Teaching Philosophy

In teaching environmental science and ecology, my ultimate goal is to enrich and enable students to describe and evaluate their environment near and far around them. I want students coming out of my classes to reflect on the impact their actions, and human societies in general, have on the environment and how the state of the environment impacts their lives. Field and lab activities in my courses tend to engage students with subject matter in a way that not even the most lively and Socratic of discussions seem capable of. One of my favorite teaching experiences was in my Environmental Biology course when a student who had been largely disinterested in class excitedly grabbed a centipede (while wearing gloves) during a soil biodiversity survey field activity. The data that came from that field activity and subsequent laboratory session led to several productive discussions and an exam essay writing prompt that students succeeded succeeded on, integrating and evaluating data and environmental theory. Students tend to care and give more attention to scientific graphs and charts when they helped generate the data or created the graphs themselves.

Though I actively embrace every opportunity to get my students outside with hands-on interaction of environmental science and biology, the bulk of my instruction is traditional lecture and so the delivery and crafting of lectures cannot ignored. I actively seek opportunities to incorporate my active research in lectures on soil formation, soil invertebrate diversity, geomorphology, and ecosystem respiration. Students tend to be much more interested in the ebb and flow of CO2 if they watch me breathe through a piece of analytical equipment I bring in mid-lecture and display the increase in respiratory CO2 in real time before we move on to ponder ideas like the “breath of the forest” later in lecture. This particular teaching example worked excellently when I was giving an invited lecture in a Master's level course in "geobiology" in Germany where English was the second language for the entire class with an international student body spanning eastern and western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. When students can see and witness a process happening and internalize it first-hand, you can skip over much of the difficulty students may have in translating a primary lesson, rather it allows students to focus their cognitive energies on deeper parts of the problem at hand. Thus the question for students to answer isn't "what is this process?", rather it allows them a deeper investigation of "how is this process occurring in nature and why does it behave the way it does?" Science education, I feel, is too often presented like a magic cooking show where we spontaneously provide a plethora of facts and theories without showing how researchers deduce, formulate, and test the theories presented in lectures. As such, bringing the “tools” of science into the classroom, whenever reasonable, is hugely powerful, I feel.

It is difficult and unfair to expect students to act as information sponges. Absorbing lecture material to regurgitate later should not define students’ role in higher education. Students in my environmental biology course (syllabus) are more likely to drive at the significance of environmental and ecological phenomena or processes. Student learning and retention is evaluated every week in my Environmental Biology course via graded lab activities. Lab activities allow me to work one-on-one with students and student groups to generate, analyze, and interpret data. These laboratory sessions and activities are also an excellent time for helping students synthesize course-wide material. Whether we're analyzing samples in the lab or taking measurements in the field, the properties of soil, water, vegetation, human impacts, etc... are all influencing each other. As we work on studying one specific topic, I can evaluate students’ ability not only to retain material, but ask leading questions and encourage them to integrate their learning across lectures and lab activities. I begin each class, and each discussion section when I am a TA, with questions reviewing the essential material from the previous class meeting to get everyone talking and thinking about environmental science and I also break several times throughout lectures for dedicated discussion and review of the material that has just been introduced. In this way students are quizzed and their learning is evaluated in real time and if something is unclear, we address it immediately in that lecture. This process also benefits me by facilitating exam writing as I develop question materials over the course of the semester that I know students have been exposed to. Formal exams, either three or four per term, also test and evaluate students’ ability to synthesize and recall course material with a strong emphasis on essay and short answer questions. Exams, to me, should emphasize understanding of the processes and mechanics involved in the topic or course at hand, be it soils, forests, or ecosystems at large. One practice that I plan to implement, either as a replacement or to supplement my in-class review and discussion questions is to reformulate them as daily quizzes so that every student has to consider all the question material in every class, raising the stakes a bit. I also plan to implement 1-on-1 meetings between myself and students for small classes or between students and TA’s for larger courses to help revise and improve research papers and presentations rather than relying only on written feedback.

In preparing lectures, teaching activities, and field/lab exercises in Environmental Biology, Soil Resources, Forest Measurements, and Introduction to Environmental Science courses, the need to foster “critical thinking” skills remains somewhat elusive. How does one inspire, or at least encourage, students to think deeply on subject matter? It is a straightforward goal, but I've only learned to make progress on it gradually. I think a big part of the solution lies in inspiring students to truly care about the material itself, beyond a grade on a transcript. Upon reflecting my own notes and invited sit-in colleagues’ comments on my teaching, it has been abundantly clear that lectures on topics I find most intriguing, whether related to my personal research or not, are much more engaging to students than topics I am less engaged with. Though seemingly obvious in retrospect, I have learned that a (dis)interested professor will have correspondingly (dis)interested students. Thus, I make it a point to find something particularly intriguing about any topic I teach. As an example, in the photo to the left I am thrilled to be holding a ladybug larvae my Environmental Biology class discovered while visiting the Duke Campus Farm. While I don't find pest management inherently riveting, these creatures are a perfect example of a predatory insect species that is excellent in helping to reduce and control agricultural pests. I work to stimulate genuine interest in myself in order to carry that interest forward to my students. The most amazing thing, I think, about teaching and researching environmental science is that we can connect just about any course topic to examples and places in the world around us. If students see course topics as relevant to them, they are much more likely to evaluate the inner workings of the subject matter. As such, I would say that I am most actively improving my ability to make course material relatable and relevant to my students.

Teaching Experience

Adjunct Instructor - Durham Technical Community College: BIO 140 Environmental Biology - see "syllabus" link above

Teaching Assistant - Duke University: ENV 701 Forest Measurements, ENV 721 Soil Resources, ENV 102 Introduction to Environmental ScienceTeaching Assistant - SUNY Geneseo/Maderas Rainforest Conservancy: ANTH 323 Primate Behavior and Ecology Field School

Other Courses I am prepared to teach:

fundamentals of geospatial analysis

introductory statistics

introductory biology

introductory ecology