My educational strategies continually evolve with each new teaching experience and classroom. Every iteration of a course requires adaptations and modifications from the instructor to provide students with the most effective learning experience. Upon completing one of my courses, I hope my students take with them lessons that they can apply broadly in their lives, including critical thinking, technological literacy, communication skills, and the ability to work both independently and as a team. I want my students to feel confident in themselves and their abilities, and use that confidence to build the necessary professional relationships and skills to succeed in any career.
I come from a rural community where education was both a limiting factor and the primary means by which to improve oneself and one’s community, and so have always placed a high emphasis on individual and community-wide learning. I recognize that diversity is vital to the success of the classroom as well as any institution, as diverse backgrounds facilitate varied opinions and approaches to learning, all of which are crucial in the creation of a well-rounded environment. To that end, it is critical to support students that come from historically underrepresented racial, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds by encouraging the creation of a dialogue culture that communicates respect and acceptance, compassion and empathy. As I am, admittedly, not a member of an underrepresented minority group, I am constantly striving to better educate myself on how to create inclusive college classrooms that foster diversity and reduce stereotype threat.
I believe that faculty play an important role in guaranteeing student success. On an individual basis, we can help students successfully navigate their academic careers in a number of ways. First, faculty must be innovative in their approach, constantly keeping courses relevant and up-to-date based on scalable pedagogical models and inventive technological practices (e.g., programming skills or application-based learning). Second, faculty must be engaged and involved with their students and flag early signs of student risk, such as poor attendance, performance, or engagement. Finally, it is critical that faculty mentor rising-risk student groups, seeking ways to engage more students in meaningful interactions to ensure that their voices are being heard. Through all of this, it is critical to be both enthusiastic and approachable. I believe that when a student can sense your excitement for the subject matter, it is infectious and gets them invested in the course as well. I take every possible step to ensure my students are following along with the lesson, and routinely follow up with students’ questions that I could not answer in class via email or the next class period. I want to emulate the sense of excitement and the commitment to learning that I hope I see in all of my students, and believe that leading by example is one of the best ways to ensure my students’ success.
One of the most successful courses I have taught, a summer course on ecological paleontology, had a singular goal – to teach students how multiple paleoecological tools can be used to guide conservation practices today. Whereas traditional paleontology courses may only engage those students with an interest in dinosaurs, my course challenged students to consider how the past impacts modern organisms and ecosystems, from their neighborhood forests to some of the most cherished tropical reefs and jungles in the world. Students felt an immediate relevance to the subject matter – how losing tropical forests could impact our medicines or foods (no more coffee… the horror!) or how clarifying the cause of mass extinctions in the past can help us design conservation practices for the future. The key factor in guaranteeing the success of my students was linking the relevance of the lesson to their everyday lives. By the end of the course, students commented that they felt confident in their newfound abilities and were excited by the field of earth sciences, with several going on to major in geology or environmental sciences.
Through individual research projects and application-based learning, my courses implore students to seek more than just a few credit hours, to fully engage in the material presented, and to reach beyond the classroom to better understand the natural world around them. By constantly striving to create inclusive classrooms, I hope to connect with students from all ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds and respect everyone’s right to pursue a better life through education. I recognize that, like my students, my educational journey is ongoing, and I use every iteration of a course to better my teaching strategies and my ability to foster student achievement and success.