I have always learned best through immersive, field-based experiences. One of the most memorable field trips shaped my decision to attend college and pursue a career as a doctor. I was taking anatomy and physiology junior year of high school, and my teacher arranged for several interested students to shadow surgeons for the day. I will never forget seeing the finite details of a spinal cord or my shock at how efficiently cataracts are removed. I still bring this trip up, because it offered a rare glimpse into what a medical career could look like and how I could apply what I had learned in the classroom. While I never became a doctor, experiences like this field trip have shifted my career path in various directions. At each branch in the path, I had an excellent teacher that mentored me along the way. I want to be that mentor and create those memorable, immersive experiences. Through teaching, I can do just that, equipping students with the knowledge and skills to navigate their own paths and excel in their field of choice within the environmental sphere. As a professor from an interdisciplinary environmental background, I will aim to foster critical thinking and reflection, a sense of community in online and in-person spaces and immersive experiences.
I aim to foster critical thinking and reflection. Learning is not about just absorbing material and being able to regurgitate the information. Many of the topics I will cover in classes do not have a right or wrong answer (e.g., how to tackle sustainability issues, how to work through environmental issues like climate change). I aim for students to leave the classroom with a different perspective than when they entered, which may be increased awareness of the different ways to approach an issue or a new opinion on an issue. I want students to use classroom knowledge, combine critical thinking, apply theoretical frameworks, and incorporate these concepts into practical application. To enhance learning and critical thinking, I will incorporate small breakout discussions around prompts or scenarios and report outs when possible. My assignments and assessments mean more than just a grade. I am a big proponent of reflective assignments after each class, so that students can reflect on what they just learned. Instead of written exams, I also support assignments that enable students to engage with the material in a critical manner and share their thoughts with the rest of the group through presentations or oral exams.
I aim to foster a sense of community. From my experience attending large universities, I often felt like a small fish in a big pond. In my classroom, I aim to build connections between myself, the students and their peers to foster a sense of community. One of my favorite parts of being a social scientist is hearing other peoples’ stories, and this is no exception with teaching. I will start off each semester with a “get to know you” activity for students to share information about themselves with the rest of the class, which may take the form of surveys or introductory videos depending on the teaching platform. In this assignment, I will also ask students to share their goals for the semester and how they think they learn best, so that I can tailor my material to their learning styles and goals. I believe that learning a student’s name can make a big difference, so I will aim to do this throughout the semester, while encouraging one-on-one meetings to build those connections. I will also use surveys throughout the semester to periodically check in on students and solicit feedback on the course, which I will address during class and adjust accordingly. Even in large classrooms, I will create opportunities for students to work in small groups and engage collaboratively with others through the semester on group projects. If teaching in an online environment, I will employ the use of external message board services to keep the conversations going outside of the classroom.
I aim to foster immersive experiences. I believe in the power of field-based, experiential learning where students apply the skills and knowledge they learn in the classroom to real-life situations. It is one thing to talk about environmental issues and conservation solutions in theory, but another experience entirely to see how the issues play out and these solutions are applied in practice. For example, students can learn about reforestation in the classroom, but they may take away much more practical knowledge about the conservation strategy if they are able to visit the NGO/agency working on the initiative and join the effort. I do realize, though, that students cannot fly all over the world to experience what they learned in the classroom, and most institutions lack the resources to facilitate these experiences. Virtual “field trips” can provide an alternative way to facilitate these experiences through video tours. Case-based learning also provides a way for students to consider and work through current, historical and fictional case studies without leaving the classroom. In my own teaching, I have created fictional case studies to help students think critically about solutions to environmental problems. These have always been based on actual events, such as thinking about whether ecotourism might be a feasible alternative to manta ray hunting. Many environmental issues involve multiple stakeholder groups with different backgrounds and interests or positions on the issue at hand. To get students to think about these diverse perspectives as they consider the issue, I usually have them each embody the role of the different stakeholder groups involved. In the future, I aim to incorporate long-term case study analysis as semester-long group projects. Whether students are experiencing environmental issues first-hand or working through fictional case studies, opportunities for reflection and discussions with their peers can enhance students’ learning experiences.
Over the years, I have benefited from the support and mentorship of various professors as I navigated my professional and academic journey. When in the presence of great teachers, I feel a sense of admiration for their craft that I rarely experience in other fields. Drawing from these inspiring mentors and my own interdisciplinary background, I aim to foster critical thinking and reflection, immersive experiences and a sense of community in my teaching. Every student will have their own story to tell, and I will be there to help students understand, navigate and apply their stories to tackling environmental issues big and small.