River Restoration

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Kite Award 2024
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In the innovative 'River Restoration' course, students collaborate on the revitalization of a designated river section through a problem-oriented group project. The learning experience is enriched with coaching discussions, role-playing exercises, and peer review components, enhancing both motivation and the application of acquired knowledge in comparison to existing courses. This dynamic approach fosters a more effective transfer of theoretical concepts to practical skills, providing students with a comprehensive and engaging educational experience.

Student-centerd, active and interactive learning

Approximately 10-20% of the total contact time is dedicated to traditional lecturing. The majority of the contact time is reserved for student-centered, active and interactive methods. Feedback, critical thinking and self-reflection are encouraged during coaching sessions with lecturers, after specific tasks, peer-reviews, and the semester wrap-up.

The key element of the course concept is the students’ encouragement to involve and actively participate in all the course elements. This is enhanced by the previously mentioned non-hierarchical and student-centered approach. After getting to know each other in the first week, students explore the project area at the Töss River in a self-guided excursion, using the ETH tool “OMLETH”. From this excursion, they identify the most important problems within their chosen river restoration topic, deeply elaborate on it during the coaching sessions, and present first general findings in a so-called focus input lecture to their peers. Interactive methods such as role-plays and marketplace-style presentations, help students identify their topic in the broader river restoration context. While these methods are very interactive, they challenge the students on a personal level. As a result, every student needs to participate actively in the course to pass it successfully.

At the end of the semester, the course is completed by another student-centered excursion to a model area with implemented river restoration measures, accompanied by an expert. This visit fur-ther enhances reflection on the learning process and shortens the learning transfer distance to real-world problems.

Good communiation is key

Communication between students and lecturers is a key element. We prioritize pre- and post-lecture time discussions and offer real-time support through Google Chat, e.g., during the students’ first self-guided excursion. “Padlet” allows the students to give anonymous feedback throughout the semester and receive answers on relevant questions. As a result, the students receive support whenever needed in very different settings. However, the support isn’t given in a passive way, but rather by coaching methods. Whenever possible, students are empowered to find solutions to their problems independently. Regarding student-student communication, the students think about how to organize themselves and communicate with each other during the first coaching session, with guidance from lecturers.

Good communication between lecturers is crucial to exchange knowledge on a technical but also didactical level. The lecturer and teaching assistance team (currently including seven people hold a first semester preparation kick-off meeting. They also come together to discuss the relevant project-related problems at the Töss River. After that, there is regular exchange during lunch after the lec-tures and a final wrap-up event after the course in early summer. During the semester, communi-cation and material exchange is ensured over Google drive, email, and prolonged phone calls be-tween different lecture team members.

Performance assessment

The graded performance assessment runs over the whole semester and includes

1) a short, topic-specific report,

2) the peer-review of another group’s report, and

3) an individual presentation about their project in a marketplace setting.

After conducting the role-play and going on the 2nd excursion, the students need to answer some reflective questions about their experience and learning process (non-graded). Implicitly, this also gives the lecturers feedback and potential for improvement. A grade bonus is awarded for active participation during the semester.

A teaching project with a network of expert lecturers from different disciplines with different prior knowledge requires precise strategic preparation and a lot of support. Also, from our experience, the students’ motivation grows if they know what to expect each week. Only this way, they enter the course room or their group meetings with the correct “mindset” and don’t expect passive listening.

The semester roadmap

In “River Restoration”, we chose to provide the students with a “semester roadmap”, a short document with all relevant information in terms of organization and goals of the course. The roadmap’s goal is to make the students confident about leaving their comfort zone and trying such a new course concept in a curious and motivated way. It is supplemented with detailed weekly instructions about the different course modules and methods, both for the students and lecturers (“screenplays”).

Each week, the success of the chosen didactical method needs to be reflected on different levels (both for lecturers and from students’ perspective) and serves for improvement for the course concept in the following years.

From our experience, clear and transparent communication and feedback as well as a non-hierarchic approach and team spirit is the key to successful implementation of such an innovative teaching project.

Course methods to engage student engagement

From our experience, the main parameter for extrinsic student motivation is the dedication and enthusiasm of the lecturer and his/her way of coordinating within the team of lecturers. The lecturer team of this course was therefore chosen with great care. For the process of assembling the team members for the course, excellent scientific knowledge, enthusiasm for the own field or project, diversity, empathy and communication skills play a major role.

The experts serve as role models for the students’ future careers. How the expert team positions itself towards the students is therefore crucial. Are experts and students always in dialog? Or do the students rather look up to the expert, believing that they can never reach such a status and that everything the expert says is correct? In “River Restoration”, we chose a non-hierarchical approach and tried to establish an environment where making mistakes or admitting not knowing something is good and welcome – both for lecturers and students. To make this approach work, it is crucial to assign suitable roles to the different team members, according to their knowledge and experience. Furthermore, the selection of proper teaching methods is essential. We are convinced that an expert’s enthusiasm can be transferred more easily within an extended dialogue on eye level than within a long lecture talk with direct instructions.

To open the team members’ minds to new concepts and go out of their comfort zone, we established an “icebreaker” event in the project area (exploration of the Töss River).

Enhance intrinsic motivation

To enhance students’ intrinsic motivation and team spirit, the course opens with a very student-centered introductory lecture, filled with different games that help the students to get to know each other, their beliefs, strengths and expectations towards the course (e.g., a so-called skill ladder, as shown in Figure 2). From the very beginning of the course, we emphasize that the course revolves around the students. We clearly state that our course is meant for students who like to interact and like to try out innovative learning approaches, as described in section 3. Just passively attending the course is not an option. The students therefore take responsibility for the success of the course by actively participating and elaborating new concepts. If they don’t participate, nobody can profit, neither the student him-/herself nor their peers.

Moreover, the semester project addresses a real-world problem – the restoration of the Töss River in the selected region near Winterthur, which is in fact part of the canton’s long-term restoration planning. The canton is interested in the students’ findings, establishing a connection to practical relevance.

To keep the students interested and continuously working, regular support and feedback as well as communication are essential.

To sum up: In our opinion, the students’ mindset, the semester project as a real river restoration problem (short learning transfer distance) and the expert lecturers’ engagement are key factors for the students’ personal motivation for learning success throughout the course.

Problem-based learning approach

The main course concept is based on problem-based learning, meaning that problems have to be identified before finding solutions to them.

This is contrary to the way students are used to, where they get in touch with problems defined by the lecturer(s). Solutions are also often presented by the lecturer(s), and students have to adapt them to a different setting. The problem-based setting is a rather unusual und sometimes difficult approach for both students and lecturers, but, from our experience, highly creative and stimulating.

Problem-based learning is clearly visible throughout the whole course structure. One key aspect is that the first excursion goes to a non-restored river, where the students need to identify problems before seeing implemented solutions. Possible solutions (at a different river, how-ever), are only covered during the second excursion at the end of the semester. This is illus-trated in Figure 3.

Perhaps, the most innovative aspect of our course is how the different methodical elements come together to form a course that really works and motivates both students and lecturers in their learning process. The students interact on very different levels, not only within their groups, but also accomplishing individual tasks (see rotation plan in Figure 4). Many of these methods themselves are quite innovative, as described in the following:

  • Self-guided excursions
  • Coaching sessions
  • Role-play
  • Peer-review
  • Presentations in market-place mode

Effect of the innovative teaching elements of student learning

We believe that student learning is strongly related to 1) continuity throughout the semester and 2) the motivation level during discussions and other interactive elements of the course. Continuous learning during the semester is achieved through small tasks that are completed by the students every week (self-organized excursion, role-play, peer-review, mandatory self-reflection, presentations, coaching sessions…). Passive participation is discouraged, which is clearly communicated from the beginning. The level of students’ activity is part of the course’s grading system.

Continuous interaction leads to a relatively flat hierarchy between students and lecturers that finally opens the floor for open discussions and an inspiring working environment. With some of the interactive elements, the students are forced to step out of their comfort zone, which further increases the students’ self-confidence in exchanging ideas and opinions with lecturers.

Throughout the first conduction of our new course, we’ve observed that the students are curi-ous and genuinely interested in the topic of river restoration. They enjoyed themselves, moving beyond just processing the work they are told to do, only to get some credits points because it is part of the curriculum. Increased motivation or ability to discuss opinions openly leads to increased learning success for the whole group. The students also came from a more diverse background than usual (not only civil and environmental engineering), which created interesting dynamics within groups. River restoration projects require interdisciplinary approaches and contributions from various stakeholders. Thus, we wanted to create an environment where knowledge coming from different academic paths could be combined, and everyone could find his/her voice in their group.

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