of practice about to be launched at the University of Edinburgh. Jon Turner and Hannah Cornish from the Institute for Academic Development, as well as Andy Cross, are key contacts for this. The community of practice will be built around a new ESRC Impact Accelerator-funded project, “Linking research and learning for impact: students as change agents”. The project will develop, evaluate and refine a range of activities and frameworks designed to connect research, student learning and impact. This will provide opportunities for students to learn as genuine change agents, while building capacity to extend and embed the impact of University research. If you’d like to know more about the project, just get in touch with Hannah.

Want to find out more about various aspects of the experiential learning we discussed? Check out:

Have a link or resource we should add to this list? Pop us an email.