Teaching Philosophy

The central role of every university is education. I am excited about the potential to join in this mission, especially translating primary research findings in a manner that is accessible to the end users (the students, general public and decision makers). Critical in this translation is the integration of information from traditionally different disciplines to a more accurate understanding of the environment. The combination of research and education is critical to how we, as a society, understand environmental processes and issues resulting in better decisions concerning how we manage our resources.

Teaching Goals:

Fundamental concepts. Fundamental concepts are the beginning of the educational process and is essential for proper scientific thought. My approach is to develop these fundamental concepts in lectures at a pace that I think is suitable for the majority of the class. However, recognizing that students progress at different rates, I make myself available after lecture, at routine office hours or by appointment for any student that would like to take advantage of the opportunity. I prefer to develop concepts from an over-arching question for each lecture and inject historical information where appropriate. For example, I may start a lecture on deep-sea hydrothermal systems by relating that hydrothermal ciruculation was predicted before it was observed. In the mid-1970’s, scientists had predicted the cooling rate of the crust based on conductive thermal transfer, however, the   measured cooling rate (heat flux) of the oceanic crust is faster than scientists had predicted, what might explain this? This approach helps me to maintain a storyline throughout the lecture. On test and problem sets I prefer to have integrated questions that require students to synthesize the fundamental concepts into an appropriate framework.

Critical thinking. We live in an age where information is free and easily available from a quick search on Google. We need to teach our students the skills to evaluate and handle the mass of information. Critical thinking is the ability to gather, evaluate, synthesize and implement information. I assign primary literature for each lecture and strive to teach the students how to evaluate the data, methodology and the interpretation of the results. This is best done by group discussion where I serve more as a moderator rather than lead. For a course that meets for two to three hours per week, a half-hour discussion period during that time is appropriate.

Interdisciplinary approach. I consider my background in oceanography, chemistry and microbiology essential to my success as both a researcher and educator. In marine sciences in particular an ability to move and communicate in multiple disciplines is required for success. I strive to foster such skills in my students. The interdisciplinary approach also provides perspectives on range of scales (temporal and spatial) that are necessary for scientific literacy. The understanding of the connections between fields, and ability to look at problems from different perspectives, will be important as we address the environmental issues of today.

Communication. Effective communication makes scientific information and concepts available to the general public and decision-makers. Communication is breaking down difficult concepts and jargon into a language and examples that are meaningful to your audience. For example, I have on a few occasions had the opportunity to lecture on the structure of the earth to elementary school children. Each student was given a handful of peanut M&Ms and asked to bite a few in half leaving a cross section of the solid peanut core, the fluid chocolate mantle and the thin candy crust, the Earth in candy form. Here, the tangible candy prop illustrated the material at a level of communication appropriate for a 3rd grader. For an older audience, such as undergraduates or professional-level decision-maker, an appropriate illustration may be more intellectual than tangible and obviously more complete, including plate tectonics for example with appropriate map cut outs, slide images or even geographically appropriate fossils if available, similar to Wegener’s original insights.


Teaching Style and Experience:

My teaching style is designed to build a logical framework where new information can be evaluated and synthesized into a preexisting body of knowledge. In other words, foster critical thinking. Students are engaged by asking them a question that requires the student to synthesize information during lectures and laboratories. I provide ample opportunities to respond with questions and discuss the concepts of the lecture.

At the start of most lectures feedback sheets are handed out with three questions (what worked best, what did not work and any other comments). I read these forms to critique my presentation of the material and answer any questions from the previous lecture at the beginning of the next lecture or amend my lecture as needed. Early in the lecture time I will present a multiple choice question relevant to the day’s topic, allowing students to vote on the answer followed by discussion in small peer groups (2-4 students) and a final vote. This exercise takes 10 minutes and the remainder of the class period is filled with traditional lecture and question dynamics. The laboratory period is used to reinforce concepts taught in lecture. For example, when teaching about mobile genetic elements a simple laboratory exercise to demonstrate the concepts would be the movement of a transposon (jumping genes) into a host E. coli that express b–galactase. A simple mutant hunt on X-gal/IPTG agar plates shows many white colonies (wild-type) and a few blue colonies, where b–galactase has been knocked out by the transposon.

Success in teaching is not only measured by traditional test and problem sets but also by feedback sheets.  I deem the class successful when a majority of students not only understand the individual concepts but also how the different concepts fit together (synthesis of information) in the bigger picture.  To ascertain this, test questions are often constructed so that synthesis of the material is required to answer the query properly.  In upper-level or graduate-level courses the students are given data that they are expected to analyze, interpret and defend appropriately.

Outside of the traditional University classroom, I have experience teaching science to a range of students including preschool children and high school teachers and in a wide range of settings.  I enjoy these outreach teaching opportunities, as it is a privilege to see students of all ages get excited and become in engaged in the subject matter.  With younger groups and with field based classrooms I enjoy teaching through experimentation.  At one preschool class I designed a lecture teaching about pressure at the bottom of the ocean.  The demonstration was very simple.  I had the children color two Styrofoam cups.  Half of the cups were sent 2 km below the ocean on the ROV Jason and half were pressurized in the laboratory autoclave (for quick return to the classroom).  I demonstrated that the weight of the water is pressing in equally on all sides, resulting in a perfectly shrunken cup.  Pressure is not simply top-down, placing a gallon jug of water on top of a cup, crushing the cup.  With older students, the same demonstration is effective with layers of complexity added such as calculating the amount of pore space in the cups or evaluating the differences between the economy and premium brand Styrofoam cups. I’ve also spent time with a group of high school teachers, developing classroom demonstrations and laboratory exercises that explore the nutrient input and monitoring in coastal waters and watershed/riverbed construction. Finally, I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring high school, undergraduate and graduate students in the laboratory. These projects have ranged from geochemical, isotopic, molecular and general microbiological efforts.

In conclusion, teaching is a natural outcome of research. It is an opportunity, privilege and responsibility to provide students with the skills necessary to be both scientifically literate and able to critically evaluate and implement information resulting in a student that can work toward success in a range of endeavors.