Teaching Statement

 

I teach a variety of courses on ecology, animal behavior, and conservation science. A key pedagogical approach in these courses is ‘learning by doing’.  As a culminating experience in each course, students must creatively apply the conceptual models, methodological tools, and factual content covered in the course to produce an original work of research or synthesis. The culminating experience may be conducting a field experiment that has applications for ecosystem management; or drafting a white-paper on an environmental problem, covering both scientific and social policy aspects of the issue; or drafting a critical review of some popular science books written to explain to the public the key concepts and discoveries of a field.  Students are tasked to produce final products (written reports and oral presentations) that are appropriate for a targeted audience (other researchers, policy makers, or the general public), and to assess the potential applications of their findings. In half my courses, the culminating experience is conducted as part of a small team; one of the methodological tools I teach within these courses is how to plan, coordinate, conduct, and assess members’ contributions in a group project.  This emulates the team environment in which scientific research and policy analyses are conducted.

      Before becoming a full-time college professor, I was involved in environmental education, including rural extension work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, and field instructor for college-level field courses in Costa Rica offered by the Organization for Tropical Studies and the University of California Education Abroad Program. It was my experiences leading professional development courses in environmental science for K-12 teachers that had the most dramatic impact on my undergraduate teaching approach. From 1999 to 2001, I was lead course coordinator, curriculum developer, and lecturer for the program Leadership Program for Teachers: Environmental Science Institute on Global Environmental Change sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the Organization of Tropical Studies. This NSF funded program annually brought 55 grade 5-12 science teachers from across the US to Costa Rica. Working with master secondary school science teachers and education faculty, I learned how STS (Science-Technology-Society) themes, inquiry approaches to labs, problem-based learning, and team projects are being used to motivate and more effectively teach students about science. Although I had already used some of these approaches in my own teaching (without knowing that they had a name), working with secondary teachers opened my eyes to how I could systemically improve my pedagogical practices, and made me aware of the growing movement for curricular reform in undergraduate science teaching that parallels a reform movement in K-12 education.

      As I adapted approaches that I had learned from K-12 teachers and from reading the emerging literature on undergraduate science education reform, I also came to appreciate the need for educators to carefully assess the effectiveness of pedagogical innovations applied in our classes, and disseminate the findings to the community of science educators. A colleague and I have recently published a paper in the top academic journal for conservation science (link), on the effectiveness, in terms of long-term gains in content knowledge and changes in attitude, of a problem-based learning approach to teaching conservation biology and environmental management. The paper also provides a model for using interdisciplinary problem-based learning in undergraduate courses. A second recent paper (link) provides a detailed description of a curriculum that colleagues and I have implemented to train students in techniques of shipboard aquatic research, using inquiry and problem-based learning approaches.

      Equally important as my classroom teaching for educating undergraduates via a ‘learning by doing’ pedagogy is mentoring undergraduate research. Annually around 8 undergraduates conduct research under my direction. Each student has her or his own specific project, but we work as a research team, everyone aiding other team-members with research tasks, and thus becoming familiar with all aspects of the research program. Research projects have concrete conservation applications, e.g. predicting and mitigating hotspots of road mortality for turtles, or measuring the environmental impact of deicing road salt use on boreal forests and lakes. Students see how their final research report eventually becomes incorporated into published research papers or reports to governmental agencies.

      Since 2002, I have been co-Director of an NSF funded Research Experience for Undergraduates Site Program in Environmental Science & Engineering at Clarkson University that has the theme of environmental sustainability (link). Summer undergraduate research internships such as the NSF REU Site Program are becoming increasingly popular initiatives for recruiting undergraduates into science and engineering. My colleagues and I, by quantitative program assessment and follow-up tracking of participants, have identified program elements that contribute to participant satisfaction and success at meeting research internship objectives (link).

      My undergraduate teaching goals are to continue to innovate and assess the ‘learning by doing’ pedagogy in my classroom and research mentoring, to improve my teaching effectiveness and provide models for other educators.


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last revised 19 July 2007