Why it’s Rare to Find Classes that Teach more Hands on Learning

With Trey Turnblacer

We’ve all sat through at least one class where the thought “When am I ever going to use this?” came to mind. Unfortunately, for most of us, our classes spend too much time on theoretical terms and little to no time learning the how to apply them in the real world.

Understanding what helps students learn better is nothing new. The problem is that most classes haven’t seemed to do anything about it.

Most professors have the sense to make classes more hands-on, and yet are faced with several issues that no one talks about: class size, peer pressure, and group think. Faced with pushback, most professors give up trying to make the class fun for the sake of time and energy.

Trey Turnblacer knows this phenomenon all too well. Before transferring to Chatham for the Sustainability program, he started off going to another university where a lecture with 700 other people wasn’t unheard of. For the past two years, we’ve been taking almost all of our major sustainability classes together, and the amount of people in the class has never been higher than twenty. Every now and then he would comment on the difference in class size, and how he feels like he’s getting a lot more out of a smaller program.

Logistics for Field Trips become impossible with Large Classes

The other day, we drove to a local stream in order to collect some data for the Quantitative Ecology class. There are only four in this class, with only one extra taking the lab portion. Trey took a similar class back when he was at his previous school, and the sheer class size made it really difficult to understand the concepts without having any real world experience. Our tiny class is a stark difference, and makes it a lot easier to learn and make connections to other concepts.

Our entire class getting ready to collect stream data in the middle of January.

Going outside of the classroom is so common in this program, that we sometimes forget to appreciate it. Trey says it’s one of the main reasons why he chose to transfer here. He grew up about ten minutes away from the Eden Hall campus and ending up going here still was a big coincidence.

Trey is used to doing a lot of hands on activities with school because it keeps him going. At the nearby Mars High School, he was on one of the best Wrestling teams in the state and still had time to do football, keep his grades up, AND play for the school’s marching band. He used to do halftime with the marching band in his football uniform.

While he went to a big school for wrestling, the huge class sizes seemed to be too much and he really missed having activities to do. Fast forward a year, Chatham became fully co-ed for the first time, and he was able to transfer into the Sustainability program.

“Learning about Sustainability is more than only the environment, there are a lot of different things coming together. I really like how it’s done here because I can get to do a lot of different things instead of reading about it or sitting through boring lectures.” — Trey

Field Trips Help you Understand How Concepts Learned in Class can be Applied to the Real World

We’ve been on so many field trips since then. So many, I don’t even believe I can list them all. In one class last semester, we went to at least eight different places like La Prima Coffee, Millie’s Ice Cream, The Pitt Student Food Bank, East End Co-op, and the Women for a Healthy Environment Conference, to name a few.

Last year, we seemed to go on a field trip at least once every couple weeks with our classes. We went to the Pittsburgh Botanical Gardens, Marburger Dairy, a speech on the Anthropocene at the Carnegie Music Hall, and several outings to nearby forests or streams in order to collect raw data. Trey even knew one of the Zoo Keepers at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and we were able to go into a couple exhibits and were allowed to pet red pandas.

Trey is glad he has a lot of extracurricular activities and internship opportunities within the Sustainability program. He was one of the first students to work in the Aquaponics center, and now works with our Ecology Professor in order to collect tree measurements all over campus. I talked to him in a video about these opportunities, and about what he was able to gain from those experiences.

A couple weeks ago, when we were talking with a group of our friends, about how different our classes would be if the size of the class was as big as they are in most other schools. Many of the opportunities that we have within the program, would not be possible if we had over 50 students in a class.

Once classes get to a certain size, we’d start to lose the connection with the material. Grades would be based on how well you can quickly memorize something for a test instead of something that you can actually use later. Connections between ideas would be more difficult to make, and classes might not seem to go together.

All of these reasons is why so many of the students in our major chose this program. Like Trey, they see the benefit of small class sizes directly benefitting their understanding of the material.

Learning is just more fun when you actually get to do things.