My teaching style involves a host of different approaches to accomodate the variety of student learning styles in the classroom and the outdoor “classroom.” Below are some examples:
I’ve employed many different exercises to encourage student-led instruction and interaction with educational material. Examples include:
- Organized group discussions/debates for controversial ecological/management issues
- Think-pair-share in the lecture hall to discuss plant physiological mechanisms
- Student-generated quiz questions and exchange among peers as a means of reviewing for an exam.
- Breaking the lecture audience into teams to answer a multi-part question mid-lecture.
- Read more about Active Learning from Purdue University.
I have participated in flipped learning workshops and thought hard about the effectiveness of flipped learning for ecological course material. I believe I’ve found a happy medium that students enjoy and benefit from. I call them Scientific Study Videos (SSVs). They are 5-8 minute clips that highlight an important study in plant ecology and complement lecture material. Understanding HOW scientists learned what we know today is an incredibly valuable thought exercise for students as they learn about the natural world around them. What’s printed in textbooks came from an inquisitive scientist at some time. Students today can be just as inquisitive as those who came before them. Link to Youtube Playlist of Scientific Study Videos
Each of my lectures are organized by questions, not topics. These questions are posed in the beginning and I have the students answer them at the end of lecture, thus sandwiching their education with a question and their own answer to said question. I highly encourage students to ask their own questions of the material and attempt to answer them on their own. There is a lot of information at their finger-tips nowadays. During my courses I make sure to include some of the newest breaking science to date and explain that beyond this material is the unknown. The crux of my EEMB 140 Plant Ecology course is the research proposal whereby students propose an ecological question of their own design (see below).
Improving writing/editing skills
I value writing as an essential skill for undergraduate education. I often encounter students who graduate with a scientific degree have little to no experience with scientific writing and/or editing. I assign a 2-page research proposal assignment loosely based on the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Proposal. Students come up with their own original (to the best of their ability) ecological question and develop a proposal over several months with various checkpoints along the way including two rounds of peer review and editing. This assessment has been published in the EcoED Digital Library run by the Ecological Society of America.
Teaching Philosophy Statement 2018
I believe that science is the exploration and discovery of knowledge through questions. Asking questions is how we begin to learn and investigating those questions is how we gain knowledge. I teach science with the goal of inspiring students to question the natural world and the choices they make. When I teach, instead of just writing a keyword/phrase on the board, I simply add a question mark to the end of it. Having all students ask themselves about the meaning of a concept forces them to think beyond a definition. This learning process is also analogous to how these concepts were originally discovered by scientists. Fostering such inquisitiveness among students will not only prepare them to learn science, but it serves to increase their awareness of the world they live in and their potential impacts on it.
Across all of my courses, I guide students through the difficult process of developing a good scientific question. Questions drive science and if I can leave students with one skill when they finish a course, it’s the ability to develop a question grounded in biological processes and scientific practices. Students can find the abstract nature and independence of asking a novel question jarring, so I find ways to ease them into the process. They examine questions collaboratively in class, read about scientists asking questions, and practice developing questions on their own. Through this iterative process, students gain confidence and an inquisitive mindset that will help them address any problem they encounter.
While teaching at UC Santa Barbara, I became captivated by the science and art of pedagogy. By assessing our methods of scientific teaching, we can better instruct students and reduce the achievement gap for under-represented student groups. Students in my courses arrive with different skill sets, learning styles and priorities. I have learned to embrace the variable nature of students while providing a challenging learning environment. For my General Plant Ecology course, students developed a novel research question in plant ecology and wrote a 2-page research proposal over the course of the quarter. Students developed truly fascinating questions and many students investigated ecological concepts that had personal significance for them. One student from Brazil was concerned about a recent mining disaster near his hometown, so we discussed possible research ideas for his proposal. His research question merged his personal curiosity with local ecological concepts and he wrote a great proposal exploring the effects of heavy metal mining pollution on native plant physiology. Leveraging students’ experiences combined with evidence-based teaching techniques can result in a more comprehensive learning environment and better learning outcomes. My teaching experiences in California have led me to my postdoctoral work at Michigan State University, investigating questions in biology teaching best-practices.
Through my postdoctoral research on professional development of college-level instructors and my own personal professional development, I cultivated a pedagogical skill set that focuses on students building and exploring scientific questions. I had the chance to flex these skills in a challenging environment during the fall of 2017 when I co-taught Introductory Biology at Michigan State University. My co-instructor and I implemented a course-long phenology project to encourage student-driven investigations in a quantitative context. Student groups collected phenology data from campus trees using their cellphones to submit data to a centralized database. The groups then developed research questions and proposals from these data and tested their hypotheses by visualizing and analyzing the class-wide dataset. These practical exercises mirrored in-class activities where students collaborated in groups, predicted outcomes of experiments, and modeled biological processes. We are in the process of publishing this lesson on CourseSource (https://www.coursesource.org/). By coupling in-class guided learning of scientific practices with independent activities, students had a profound learning experience and demonstrated gains in critical thinking and quantitative skills; both of these skills will be of great value to their careers after graduating from college.
Socrates taught, “An unexamined life is not worth living”. Over the years, I have developed a philosophy of teaching that engages students’ curiosity, merges personal interests with scientific practices, and promotes a culture of questioning. Only by asking questions and investigation will we truly understand our world and ourselves.