My approach and interests as an educator

 
 

The hard and messy work of learning can be done only by student—Maryellen Weimer

I believe my most important role as an educator is to help students develop the learning skills they will apply to all future learning. I adopted this facilitator approach after studying, observing, and applying the constructivist and transformative theories of learner-centered teaching. These two theories advocate that students learn best by actively building their knowledge around personally meaningful contexts instead of by receiving information passively.[1] The overarching goal of my teaching approach is for students to emerge confident about the critical thinking skills they have developed and ready to pursue further scientific training. To this end, students in my environmental science courses learn (1) conceptual frameworks for organizing and applying interdisciplinary information, (2) effective writing skills for communicating with both scientific and nonspecialist audiences, and (3) the processes of environmental research.

Building and applying conceptual frameworks: Because the environmental sciences are multidisciplinary by nature, I want students in my courses to develop conceptual frameworks that coordinate information about the interactions among ecosystem-based, social, and policy issues. For example, in my Food-Energy-Water Nexus course, students first learn how the three sectors depend on and influence one another. With this conceptual foundation, they subsequently critique proposed solutions for ongoing public health, sustainability, and climate change challenges. In this small, discussion-based course for upper-level undergrads in environment, engineering, and public policy, students shape the course content by sharing information from their diverse disciplinary backgrounds. This student-led component of the class sparks collaborative learning and maintains excitement over the course of the semester. If I were to teach larger variations of this course in the future, I would make space for similar peer learning by scheduling frequent breakout group discussions on relevant environmental issues and events.

Becoming effective communicators: Clear and engaging writing is critical for communicating the value of science and scientific results to diverse audiences. In the courses I teach, students become more effective writers by practicing different writing styles and learning how to improve their work. Students in my FEW Nexus course complete and receive constructive feedback on at least five writing assignments over the course of the semester. These assignments ask students to tailor their writing to specific audiences (like the general public or policymakers) for experience structuring arguments based on the priorities of their readership. Rough drafts of high-stakes assignments are peer-reviewed by classmates and me using an assessment rubric (see assignment links above). When I evaluate the final draft, I find that student improvement reflects the feedback they received on their own work as well as what they learned about engaging writing by critically reviewing their peer’s work. The first round of student feedback for this course indicates that students also recognize the improvement in their writing. To promote even more writing progress in future offerings of this and similar courses, I would increase the number of opportunities for peer-review, reflection, and revision.

Learning the scientific process: Students become scientists by actively engaging the scientific process and learning how to conduct their own inquiry-based research. In discussion-based courses without empirical research components, my students instead critique primary literature in small groups to identify gaps in understanding, pose compelling follow-up questions, and synthesize contrasting results across multiple studies. Through these activities, students without previous research experience learn they can already contribute informed opinions and critical analysis. In future introductory, lab-based, and/or methods courses—such as environmental health, aquatic ecology, and ecotoxicology—students will conduct their own research projects using self-collected data or prepared data tutorials. They will carry-out the scientific process over the course of the semester, from question generation to data analysis and results contextualization within the broader literature. The learning exercises in these courses are designed to illuminate the process, not just the products, of scientific research.

Teaching interests: Overall, I aim for all of my courses to incorporate interdisciplinary learning so that students are prepared to work among multiple fields going forward. Based on my research and disciplinary interests, these could include:

  • Aquatic ecology

  • Aquatic biogeochemistry and biotransport

  • Ecotoxicology

  • Environmental health

  • Environmental Science Policy

  • Science writing and communication

  • The Food-Energy-Water Nexus

Up to now, my teaching philosophy and approach have been shaped by my training in Duke’s Certificate in College Teaching and Preparing Future Faculty Fellowship programs, my experience independently developing and offering a Duke undergraduate course through the Bass Instructional Fellowship program, and earlier experiences as a TA for large lecture courses. Going forward, I will continuously revise my approach as I learn from future mentors and take advantage of my institution’s professional development resources (e.g., a center for teaching and learning) to bring innovation and best practices into my classroom. I look forward to guiding and working alongside the next generation of environmental scientists in my courses.

[1] Weimer, M. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2nd ed.; Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA, 2013.