Posts tagged #Project-based Learning

FEATURE: Experiential Learning with the Creative Arts

Title of the Course: Theater and Performance Seminar/Workshop

Instructor: Esther Fernández

Department: Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies

Course Number: SPP0 382

Intended Student Audience: Undergraduate students with three or four years of Spanish language instruction. The course is taught in Spanish but serves majors and non-majors.

Courses Description:

This course gives students the opportunity to approach Spanish dramatic literature through a creative and experiential learning process. The theme of the fall 2017 workshop was: Enacting OppressionAll the plays studied deal with this topic from very different perspectives and historical eras (from Lorca’s rural tragedy The House of Bernarda Alba to Juan Mayorga denunciation of the Holocaust in Himmelweg). The first half of the course is devoted to studying the plays from a literary, critical and analytical lens and the second half is dedicated to exploring theater through various aspects of staging, such as dramaturgy, acting, translation, setting, costume and sound design. Students work in groups to organize a series of original scenes from the original plays studied in the first half of the semester and these scenes are then adapted, directed and performed as the final outcome of this seminar.

Celda de Juegos Poster.jpg



  • To understand what are the major periods in the history of Spanish dramatic literature;
  • To gain knowledge of some canonical and non-canonical works of Spanish dramatic literature;
  • To understand how to practice close reading and literary analysis;
  • To develop collaborative and leadership skills
  • To develop creativity in conjunction with the study of literature
  • To get training in basic acting skills and dramaturgy



Experiential Learning

Professor Fernández designed her course on Spanish Peninsular literature with the creative arts and experiential learning as central teaching strategies. In addition to introducing the students to a wide array of Spanish plays from the Early Modern period to the present, students in her course have the opportunity to create an original script as the final outcome of the seminar. The course's experiential component encourages students to approach literary analysis from the perspective of those who write, design, and conceptualize literature and theater. 

The course followed the structure of a symposium developed by scholars (including Professor Fernández ) in the research network Iberian Theater and Performance Network (ITPN). At the center of the most recent biannual symposium was an effort to design a performance specifically tailored to the theme of the conference. The organizing committee created an original script based on a series of scenes from the major dramatic works with the guidance of two professional actors and a dramaturge.

Adapting the ITPN model, Professor Fernández has students work together over the course of the semester to adapt, direct and perform their own play as the final course product.  Students write their own play by pulling together a series of original scenes from the plays studied in the first part of the course. Creating their own play in this manner encourages students to analyze and understand the the nuances of oppression - the course theme - in each play, looking for similarities, differences, and variants. Students are encouraged to engage in a deeper and richer analysis of each play. 

Scaffolding Unstructured Learning

Professor Fernández wants students to have the freedom to be creative in the development of their final play for the course. This requires careful scaffolding of assignments that allow for curiosity and discovery to emerge organically. Professor Fernández organizes student work around several assignments, but leaves plenty of unstructured class time for students to work in groups to develop the play and discuss their contribution to the final product. After the class develops and organizes the scenes for the final play students work in small groups to contribute one element to the performance of the play, such as costume design, the play bill, or staging. At this point in the course Professor Fernández says students are intensely engaged from the very beginning of the process until the end. In a sense they are "creating the class."

One lesson for me has been how when the class seems more unstructured the students really take the lead even more than when I try to guide them closely.
— Professor Fernández

The experiential and collaborative design of the course is a new experience for many humanities students. Early in the semester Professor Fernández prepares students for their central role in the course design and outcome by reminding them that this is not a “traditional” literature class. However, literary analysis and critical thinking are emergent learning outcomes as self-directed learning takes shapes over the semester.



Final Performance

In future iterations of the course Professor Fernández would like to have students perform the play at the end of the semester. Many students enrolled in the course are double majors and she was concerned with the first run through of the course it would be asking to much of them to learn lines and perform publicly. Therefore, she decided that the best thing would be to film a version of a dramatic reading of the play. However, as the end of the semester drew near she found that a public performance would have been a perfect showcase for the the students' commitment, excitement, and hard work. According to Fernández: "This course is so experiential that I believe the students deserve a creative outcome." For future iterations of the course she is hoping to organize a dramatic reading that could be performed publicly for the Rice Community. A' Q & A' session about the play, the class, the project as a whole would take place after the performance.

Grading, Assessment, and Feedback

She found that grading can be a challenge due to the experiential nature of the course. This semester the group of enrolled students was small enough that she was able to monitor each student's leaning and to advise them individually. She was able to make sure everyone was contributing to the group work and to the class. This type of course is better suited to a small class size with students majoring in the course topic. A class taught with this pedagogical approach requires that all students need to be similarly engaged and passionate about the material to ensure a hard working group of students, building trust in each other and creating community

Space and Props

A course with this level of group work and self-directed learning requires an appropriate classroom space.  Many of the course meetings ended up taking place in outside spaces on campus to allow students to experiment and get creative.  A black box theater will also be ideal for some of the sessions. In addition, Professor Fernández plans to explore the resources that the Rice Theater Department could offer in terms of basic props, costumes, space, and guidance of some components of the performance.


 ITPN (Iberian Theater and Performance Network):

This network was developed to enhance the study of Iberian theater and performance from a trans-historical perspective, bridging Golden Age theater (1580-1700) with contemporary performance, playwriting, and theatrical practices in the plurinational setting of the Iberian Peninsula.


Professor Fernández

Professor Fernández

Esther Fernández
Assistant Professor of Spanish Peninsular Literature & Culture

Esther Fernández Rodríguez is the author of Eros en escena: Erotismo en el teatro del Siglo de Oro (Juan de la Cuesta, 2009) and the editor of Don Gil de las calzas verdes (2013) and El perro del hortelano (2011) for Cervantes & Co. Spanish Classics. Additionally, she has co-edited Diálogos en las tablas: Últimas tendencias de la puesta en escena del teatro clásico español (Reichenberger, 2014). Her essays and occasional publications attend to eroticism and the Spanish comedia; visual and material culture; and performance analysis of classical theater’s contemporary adaptations. In her teaching and scholarship she combines Early Modern literature with visual performance analysis. She also teaches classes in contemporary literature with a focus on contemporary social and political issues. Dr. Fernández’s current work includes editing a volume that explores Anglo-Spanish relations vis-a-vis the contentious image of Elizabeth I in Early Modern Spain, as well as a monograph on the ritualized figure of ‘the puppet,’ in ceremonial and theatrical contexts, which served to materialize representations of religious and ‘non-religious’ worlds across pre-modern Iberia.

Posted on May 15, 2018 and filed under Humanities.


Students collecting data in the field.

Title of the Course: Biological Diversity

Instructor: Scott Solomon

Department: BioSciences

Course Number: EBIO 327

Intended Student Audience: Undergraduate students majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology; students interested in environmental sciences and conservation biology

Courses Description: This course is intended to provide students with hands-on experience surveying the biological diversity of a natural ecosystem. The course is focused on recognizing, quantifying, and analyzing biological diversity. Students work in groups to design, execute, and communicate the results of a systematic survey of particular taxonomic groups in the Big Thicket National Preserve in east Texas. The course includes a weekend-long field trip to carry out a bioblitz [1] in the Big Thicket National Preserve.


By the end of the course, students should:

  • become familiar with some of the species common to east Texas;
  • understand and demonstrate how to quantify biological diversity at different scales (e.g. at a site, between sites, within a region);
  • understand and demonstrate how to measure the biological diversity of different types of organisms (e.g. plants and animals) and be able to distinguish the field techniques and statistical analyses that are appropriate for different organisms and questions;
  • design and conduct a biological species inventory focused on a particular taxonomic group;
  • effectively communicate the results of a biological survey both in writing and orally;
  • experience working in a natural environment; and,
  • explain why biodiversity is important and understand the main threats to biodiversity globally and locally.

I have learning disabilities. I don’t learn from lectures or readings, I learn outside by doing things myself. Biological Diversity is one of the only classes I’ve taken that not only accommodates students like me, but creates an atmosphere where we will thrive. I had a blast searching for reptiles and amphibians in the Big Thicket, and I never once felt like my learning differences were holding me back. Biological diversity was a class that reminded me why I want to be a biologist and why I want to study ecology, and it’s to do things like the Bioblitz. To be out in the field, learning and doing.
— major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


This course uses a project-based approach in which students work in groups to design, execute, and analyze results of a survey of the species diversity of particular types of organisms (e.g. trees, fish, butterflies) in a natural setting (a national preserve). Student groups are matched with expert consultants who advise them on their study design and help during the collection of data. The results are communicated through written and oral reports and contribute to an ongoing effort to understand the biological diversity of the preserve. The activities and assignments in the course are designed to allow students to discover knowledge and learn skills through group projects, including the following:



At the beginning of the course, the class visits Hong Kong Market in Houston’s Chinatown neighborhood, a large supermarket with a wide range of food products from around the world. Rather than providing students with a definition for biodiversity and telling them the various ways that researchers quantify it, they are challenged with the task of “sampling” the most diverse set of purchases they can within a one hour period and with a virtual budget of $20. The only rules are that any ingredient that is derived from a living thing counts as a species and that their total expenditure cannot exceed $20. The students then work in groups, exploring the supermarket and writing down (or taking photos of) the products they choose to sample. After one hour, the class meets up and they are asked to explain (1) how they conceptualized the meaning of “diversity” in the context of the assignment (e.g. a diverse sample could include the greatest number of different species, an even distribution of different species, or species that come from different taxonomic groups or geographical regions); (2) what strategy they used to maximize diversity (e.g. include inexpensive processed products that contain many ingredients, like spice packets; split up to cover as many sections of the supermarket as possible); (3) how might one determine how complete the survey was (e.g. by determining how many new species are added with the addition of each new sample); and (4) how the exercise is similar to sampling a natural ecosystem (e.g. inability to include all individuals in a sample, constraints of time and resources), and how it is different (e.g. how easy it is to “capture” and identify individuals, spatial arrangement of individuals). With this activity students learn that there are numerous ways that biological diversity can be quantified, that there are always constraints, both temporal and financial, necessitating decisions about the how to best allocate the available resources given the goals of the project,  and that a biological survey is always incomplete, but that there are ways to estimate what was missed.



The main focus of the course is the survey of the species diversity within the Big Thicket National Preserve, located in east Texas. Students are assigned to groups, each of which is given a particular group of organisms (e.g. trees, fish, butterflies and moths, reptiles and amphibians, birds and mammals). The groups are then tasked with designing a method for surveying that group of organisms in the Big Thicket National Preserve within a 24-hour period. Each group is matched with an expert consultant who they are encouraged to contact for advice; rather than telling them what methods work best, the consultants (as well as the course instructor and TA) provide feedback on suggestions made by the students based on research conducted by the students about sampling methods used by researchers working with that particular group of organisms. Each group submits a detailed written proposal and gives an oral presentation to the class explaining their proposed methodology as well as providing some basic information about the group of organisms they will survey (e.g. its taxonomic classification, identifying characteristics, and what species are common in the region). To help prepare for this assignment, the class visits the field site where the surveys will take place so that each group can provide specific information about exactly where their sampling will occur and may try out some of the techniques they hope to utilize.


A bobcat captured with a motion-activated camera

Following feedback from the instructor, TA, expert consultants, and their classmates, the students execute their surveys during a weekend-long field trip to the Big Thicket National Preserve. Survey methods include seining for fish in a stream, collecting butterflies with aerial nets, setting up motion-activated cameras to photograph reclusive mammals, and setting up pitfall traps for reptiles and amphibians. Some groups collect specimens that they curate using appropriate methods and later deposit into a museum collection. Expert consultants participate in the weekend bioblitz survey.


Expert consultants include:

Dr. Nancy Grieg - Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences

Dr. Cassidy Johnson - Lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University

Dr. Kevin W. Conway - Assistant Professor and Curator of Fishes at Texas A&M University

Dr. Cin-Ty Lee - Professor of Earth Science at Rice University and an expert on birds

Dr. Evan Siemann - Professor and Chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University

David P. Lewis - President of the Gulf Coast Mycological Society

Chris Valdez - Herpetology Keeper at the Houston Zoo

Tim Perkins - bird expert (Rice University Class of 2004)

Working with consultants was extremely beneficial to our learning process. The consultants helped us avoid novice sampling procedure mistakes that would prove costly in the field, but did not obstruct our independent learning experience. They also were invaluable during the sampling process. I felt that they also acted indirectly as career role models
— major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


Students share the results of their biological surveys by posting images and information about species they observe in the field using the website This site is publicly available and contributes to a growing database of observations used by researchers and amateurs alike.

Students submit a written report and deliver an oral presentation to the class that describe the results of their biological survey of a particular taxonomic group in the Big Thicket National Preserve. The reports are compiled into a single document that is shared with the National Park Service and contributes to the ongoing effort to catalogue and monitor the species that occur within the preserve.

Sharing their results with their classmates, the National Park Service, and with the general public is meant to help students reflect on their results, to place them in the larger context of the biological diversity present at the sampling site and in the region, and to understand how such data contribute to the efforts of others, who might use their samples or observations for a wide range of different research projects. As each class of EBIO 327 students adds their results, they are gradually building a database that may be used by future researchers to monitor the status of endangered species or to document the spread of invasive species.

Putting our inputs into was an interesting experience, because we were able to actually receive feedback from people who know a lot about these species and their various characteristics. Personally, it gave me some insight into the collaborative nature of scientific research and how important feedback is to the overall process.
— major in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology & Policy Studies


Solomon says that the idea for the bioblitz assignment came gradually. He has taught this course for several semesters using a different approach, in which students carried out surveys of particular types of organisms in different habitats following a standard set of instructions provided by the instructor. Although this approach had its advantages (e.g. higher success rates, more consistency across groups and across years), Solomon felt it lacked both the authenticity of working on a real project in which the results would be utilized by community partners as well as the ownership that comes with developing a project on one’s own. When considering ways to reinvent the course, he found examples of “bioblitzes” conducted by other organizations, which are typically conducted as citizen science projects open to the general public. Modifying such an activity into a class project that still collects meaningful data seemed like a win-win proposition!

Solomon says than one of the biggest struggles he has faced as an instructor is determining how much guidance to give the students as they design their surveys. Specifically, he struggles with determining how much information to give them from previous semesters. On the one hand, students would benefit from knowing exactly what has been done previously and how successful it was. On the other hand, he believes that students get a better educational experience (in terms of both learning gains and project ownership) when they design the survey themselves rather than simply repeating what has been previously done. Likewise, we are somewhat constrained in terms of what methods can be used based on what approval we have from the National Park Service and the IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee). The compromise he has found is to allow students to suggest a sampling methodology based on their own independent research, and then have instructors and expert consultants point out additional considerations, potential problems, or suggest alternatives. They also have access to some of the results from previous semesters through, but not their detailed sampling methodology.

Another challenge with this approach is that the student experience differs quite a bit depending on which group they are in. For example, the tree group has no trouble finding their focal organisms (they are in a forest, after all), and typically are able to identify all individuals by sight during the survey. Other groups, such as the butterfly and moth group, typically have to collect samples that they bring back to the lab and have to identify using a microscope at a later date. This means that the workload and schedule differ for each group. Solomon has learned that it is important to be clear about this at the beginning of the course so that there are no surprises when students later learn that some groups have completed their work while others still have a lot of work to do.

Additionally, one idea suggested by a student was to require students to do more research about the organisms they are surveying. Currently, each group is asked to include some information about their focal organisms, but it might be helpful to include an additional assignment in which each group summarizes the natural history and behavior of their focal group before they begin working on a proposal for how to survey it. This would ensure that any important information (e.g. some members of the group are exclusively nocturnal or require a particular type of soil) are known when planning the survey.




Professor Solomon

Professor Solomon

Scott Solomon
Professor in the Practice, Department of BioSciences

Professor Solomon received a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from the University of Texas at Austin where he examined the evolutionary basis of biological diversity in the Amazon Basin. Before joining the faculty at Rice, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and the State University of São Paulo in Rio Claro, Brazil. He teaches courses in introductory biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, insect biology, tropical field biology, and scientific communication.  Professor Solomon has been a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence since 2014. In addition to his research on the biology of ants, he speaks and writes about science for the general public. His writing has appeared in publications such as Slate and and his first book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution will be published by Yale University Press in 2016. Dr. Solomon is also a Resident Associate and Faculty Fellow at Baker College, where he lives with his wife, Catharina, and their three children.

[1] A Bioblitz is a 24 hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible.

Posted on February 22, 2016 and filed under Natural Sciences.