Back in August, I was privileged to be part of a symposium celebrating 40 years of the American Chemical Society Science Policy Fellows program. The speakers represented each of the decades of the program, and each of us shared our fellowship experiences as well as what came afterwards. One of the organizers identified me as, “You’re the one who went back.” Indeed all of the other fellows had gone on to other positions in policy, a phenomenon known as “Potomac Fever,” and I was the only one who took a break from a job, spent a year in Washington, and then returned to the same job. As time is available this spring, I plan to share how I have used my year on The Hill now that I am back in Connecticut.
In my original fellowship application, I stated that upon my return to my academic position, I planned to create a course for undergraduate students that would blend content issues with the politics I learned in Washington. Thus this past fall, I taught an Honors seminar entitled, “Natural Resources, Science, and Public Policy.” Mentally I subtitled the course, “What I did on my sabbatical.” It has been the largest of the projects I’ve undertaken so far, and I’ve found it to be extremely rewarding.
The greatest challenge of the course for me was that I have little experience teaching seminar-style courses. My reflex is always to lecture. When I mentioned my concerns to a wise mentor, he suggested, “Well of course! In science you actually have facts to convey. In English, we tend to discuss opinions much more.” His comment at least validated my discomfort. I’m always afraid that the students won’t talk, although that was certainly not a problem by the end of the semester.
One of the ideas I implemented early on was that each student should choose a senator and state to represent. I had been concerned that the students would each select their home states and we would have find students all talking about the same state, but that turned out not to be the case. Indeed, although a large number of students grew up in Connecticut, neither of the Connecticut senators was selected by a student. To start the selection process, I passed out a map of the United States, described some of the environmental and energy issues by region, and the students proceeded to select a reasonably representative group of Senators, including members of both political parties.
I personally enjoyed the challenge of a student asking me to describe the senior and junior senators of a state, and I was generally able to provide a few pertinent details about each senator’s interests, committees, and personalities entirely off the top of my head. I got my first inkling of how little the students were aware of politics when I was describing the two senators from Nevada. I said, “Oh, well the senior senator is Harry Reid.” The student looked blankly at me and asked, “Who is that?” Yes, we had some work to do. (At the time, he was the Senate Majority Leader if you need the hint.)
At the end of the semester, the students specifically commented on how much they liked that they were each representing a specific senator. One student announced, “I liked learning about a state outside of New England.” In contrast, another student who was a native of Massachusetts and selected one of her home state senators commented, “I learned that I knew nothing at all about my home state.”
Stay tuned, and I’ll share more of my adventures with my honors students this past semester.