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Teaching from the Arctic to Patagonia to Tanzania

Teaching from the Arctic to Patagonia to Tanzania November 8, 2013
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Teaching has taken Colorado College ecology professor Jim Ebersole in many different directions. He’s led off-campus study in places ranging from the far north (the Arctic) to the far south (Patagonia) and in between (along the equator in Africa). He’s taught students from sea level (literally, on a ship for a semester) to high up in the mountains of Spain and Colorado. And in every case, he said, it’s been exhilarating.

Jim EbersoleJim Ebersole

“It’s an opportunity to help students learn how to experience a new culture, how to appreciate a new culture, and go to a place they haven’t been before and try to make sense out of it in a research project,” he noted. “For me, personally, [teaching off-campus] is a great intellectual challenge. It gives me lots of new things to learn and also gives me new perspectives on ecology.”

Next fall, Ebersole will return to Africa as Faculty Program Director of ACM’s Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins program. Although he’s been to Tarangire National Park – the program’s main field site – with students before, Ebersole is anticipating that there will still be much that’s new and challenging, beginning in Dar es Salaam, the nation’s capital and largest city.

“There will be the obvious part that [the students and I] will experience just being there” and settling in, he said. “I’d like to dig a little deeper [in the city] and find out what kinds of human development projects are going on, some of the ways that people are trying to help others rise out of poverty.”

Jim Ebersole in TanzaniaJim Ebersole with a Maasai friend near the Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania.

To help with that exploration, Ebersole plans to tap ACM’s contacts at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), where the students study Kiswahili, the national language of Tanzania, and take courses on Human Evolution and the Ecology of the Maasai Ecosystem taught by UDSM faculty.

Ebersole will teach a class in research methods and guide the students in their field practicum research projects. His experience working with students in these areas is broad, including teaching courses such as biostatistics and experimental design, directing senior thesis projects, and conducting research and co-authoring papers with students.

“In the capstone ecology course I teach, the students spend an entire [3½-week] block writing the research proposal,” he said. “Even in 100 level courses, the students write smaller proposals, where they go to the literature and find out what’s been done before and think about what they can do to try to contribute to our scientific knowledge.”

The program features a six-week stretch in northern Tanzania, visiting major ecological and paleoanthropological field sites and living in a tent camp while the students conduct field research. The location in and around Tarangire National Park offers opportunities for projects in a wide range of fields, including cultural anthropology and archaeology, ecology and environmental studies, public health, geology, and education.

“I want to make sure the research methods course is balanced across qualitative methods, such as interviewing people, and taking quantitative data and learning a little bit about how to deal with it statistically,” said Ebersole. “I’d really like the students to be exposed to a variety of approaches, so in the future they have a broader perspective and don’t just focus on one way of learning about the world.”

Students in the fieldStudents collecting data in the field.

Photo courtesy of Karin Linnea Karlen

To augment his own expertise, Ebersole plans to draw on the experience of UDSM faculty and graduate students to help the ACM students, both on campus and in the field. “They have the local knowledge and the local contacts,” he said, such as knowing people in the village near the ACM field camp that students might be able to interview for anthropological research projects.

Careful planning is a key part of field work, according to Ebersole, as is dealing with the unexpected. “[I’ll be] helping them think through and prepare for what field equipment they need and just making sure they have a good plan and that, as much as possible, they can hit the ground running and start collecting data,” he said. “There are always interesting problems that you get to solve when you’re doing research. That’s part of the research process, even when you’re an experienced researcher. One of the fun aspects of doing research is doing a lot of problem-solving.”

Over the years, regardless of where he has taught, learning alongside his students has always been a highlight of off-campus study for Ebersole.

“I’ve really enjoyed being part of a learning community in a different country, a different culture, a different ecological place, [and] helping the group be a cohesive unit and helping people through the cultural adjustments,” he said. “It really is a group that’s learning together.”


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