Teaching

A bit about my teaching approach and philosophy (for teaching experience, please see CV):

Scientific results are invaluable and shape human progress. However, it is the process of science, a time-tested, inquiry-based means of discovery for one’s self and the whole of humankind that ignites a fire in scientists, including students.  Graduate school allowed me to engage with French Polynesian and Mexican communities and reveal scientific insights regarding the conservation of their ecological resources. However, I became increasingly aware that indifference and even aversion toward science was common in non-scientists in the U.S. and abroad, especially those from under-privileged backgrounds, who were unaware of what pursuing science actually meant. I believe this gap in understanding is also pervasive among early undergraduate students.

I have fought misconceptions about science careers while teaching a diversity of undergraduate and graduate students in traditional classrooms (instructor, General Biology and General Ecology labs), as well as research-intensive field settings (co-instructor, Marine Botany in Akumal, Mexico, 2011/2013/2015; lead instructor, Marine Ecology in French Polynesia [2014] and in Akumal, Mexico [2016], all dominated by female students). In addition, I have mentored >30 undergraduates across laboratory and international field settings. From these experiences, a striking pattern has emerged: seeing course material (and career opportunities) ‘in action’ in field and lab settings allows students of all backgrounds to reach higher levels of appreciation, engagement and understanding of core concepts than are typically possible in traditional classroom settings. I believe this is due, in part, to the fact that students take in knowledge via a broad spectrum of stimuli, including visual, auditory, physical and interactive cues. An individual student’s preferred assemblage of learning cues can vary tremendously from student to student, and thus the most fruitful learning will result from a breadth of teaching methods that incorporate diverse learning cues. ‘The field’, for a biologist, is a sensory overload.

Of course, many classes cannot take place in a field setting, but are instead housed in classrooms and lecture halls. Nonetheless, even in these traditional settings, student-teacher and student-student interaction as well as a breadth of interactive stimuli can accommodate a wide variety of learners. In lieu of the sensory carnival that the field offers, interactive teaching, I have found, is particularly useful to engage students in classroom settings. Examples of these approaches include the following: 1) classroom discussions on conceptual understanding, without getting bogged down in all the facts; 2) student group case studies that allow peer interaction and supervised group-based learning activities covering complex concepts or key experiments; and 3) Animations and videos with audio, dioramas, and moveable models—all too often, it seems, that we get bogged down with lecture slides.

Indeed, for students to succeed in an interactive classroom, it is imperative to facilitate a free-learning environment, in which students feel comfortable with asking questions and feel challenged (not intimidated) by the material. I strive to challenge students regularly, regarding their conceptual understanding, with thought exercises that force them to think critically, while simultaneously understanding the practical value behind the material being taught. For example, when teaching students about biodiversity, I find it especially important to allow students to think through the concept of biodiversity’s utilitarian value by citing personal goods and services that they each use and having them trace those back to a natural ecosystem. Then, to further convey the concepts of Island Biogeographic Theory, I would have students come up with a list of real-world applications of this theory and how validating or rejecting this theory is important to the human race on multiple scales. A free-learning environment allows students to reach their individual potential, while allowing the teacher the opportunity to assess student strengths and weakness to better tailor efforts to their needs on an ongoing basis.

Teaching is one of the most rewarding aspects of a career in academia, because as a teacher you have the opportunity to directly empower students with knowledge. I have enjoyed and grown from diverse teaching experiences. Consequently, one of my core career goals is to improve learning gains and inspire sustained interest in STEM disciplines in my students, especially those from groups that are under-represented in STEM fields. Through the feedback that I receive from students and colleagues concerning my teaching methods, I will continuously adapt to achieve my goal.

UT_Maymester_Akumal_2015

Akumal, Mexico, June 2015: Teaching a 3-week undergraduate field research course.

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