My approach to teaching can be summarized in two words: “Inform” and “Inspire.” As an instructor, my responsibility is to provide students with the knowledge and the tools they need to advance to the next level in their studies, whether in biology, medicine, or an unrelated field. As a passionate scientist, I seek to inspire others by sharing my enthusiasm about ecology and evolutionary biology with as many people as possible.
In my opinion, teaching is an activity that takes place both inside and outside of the classroom. I believe that the best way to engage students is via a combination of high energy, interactive discussions, creative use of multimedia and technology, and active learning exercises. I believe in the efficacy of learning by doing, and thus, that hands-on laboratory and field experience should be a critical component of any science education. My lab classes include plenty of opportunities to get outside and get your hands dirty—learning how to design, implement, and interpret biological experiments while having fun at the same time.
I also believe that it is important to engage students outside of the formal classroom, since many students learn better through one-on-one interactions and personalized feedback on exams, writing assignments, and personal conversations. I therefore place a high degree of importance on making myself readily available to meet with students during regularly scheduled office hours as well as informally.
My approach to designing courses seeks to achieve two primary objectives. First, to teach students to think of science as a process and not simply a list of known facts. I have found that this approach is often a departure from the way many students were taught in high school science courses. However, I believe this mentality is important both for biology majors, who will go on to learn more about how to “do” science in their upper division courses, as well for non-science majors, since they will need to understand and appreciate the dynamic nature of science and the knowledge that results from it in order to make informed decisions as a member of society.
The second objective, one which I believe is especially important for introductory biology courses, is to demonstrate the relevance of biology in the modern world. In addition to providing a broad overview and appreciation of basic biological principles and facts, I feel it is important to show students the many ways in which biology affects our everyday lives. For instance, students planning a career in medicine should learn how the principles of evolution affect disease dynamics and antibiotic resistance, while business majors will benefit from an appreciation for the similarities between networks of ecological interactions and networks of human commerce.
My approach to lecturing is based on telling stories. I feel that students—like any audience—become more engaged when the information they are being told is presented in the form of a narrative. Another approach is to provide, whenever possible, a first-hand perspective on the subject being taught. In addition to describing my own experiences, I like to invite guest lecturers to provide students with additional perspectives on their own areas of research. I feel that this first-person perspective brings science to life and helps students to retain information by making it fun and interesting.
I am a believer in active learning, and so I try whenever possible to engage students in class by asking provoking questions, by dividing larger classes into smaller groups for discussions, and by having students give presentations. Research has shown—and my personal experience as both a student and as an instructor can attest—that students often learn best when they are actively engaged and when teach the material to their peers. I like to make the classroom a comfortable environment by creating a laid-back, familiar ambience where students feel free to express their ideas, thoughts, and concerns.
I also like to use multimedia and technology in creative ways to enhance the learning experience. I use lots of photos—my own whenever possible—to illustrate my talks and lectures. I also include high-quality videos (e.g. footage from nature documentaries such as the Planet Earth series) to elaborate upon certain points. I try my best to make lectures interactive by asking questions and encouraging students to interrupt me with theirs.
In addition to testing students’ knowledge of information covered in lectures and reading assignments, I feel it is important to test students’ critical thinking skills and their ability to apply the information they have learned in various contexts. Simply memorizing facts is not sufficient—for a student to receive the highest grade possible, they should demonstrate that they can use the principles that they have learned in class and apply them to novel situations.
Lastly, I am a strong believer in the importance of communication. Since the best way to improve as a writer and as a speaker is to get lots of practice and feedback, I include short answer and essay questions on exams, as well as longer writing assignments in my laboratory classes. I recently developed a course called Advanced Communication in the Biological Sciences (EBIO 412) that is meant to hone students’ writing and presentation skills, which we believe is a critical skill for every ecology and evolutionary biology graduate here at Rice.