Teaching Philosophy (download as pdf)
As a scientist, I strive to understand how the world works by critically examining data and when appropriate, changing my conceptual model(s) to incorporate new findings. In my teaching, I hope to teach students to use the same dynamic approach to knowledge. Whether students enroll in one of my courses because of a deep interest in the subject or simply to fulfill a requirement, I teach in a way that both aids their understanding the subject matter and catalyzes learning and practice of skills that are useful in and beyond the discipline. My goals are for students that I teach and mentor to: 1) critically evaluate information or ideas and 2) connect new information to existing knowledge to better understand how the ecosystems around them work. It is crucial to make this sort of learning available to all students, whether or not they choose to pursue a career in science.
While it is important for students to learn the facts and concepts that underlie scientific understanding, I want students to learn them while they think critically about and apply these concepts. In 2017, I designed and taught a course in which students learned about types and sources of uncertainty in climate science and strategies for effectively communicating science to audiences unfamiliar with the concept of scientific uncertainty. Later in the semester, students applied this knowledge by writing a policy brief in which they summarized a process with climate relevance (examples included international trading of liquid petroleum gas and coastal development), including an effective discussion of the uncertainties in the science, and outlined policy recommendations. The effort and thought that students put into their analyses exceeded my expectations; I believe this was, in part, because they had the freedom to apply the concepts to a new issue of their choosing. This enriched the course by adding topics and ideas beyond what I included in the syllabus.
I also think it is important that students place newly learned concepts and facts into the scaffold of their existing knowledge and I design lessons to help them to do so. In a peer-reviewed teaching activity I co-authored (Ficken, Fork, and Fuller 2015), undergraduate students learn and apply basic tenets of landscape ecology. Before coming to class, students read that water availability increases with altitude in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, resulting in a vegetation pattern in which drought-tolerant plants dominate at low altitudes and more cold-tolerant plants are found higher on the mountains. In class, students are presented with a new landscape: the Florida Scrub, where topographic relief is orders of magnitude smaller and where lower altitudes that are closer to the water table experience wetter conditions while higher altitudes have well-drained, dry soils. Students use this information to predict where drought-tolerant and -intolerant plants would sort along this micro-elevation gradient, applying the concept they learned earlier to a new landscape. Students who think carefully will realize that in the Florida Scrub, the vegetation pattern is the opposite of the Sierra Nevada and will assign the drought tolerant plants to the higher elevation habitat. Students apply and deepen their knowledge of ecological concepts by applying them to new ecosystems and situations and confronting them with new information.
I believe in treating college students as the adults they are, and in my classes I expect them to take responsibility for and an active role in their own learning. Toward this goal, I am transparent with respect to my teaching strategies. In my coursework as part of Duke’s Certificate in College Teaching, instructors often took time to describe the pedagogical reasons behind certain activities and I found this helped me to engage with the material. In my teaching, I use the same technique to encourage metacognition and engagement with the process of learning. Students in my classes write short reflections several times through the semester in which they think about the material and how they are learning it. Written and in class discussions of mid-term evaluations foster a collaborative environment that allows me to respond to student feedback regarding course format and the kinds of activities and assignments students find helpful, and adjust to better suit our shared needs and expectations.
I work to iteratively improve my teaching by reacting to students’ needs and understanding. Taking an approach from environmental management, I try to think of my teaching with a strategy of “adaptive management.” I evaluate progress toward learning objectives after each class by asking students to relay one thing they’ve learned and one question they have on an anonymous notecard; this serves as an informal assessment tool that allows me to adjust the material I teach and compels students to reflect and internalize their own learning. I also incorporate self-evaluation by taking a few minutes after each class meeting to make notes to myself for how I can clarify and improve lessons in subsequent class meetings and future iterations of the course.
I would look forward to contributing to the teaching biogeochemistry and aquatic systems ecology as well as developing a course in urban ecology. In addition, I would give students hands-on research experiences by incorporating fieldwork and real data analysis into my curriculum. In particular, I think a skill that may be particularly useful for many future graduates in environmental sciences will be the ability to understand and analyze data generated by environmental sensor networks. An upper level/graduate course or workshop in which students design research projects using such large and complex datasets would give them quantitative skills that would position them to successfully work toward solutions for environmental challenges we face today and in the future.
As an educator, I also look forward to creating and participating in educational opportunities outside the classroom. I look forward to mentoring students as they complete independent environmental research. I will also involve students as technicians and collaborators in my own research on aquatic ecosystems, and will encourage graduate students I mentor to do the same. As a faculty member responsible for training graduate students, I will encourage learning of skills beyond those required to conduct and communicate science; environmental scientists benefit from skills and knowledge that range from mentorship, personnel and budget management, oral and written communication to a diverse range of audiences, and the ability to successfully work with diverse colleagues and students. In addition, I recognize that many graduate students seek careers outside academia, and will work with the students I mentor to help develop training plans that will allow them to be successful in the path of their choosing.