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'Homework' brings people together on environment

In a new approach to environmental literacy, an MIT professor has developed a hands-on program that encourages students to work together in exploring the origin and scope of current environmental problems.

After four years of field tests in MIT classrooms, the program is now being offered to other educators.

"This whole approach is about trying to enliven learning," said Professor Stephan L. Chorover of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a neuropsychologist who incorporated "everything I've learned about learning" into the new program. One of Professor Chorover's other passions is the environment, which explains the focus of this particular work.

At the heart of the program, called homework in reference to doing our homework on the world we live in, is an environmental timeline presented in HyperCard-based software. [Editors' Note: Professor Chorover renders the title of the program in boldface with a lower-case h. We have used the conventional Homework in the rest of the article.]

This timeline, which is some 2,300 pages long, chronicles environmental events from the Big Bang to recent times and is sprinkled throughout with references to the original texts Professor Chorover used in its creation. A variety of Hypercard tools makes it easy to search for specific topics (acid rain, for example), mark where you've been, highlight particularly interesting passages, and even type notes in the margin.

For the last four years Professor Chorover has been using-and evaluating-Homework in a class he teaches called Conflicting Images of Humanity and Nature, which focuses on "the development of ideas that have been influential in how we treat the environment."

In this class students in groups of three to four use the Homework timeline, in conjunction with a workbook, to find an environmental theme of interest to all members of their group. They do this by using the Hypercard navigation tools to jump around the timeline to topics that catch their eye (rather like navigation on the World Wide Web). This semester one group chose the theme of pollution on a corporate level, while another picked mythology and its influence on how people treat the environment.

Individual students then explore different aspects of their group's theme (the pollution group is focusing on Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Bhopal disaster; the mythology group is exploring Greek, Indian, and American Indian mythology). Group members are encouraged to discuss the results of their research both in person and via notations in the margins of the Homework timeline. (With respect to the research involved, many students said that the timeline is a useful tool because of its copious references to books and articles that they can then find in the library).

Professor Chorover developed this approach to Homework assignments for two main reasons. He believes that collaboration is essential to understanding many complex issues (the environmental crisis being a prime example), and that people learn best when they are allowed to explore topics they are interested in.

With respect to collaboration, Professor Chorover added one other key element to the program: the timeline software is only available on one portable Powerbook computer per group. "So even before students begin working with Homework, they must address a classic environmental problem: resource allocation," he said.

Collaboration also exposes people to different viewpoints. One student alluded to this in an evaluation of Homework, saying, "I had no idea how enjoyable it would be to see how other people felt about certain subjects and how much I could learn when others commented on my comments." Other students, however, had reservations. "This was an interesting experience, but I didn't like dealing with people who had no sense of responsibility about sharing access to the computers." The ability to choose their own topics was refreshing to many. "For me [it] was a subtle reminder of how important it is to explore: to read a book not for the grade, but for the entertainment or enlightenment. [Taking] the time to search for something that hits a nerve, causes a spark of new insight, allows you to see familiar things in new ways."

Other students, however, were frustrated by the lack of direction. "We are pretty much left to do what we want, but for a long time it was very difficult to know what was expected of us, where we were going with all this, and what the purpose was."

Some of those who were initially put off by the program, however, came to find value in it:

"As a computer science and engineering major, I struggled without focus. But I am starting to understand the process that we are going through, and my attitude toward Homework has shifted. I now realize that. we must think for ourselves about real issues that evoke strong feelings and deal with them in a manner that makes sense to us, that solving problems starts at their source, and that we can't solve environmental problems without knowing environmental history. All this makes me want to get back into the Homework document. Important information lies inside."

For more information about Homework or to order the program, contact Professor Chorover at x3-5757 or . You can also consult the Homework home page on the Web at [The tilde is not a typo.]

This work was supported by the Lee and Lou Kuhn Foundation, the MIT School of Science, and the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 1996.

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