Statement of Teaching and Learning
My philosophy and approach to teaching is the result of my experiences as a teacher and as a student, as well as interactions with colleagues. My first formal teaching experience came when my undergraduate advisor requested that I tutor a student in my research lab who was struggling in a chemistry course. As a Masters student, I taught two different introductory biology labs with lecturing responsibilities and a senior/graduate level aquatic ecology lab. During the past four years as a Ph.D. student I have taught a senior/graduate level stream ecology lab. I have also taken the opportunity to work with grade-school students, teaching two separate outreach courses on aquatic ecology over the past three years. Finally, I have given guest lectures in two separate senior/graduate aquatic ecology courses (enrollment ranging from 25-160 students). These experiences have provided the foundations for effective teaching and for inspiring the desire to learn in my students, as well as solidified my interest in placing an emphasis on teaching and mentoring in my academic career.
As an educator, it is my responsibility to create an environment that allows a group of students with diverse learning styles to maximize their potential to retain the information and apply it to real world situations. I do this by incorporating time for students to engage in hands-on exercises, actively participate in small group discussions, and interact on a one-on-one basis with me during class. I also try to incorporate outside materials such as research or news articles, or demonstrations. As an example, I was talking to a freshman biology class about the transmission of diseases and used a participatory demonstration to demonstrate how easily a disease could get transmitted through a population. At the end of the demonstration I overheard one of the students under their breath say “wow.” It is likely that this simple demonstration had a far more significant impact on that student than just giving a classic “lecture.”
I believe that life-long learning occurs when students can connect to the information presented. I strive to create a personal connection with the students in my class by incorporating my research and life experiences into the lectures. I feel that these conversations help the students connect with me on a personal level and, as a result, become more engaged in the classroom. I also try to learn about individual students so I can tailor course materials to the students. Finally, I try to demonstrate the real-world applicability of the topics that we are discussing. For example, in a recent lecture on nitrogen saturation in aquatic ecosystem, I spent some time talking with the students about how this issue influences the general public. After this discussion, I was thrilled to have a few students recognize how a recent news article, that I had not seen, was related to the discussion we had in class and initiate further discussions with me as a result of this article. Talking about more than facts and figures allowed the students to critically analyze information that they absorbed on a daily basis and understand how it related to the basic ecological principles we were discussing in class.
I am always amazed at the eagerness of young children to share their opinions and participate in class and in turn I strive to create an environment where students actively participate in the educational process. One of the best ways to teach science is to actually do science. In my teaching, I emphasize three core ways for the students to participate in the scientific process: (1) asking questions, (2) doing research, and (3) communicating ideas. During class I try to empower the students to ask questions and communicate ideas by being supportive, encouraging interactions, and building a rapport with the students. I also believe in placing an emphasis on students learning about science by conducting individual and group research projects (field, lab, or literature based).
Outside of the classroom, I take great pride in mentoring students at all levels and look for ways to provide students with research opportunities. The research opportunities that I had as an undergraduate student were critical in my decision to go to graduate school. I learned more about the process of doing science (asking questions, designing experiments, collecting data, writing papers, and presenting results at scientific meetings) through these experiences than any single class could have taught me. Because I view this as such a valuable experience, I have mentored a NSF REU student as a graduate student and also try to incorporate my undergraduate assistants into my research so they have a better idea of the research that I am doing, and the scientific process in general.
Becoming an effective teacher is a lifelong process and I am always striving to find ways to stimulate learning and intellectual growth in my students. I have found that students can provide timely and critical feedback. In addition to reflecting on the end of the semester feedback, I have used anonymous feedback during the semester to help me adapt to the class. This formative assessment was critical when I first started teaching and allowed me to address comments such as “talking too fast” or “not allowing enough time to take notes” while I was still teaching the class. I also believe that, as educators, we can learn a lot from one another and actively seek out interactions (both formal and informal) about teaching techniques and how to most effectively present material.
Stephen Brookfield in his book, The Skillful Learner, wrote “Teaching is about making some kind of dent in the world so that the world is different than it was before you practiced your craft. Knowing clearly what kind of dent you want to make in the world means that you must continually ask yourself the most fundamental evaluative question of all—What effect am I having on students and on their learning?” This idea plays a fundamental role in my teaching philosophy. At its roots my teaching philosophy emphasizes empowering students to become active life-long learners, develop critical thinking skills through learning about science by doing science, and gain a fundamental understanding of the environment we live in. I view the measure of my success as a teacher by not just my students grasping the concepts but rather taking that information and applying it in their everyday lives.