Cool Courses: Lake Erie in Good Times and in Bad

Posted Oct 03, 2022

Ohio hasn’t always been kind to its Great Lake, but Lake Erie has proven to be resilient. As a major economic driver for the state, Lake Erie’s health is more important than many realize. Two biologists — Professor Michael Hoggarth and his wife, Karen — teach this class about the birth, death, and rebirth of Ohio’s Great Lake.

Professor Hoggarth shares some of the secrets behind his Cool Course.

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Quilt made by the students in the class

INST 3019: Lake Erie in Good Times and in Bad 

Lake Erie is sometimes the poster child of environmental failure and sometimes the Wheaties Box of environmental success: the lake was formed when one destructive force (glaciers) met what some might think an immovable force (northern Ohio). Shortly after its formation (in geologic time) the lake was pronounced DEAD, then it was recovered and now it is on life support. Exploring the history of Lake Erie from its birth to present-day and asking questions about its future, with the perspectives of a natural resource manager (applied science) and a field zoologist (basic science). Thinking about Lake Erie as an example of the complex decisions that frame our use, misuse, and non-use of a resource and seek to understand the resiliency of nature under an onslaught of human and non-human activities. As Lake Erie is larger than its border in Ohio, we will also ask who is the public when it comes to the lake and what are the goods and services provided by the lake. We will create a quilt that demonstrates our understanding of the lake, its environment, our relationship with that environment, and what public good is when confronted with such an entity as a Great Lake.

What inspired you to develop this course?

I was inspired by a couple of things. One, Karen, my wife, had recently retired from teaching biology at Whitehall-Yearling High School, and two, we both had so much experience at Lake Erie — 20 years of me teaching a field zoology class in the summers for OSU and Karen getting her master’s degree at OSU’s Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory. Those experiences seemed to speak to the themes of the 3000-level INST classes, such as public good. Lake Erie is the poster child for what the public lost (when the lake was dead) and now for what we have gained (clean water, walleye capital of the world, and the largest economic engine in the state).

Why do you love teaching this course?

I think the thing we like most about the course is that it’s never the same each time we teach it, and that was by design. We do introduce the same 10-12 topics each time we teach the class, but then we leave it to the students to fill in the gaps or embody the topic with what they find interesting about it. For example, our first topic is the birth of the lake, which is mostly geology and glaciers. Our second topic is the death of the lake, which is the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, the birth of Environmental Protection Agency, the clean water act and the “Lake is Dead.” Students can take this topic in so many different directions that we never know what to expect. This is followed by teams of four students each designing a quilt block that distills the topic and connects it to the lake and to public good. There are so many imaginative ways that they find to do this.

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Quilt made by the students in the class

What are the most unexpected thing students learn in this course?

Probably that they are connected to Lake Erie and to their own environments in ways that they never thought about before. This is really what the 3000 level INST classes are about. We need goods and services to survive and when we dissect these things, we see how dependent we are, and how important it is to use these goods and services in a sustainable way.

How do the themes in your course prepare students to think critically?

The critical thinking part of the class comes in three levels. First, their individual artifact (that’s what we call their evidence for the topic of the week). They might find a photograph of the Cuyahoga River on fire as an example. This photograph speaks to the topic. Then, each group gets up and presents something a little bit different and we all dive deeper into the topic and figure out how each artifact is related to other artifacts and the lake. Finally, the teams must create a visual representation of that topic. So, going from the individual thought to a mosaic of multiple thoughts, and eventually to a distillation of those multiple thoughts into a single piece of visual representation. What surprises me most is how easy they make it.

What is some of your favorite student feedback you have received about this course?

I think the feedback I like the most is our end-of-the-year evaluations. We have taught the course six times now and there are two pieces of the evaluations that I like the most. One is the ‘level of difficulty’ section and the other is the ‘how much I gained from the course’ section. Our scores for level of difficulty tend to range low, however, the scores for the ‘what I gained from this course’ are relatively high. They make it look easy because we are asking them to excel in their wheelhouse. The students are creative, invested, and engaged and so they make it seem simple.

What are some interesting projects or activities you do to engage your students in your course?

The major project that comes out of our course is a quilt that ties in the topics we cover in class, from the lake is born, to its death, its rebirth, its problems (pollution, invasive species, harmful algal blooms, etc.) and its successes (economics, native species, etc.).

What is a dream course you would like to develop or teach?

As noted above, Karen is now retired (and so was able to help develop this course with me) and I will be retiring in three years, so we most likely won’t be developing any other new courses. However, if we did, a travel course to visit the national parks throughout the Americas and what parks like these mean to our American way of life, using Ken Burns’ America’s Best Idea documentary series.

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Quilt made by the students in the class
Quilt made by the students in the class