During my many years as a student and teacher, I have developed a teaching philosophy that incorporates active and experiential learning, promotes critical thinking, and integrates my own research experiences to engage students. The field of biology is well suited to support the “learn by doing” principle and I strive to give students every opportunity to do this. I believe an instructor’s role should be a facilitator of learning and that students learn best by taking an active role in their education.
I thus foster an interactive classroom, using a combination of lectures, interspersed with discussions, and other classroom activities to support a variety of learning styles that help keep students active and engaged. For example, I use think-pair-share exercises, learning activities where students collaborate to foster a higher-level understanding of a topic. During one of these think-pair-share exercises, students worked in pairs to develop scientific research questions based on background information and data I presented on humpback whale foraging behavior for an Animal Behavior class. The success of this exercise was evident when students produced a multitude of creative research questions and synthesized complex information into quality hypotheses, many of which are currently being examined by researchers in the field today. Course evaluations indicated that 90% of students felt the think-pair-share activities “always/usually” helped them gain a better understanding of the course material. Another example of an active learning activity that I use in my classroom are jigsaw discussions. Using this technique, students in Biology of Marine Mammals read one of several scientific papers and met in groups of 3-4 to discuss the paper. After students helped each other gain a better understanding of their chosen paper, the groups were changed. Each student then became the expert on his/her research paper and shared the main topics of the paper with others in the new group who had not read the paper. The success of this approach was evident in students taking ownership of their research paper topics while teaching others, and through independently answering homework questions on the research papers, in which they clearly had thorough knowledge of the topics.
The biological sciences support a multitude of experiential learning opportunities for students. I believe there is something special about field research experiences that really sparks students’ interest. For this reason, I design labs that incorporate field observations or data collection whenever possible. Our first day of Animal Behavior class at Washington State University Vancouver (WSU) in 2017 coincided with the day of the solar eclipse. Many instructors canceled class that day because the administration asked that students be able to watch the eclipse. However, instead of cancelling, I decided to use the eclipse as a learning opportunity. Although I had never experienced a near full solar eclipse myself, I had read that many animals’ behavior changes during an eclipse, as they mistakenly act as if the sun is beginning to set. I took advantage of the natural setting of WSU campus and had students find a place on campus where they could observe animals, in addition to experiencing the eclipse themselves. During the subsequent lab period after the eclipse had ended, students made observations similar to those they had made during the eclipse, thus were able to compare and contrast their observations. Evaluation of their first lab report indicated that despite being new to animal behavior research, they were able to document differences in behaviors during and after the eclipse, in addition to learning animal observation techniques (e.g., Ad lib, focal, scan sampling). Another example of a field-based lab that I have facilitated was one devised to encourage students to design and conduct their own experiments while exploring theories in animal foraging behavior. Three different concepts (optimal foraging theory, risk-sensitive foraging, and niche partitioning) were the focus of four different group’s laboratory experiments. Groups were given a hypothesis testing one of the foraging theories and were provided with appropriate equipment and supplies (various types of bird seed and bird feeders). Students then designed an experiment, collected data, and compiled and analyzed their data. During this two-week lab, I observed students working together and expanding on each other’s ideas, sharing responsibilities for data collection, and helping their classmates with analysis. I was able to gauge how well their understanding of foraging behavior improved through their lab write-ups.
My background in the natural sciences and my experience as a laboratory instructor have instilled in me the importance of fostering critical thinking skills in students by using the scientific method as a foundation. During labs, I guide students when necessary, but allow them freedom to learn from their mistakes, nurturing their critical thinking skills. For example, students may not necessarily have thought through all aspects of their avian foraging experiment before they set it up (and there are always unanticipated issues). After the first few days of the experiment, when one group did not have any bird seed consumed, and they asked me why birds were not visiting their feeder. Instead of answering their question, I asked them to come up with possible reasons themselves. I believe the process of problem solving is a critical aspect of the scientific method, and an important life skill in general that I will continue to emphasize in my teaching. I also draw specific examples from my own research experiences to help illustrate the scientific method and critical thinking process. I have seen students strongly engage in a topic, such as climate change or environmental pollution, as it relates to marine mammals (e.g., bioaccumulation of pollutants in orca whales in Puget Sound), then ultimately gain a broader comprehension of that topic (how pollutants bioaccumulate in general and why animals at the top of the food chain are at the greatest risk). Discussing these complex real-world problems challenges students to integrate information and propose solutions, promoting the critical thinking process.
I view teaching as a process of continual professional development and strive to improve my teaching through a reflective approach. I have participated in a Faculty Mentoring Network, completed a Preparing Future Faculty Fellowship and earned a Certificate in College Teaching program through Duke’s Graduate School, where I completed pedagogical coursework and teaching observations. I seek student feedback through both formative and summative assessment techniques. As a formative technique, I have used the “minute paper” to assess how well students were able to comprehend and synthesize complex topics by having them summarize the main points of the class session, as well as what concepts they found to be the most confusing. When multiple students found the same topic confusing, I reflected on how I may be able to convey the message more clearly and revisited it in the next class. As a summative technique, I have created customized student evaluation forms for my classes, through which I discovered that students enjoyed the engagement activities I had incorporated into classes so much that they wanted more. I look forward to the opportunity to teach an Animal Behavior class and lab again in order to incorporate the summative feedback that I have received into an improved course design.
Through a combination of my pedagogical training and experiences and my reflective teaching practices, I have developed a strong foundation in pedagogy that can be built on for years to come. I strive to actively engage students, draw on my own research experiences to pique interest, and invoke the scientific method to foster critical thinking. Teaching effectively is extremely challenging, yet one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. I look forward to the challenges and rewards ahead as I continue to develop as a teacher.