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Steven Marsh talks research in watershed and hands-on learning

Prof Talk is The Cascade’s oral history series, featuring the people best qualified to talk about what UFV has been like over the course of its first few decades: its professors. Each week we’ll interview a professor from a different department, asking them what UFV was like before it was UFV, and how they expect things will continue to change here.

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By Megan Lambert (The Cascade) – Email

Prof Talk is The Cascade’s oral history series, featuring the people best qualified to talk about what UFV has been like over the course of its first few decades: its professors. Each week we’ll interview a professor from a different department, asking them what UFV was like before it was UFV, and how they expect things will continue to change here.

Steven Marsh is head of the Geography department, and has been teaching at UFV for 24 years. He teaches courses pertaining to climate and the environment.

So what brought you to UFV?

I got hired. I was teaching at a couple of other places and I got offered some courses here and over time I was finally regularized. I’ve been a regular faculty [member] for about 6 years.

Did you have to move to teach at UFV? If so, what kind of change was that?

I moved to BC looking for employment, period. So I moved from Saskatchewan and my wife found work out here. So I followed, and I drove around quite a bit. I’ve taught at Kwantlen, and I’ve taught at UBC, SFU, [and] UFV. We moved out here two years after I started teaching here. We were in North Vancouver before that.

How would you describe the culture or the feeling you got from [UFV] when you first started teaching?

The culture here? A little bit more low-key, not like larger institutions at the time. Being out here in the Valley is a bit more country-like, not like a large city.

What kind of courses did you start out teaching? What was that like?

I started teaching first year geography, so Geography 101, 102. I taught both in Abbotsford and in Chilliwack, they’re fun. You have to know students really well because you have to teach a lecture and a lab. Lecture is one aspect of teaching, but when you teach the lab you’re more one-on-one contact to get to know the students better.

Does that differ from the courses you teach now?

My upper-level courses are mostly lab-based, so I probably do more outside activities. I enjoy that better. Lecturing is okay, but having the field experience and being more one-on-one applies better to students, for me.

What kind of changes have you noticed while teaching at UFV?

Lots of changes. Changes as far as forcing students using the internet, and then you force them to use the library, what kind of sources they use, what kinds of materials they use, going more from print to internet-based. Students don’t really change a lot. Each group has slight changes, but very similar. Weakness and strengths are basically the same. Same problems that arise in classes 20 years ago still arise today. So not huge changes but basically the biggest change is when we went to a college to a university college to a university.

Could you describe the change in UFV when comes to the surrounding geography and community?

The city’s growing. There’s definitely been growth and changes. Demographics are different, the type of people living here are different as people move out from Vancouver because of housing costs in Vancouver. It’s cheaper to live out here. So you’re seeing a change in the population and the demographics.

What kind of changes have you made in your teaching approaches or methods over time?

Or have you found one style that works?

No, you always change. Each class you make more hands-on, more applied learning, you change things up. In some of my classes, you have a lecture period and a lab period and then you try and blend the two together so that you’re still doing the lab work but it’s inter-mixed with the lecture. So you’re not sitting and listening for three hours of lecture. So there’s definitely more applied learning, more problem-based learning.

Have there been any colleagues or students who have been particularly influential in what you do as a teacher?

Oh, you always have mentors. You look back at people in the past and their style, approach, how they deal with students. So hopefully you pick the better ones. For me, one person who stands out is my supervisor from grad school, Alec Paul. His style is kind of low-key, but definitely an engaging and more applied learning style. As far as students, you get students who are really enthusiastic and there are students who stand out as far as their willingness to go with the next level and get more involved.

Over the last few years, the students who have worked with me as research assistants — I’ve had students going back over twelve years and some of them really stand out as far as their preparation and engagement, their willing to do more. I’ve had a lot of students present at conferences, create their own research plans.

Next spring I’ll have students go to Woods Hole, it’s a research institution in Massachusetts for practicums. So they get more hands-on doing analytical techniques in labs that we can’t offer here. You make those kinds of connections and see students thrive when they get away from here, which is good.

What kinds of projects, research, pedagogy, and/or course development have you worked on at UFV?

As far as research, all of my research is water-focused. So I’m involved in the Global Rivers Observatory. We’re a group of scientists working on watersheds worldwide, so we stretch across the North. We’re working on the Fraser, so we collect samples (myself and my students) for the last 6 years. I’ve expanded into small creeks. Students can develop their own research plans and follow them through. It gives them something different, it’s unusual here because it’s a project designed to go on for a couple of decades. Because to identify long-term change in water courses, you have to have a long period of time to monitor and find out if anything is happening in the watersheds.

While we often talk of UFV as a single entity, each student and teacher will take something different out of UFV.

How would you describe what you have taken out of UFV and how you’re still changing it?

It’s been an experience. The things I’ve done, from my research to study tours. I’ve been involved in study tours for about a dozen years. It’s those outside experiences. Experiences in a classroom are similar, but it’s a different experience being down in southwest or at St. Helens when it erupted. So it was a small eruption but it was pretty cool and the students really got a charge out of it. We were interviewed by newspapers and TV stations for the next half hour after the event.

It’s an experience when you work with students and you see where they grow and develop, especially if you see a student in first year, kind of a struggling student, and by the time fourth year comes they’ve grown dramatically. They’re more confident. They can write better, their critical thinking is at a different level. They’re ready to go out and find something where they can make a difference. It’s interesting when you hear back from students like that. I taught a course to a student at UBC quite a few years ago and I he was really inspired by natural hazards and he went on and did a Masters in response management and is now second in command for disaster management in the Greater Toronto area. He thanked for inspiring me, but that’s why we do what we do. We make few connections, but when we make those connections it’s kind of cool.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from Esra Al-Abduljabar.

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