Day 33 – So This Is What It’s Like to be a Student

We woke up this morning in Vernal, UT, a cute little town at the eastern edge of the state that serves, among other things, as the gateway to the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument. Dinosaur NM was our morning destination before heading on to Steamboat Springs, where we were going to visit family for a few days. 

I’ve seen plenty of dinosaur fossils in natural history museums over the years, but this was an entirely different experience. At Dinosaur National Monument, they have a large exposed fossil bed around which a building was built so that you can see what these fossils look like before they’re excavated. Here’s one example: 

As with most of my other photos, this doesn’t really do it justice, but hopefully gives at least some sense of what it’s like to see hundreds of fossils embedded in a relatively short expanse of rock. In addition to this fossil bed, there are also some individual fossils on display and a number of casts of fossils. One of the neatest things about this was that you couldn’t touch th casts because they were delicate, but you could walk right up to the rock and touch all the fossils you wanted. This reversal from what you might expect in a museum really seemed to make everyone there appreciate the experience even more.

The visitor’s center isn’t the only place where you could see fossils; we took a short hike and, with a little effort, found this: 

The trail leads right past this but there was no sign, so you had to be looking for fossils to find it, and we missed it at first. This was a good experience for us, too, because we realized that the way to find a fossil was to take our time and look for something out of the ordinary. The parallels to how we might develop a course are obvious, but it was nice to see yet another reminder that these habits of mind really do have long-term value.

We kept our visit to Dinosaur NM relatively short and were headed toward Steamboat well before noon. There was plenty to see that we didn’t bother with, including the entire Colorado side of the national monument, which doesn’t have any fossils but does have amazing canyons and spectacular hiking. Any other time, we would have headed there to continue exploring. But today, the anticipation of getting to see grandpop and nana, sleep in a house instead of a hotel, and feel settled for a few days dominated our thoughts.

It occurs to me this must be what my students feel like at the end of the year. It doesn’t matter how much they’re enjoying the class, there’s something more appealing to them just around the corner so they have trouble getting as engaged as they would be at other points in the year. I’ve always been aware of this intellectually, but I don’t think I’ve ever connected with this emotionally, certainly not as strongly as I did today.

We already do some things to accommodate the ebb and flow of student interest, of course. We might make a big, engaging project due right before a break, or save a lighter topic for the near the end of the year, for example. Having experienced this drop in engagement myself for the first time in many, many years, I’m left to wonder: how might we design courses to maximize student learning even when their engagement level is low?

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