14 Exploring Scale, Systems, and Interconnections in Under Ten Minutes

Dr. Rachel Yoho

Course: Environmental Health Concepts in Public Health (PHC 6313), Environmental Concepts in Public Health (PHC 4320), Special Topics: Climate Change and Environmental Health (HSC 4930), Global Public Health (PHC 3440)


3 photos of grassIn this quick activity, students are asked to observe three different spaces (small, medium, and large, for example, 5x5cm, 1x1m, 100x100m) for two minutes each. They are encouraged to move beyond the screen and consider different interior or outdoor spaces to explore. The students are asked to observe everything they are able in that amount of time (sight, sound, smells, etc.). The reflection (either written for an asynchronous class or as a group discussion in a synchronous Zoom session) is essential to exploring the meaning of the activity. Questions and discussion center on the application of course concepts and content. For example, courses with central ideas in issues of scale or interconnections in systems can help students reflect on observations and concepts central to these ideas.

Assignment Goals/Outcomes

This activity helps students gain a sense of scale, provides time to practice their observational skills, and allows for critical reflection on observations. Importantly, in reflecting on the observations, students see the interconnectedness of systems, interactions among different scales, and the challenges of observing similar items at different scales. Additional connections can be made with the duration of observation, including timing, seasons, movement, and weather.

Assignment Setup (Instructor)

This activity allows students to explore space, time, scale, and systems. Students are asked to observe three spaces of different sizes for two minutes each. The reflection on this activity is the most valuable and critical to the learning experience. Whether in a synchronous session or asynchronous course, guided reflection can facilitate students’ understanding of scale and interactions. For example, questions such as the following can help to guide reflections and make connections with the course learning goals:

  1. How would this activity be different if we observed for two hours and not two minutes? What about two months or two years?
  2. What did you observe coming into and out of the spaces? (for example, wind, sound, bugs, people, vehicles, etc.)
  3. What things might we not be able to detect without additional equipment? (for example, air pollution, dust, pollen, microorganisms)
  4. How would this observation differ at different times of year? What about with different weather?
  5. What were you able to observe at one size/scale that you were not able to observe at another?
  6. How do you choose the “best” way to observe? What factors might influence your decision?
  7. How does what happens at one size/scale influence what happens at another? For example, does what happens in the largest square impact what’s happening in the smallest observation square?

Overall, this is a relatively easy activity that can be accomplished in a short amount of time with minimal setup. It is flexible enough to connect with many related learning goals across different disciplines.

Student Instructions

  1. Choose a location of interest (indoors or outdoors). Please observe a space for two minutes each. These spaces should be small (approximately 5x5cm), medium (approximately 1x1m), and large (approximately 100x100m).
  2. With each of these spaces for two minutes each, carefully make any observations you are able – sights, touch, sounds, smells, movement, organisms, or interactions.
  3. After you are done, make notes of your observations.
  4. Reflect on the experience for two minutes. What did you notice about what happened at different scales? How did the different spaces interact? Were you able to observe things differently among the different size spaces? What was similar or different for each one?

Grading (Instructor/TA)

This is an effective activity for creating engagement and facilitating critical observation and reflection. The recommended grading would be participation (credit/no credit) or grading of written reflection statements. These written reflections could be graded with a simple rubric, for example, excellent (100%), accomplished (95%), emerging (88%), or partially met (70%) following guidelines for description of observations, critical analysis of the activity, and reflection on the experience.

Tips and Suggestions for Instructors

This activity can be useful for a number of different courses and disciplines. Many areas work to have students understand interactions of scale or systems. This particular activity helps students to critically reflect on their own observational skills, as well as see how interactions and observations vary at different scales.

For example, this can be useful in environmental courses, biology, engineering, art/design, architecture, or other disciplines where concepts of scales, systems, or interactions are applied.

I have applied versions of this activity in my Global Public Health course, as well as an environmental biology course at a previous institution. I plan to adapt it for other courses, such as Climate Change, the Environment, and the Future of Public Health and Environmental Health Concepts in Public Health.

This is a very engaging assignment that can be done in a synchronous format by Zoom or in an asynchronous online class. For a synchronous Zoom session, it would work to have the students do the observations during the class session (it takes about 15 minutes total) or having the students do the observations as a pre-class activity. The reflections could then be done as a group discussion in Zoom.

For an asynchronous class, a Canvas discussion board would be a great place to have students post reflections, comment on the reflections of others, and have interactions with the course instructor and/or TA.

Keywords: observe, reflect, explore, synchronous, asynchronous


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