December 12, 2019

If you build it, will they come?

By Jackie Amsden, Centre for Educational Excellence

Lecturer David Maxwell (archaeology) involved students in the development process of a new course through an online survey and by piloting a proposed activity in an existing course.

In Fall 2018, David Maxwell had an unconventional idea for a new course. His decision to involve students in the development of the course was similarly unconventional—and, more importantly, beneficial.

Maxwell, an archaeology lecturer, was tasked with creating a research methods course by his department’s undergraduate curriculum committee. His idea, drawn from his graduate research with the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, was to use the waste produced by SFU as a data source for the new course. In place of prehistoric bones and pottery collections, students would examine trash from the four-stream recycling stations on campus to answer questions about human behaviour.

“The concept was kind of weird, and I didn’t want to invest a whole bunch of time and energy building a course on that premise without knowing if it would attract students—or if it was even logistically possible.”

How do you feel about trash?

So, rather than starting the design process by listing learning objectives or aligning assessments, Maxwell pitched the concept to students in nine introductory Faculty of Environment and Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences classes, inviting them to respond via an online questionnaire.

It turned out that students were quite intrigued by the thought of pawing through old pizza boxes and Pepsi cans.

“The student feedback was really positive, with over half of respondents reporting that they were somewhat interested or very interested in the proposed course.”

Students in David Maxwell's Fall 2019 ARCH 201 course coded campus trash …

… and input the resulting data into a spreadsheet.

The smell test

But what about the feasibility of collecting and sorting garbage in a classroom setting? To find out what that would entail, Maxwell piloted the activity in one of his existing classes.

“I had a lot of questions. Would this violate union bylaws? Where are we going to store the garbage? How long will it take the students to process it? What materials will we need? And what if someone freaks out?”

With the assistance of Megan Wong, an RA hired with funding from a Teaching and Learning Development Grant, Maxwell determined that the approval process, as well as the actual garbage sorting, was more straightforward than he’d expected.

“I divided the [class] into two groups of 20. We had drop cloths on the tables, rubber gloves, and masks available in case the odour was really offensive, but actually it mainly just smelled like ketchup, and no one used the masks. In fact, I offered students the option of doing an alternative assignment if they didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of sorting garbage, but none of them took me up on it.”

Helpful insights for the next phase

Maxwell explains that the pilot helped him identify issues he hadn’t considered.

“The activity made me realize that we need to perfect our coding system and figure out how to create a database, so that we can track the data over time.”

In the meantime, Maxwell has a much clearer picture of what students want as he completes the design of the course, which is scheduled to launch in Spring 2021.

“Now that I know what I need to do to set up this new kind of learning environment, I’m really excited to see the creativity that students will bring to it.”

Related links


Teaching Practice, Student Experience