Whenever I teach I aim to be present, personal, and purposeful regardless of whether it is an introductory environmental issues course, a field based science elective course, or one-on-one research mentoring.
I fundamentally believe in the “Pedagogy of Presence”. I expect my students to arrive prepared and to be present both physically and mentally and I do my best to set this tone on day one. As the instructor, being present means being aware of students’ body language and responding to it. It is about knowing and using students’ names, moving around during group discussions, and asking questions regularly to check in. It also manifests itself in learning about students’ interests and learning styles and adapting to fit students’ needs. Many of these behaviors are called “instructor immediacy” and have been shown to reduce resistance to innovative or active learning techniques. Present teaching also means teaching in the now. For example, I begin class with related social media, pop culture, and current event updates. In my classes about environmental issues I call them “Optimism Reports” and we start each class with one or two student presentations. These give my students an opportunity to find optimism and inspiration and share it with their classmates. I also teach in the present by adapting assignments and content. For example, this fall I changed a climate change assignment with the announcement to repeal the Clean Power Plan. Instead of simply having my students respond to a set of questions I taught them about the public comment process and had them write their own comment.
I once had a conversation with a faculty member at Duke about how my students appreciate the personal connections I use in my classes. These range from simply including stories, pictures, and videos that a colleague or I had taken, all the way up to Skype sessions with authors of assigned papers. One student wrote, “It’s really cool interacting with the actual people responsible for the content we’re learning.” The faculty member agreed that personal connections were a great way to get the students interested but asked if it was also helping them learn. In a survey I administered, all of my students agreed that the personal connections to the course material helped spark their interest and 96% agreed that the personal connections also helped them understand content. By showing them a diverse set of people I also hope to help them picture themselves in the field. As a woman in STEM and a girls/women in STEM advocate, this is an important part of my teaching. I also try to personalize the course by utilizing a variety of different teaching techniques to make the class accessible to a diverse student body. One student wrote that this “variety of teaching methodology” was the most valuable part of their experience in my class.
I try to be purposeful in all aspects of my teaching and to explain to my students why I’m doing what I’m doing. In all of my classes I try to focus on improving their ability to communicate, collaborate with others in diverse teams, and think critically and creatively. For example, I use collaborative exams in my introduction to environmental issues class because two major goals of mine are for the students to learn from each other and to be comfortable talking about environmental issues. I tell them, I don’t see why those two things can’t happen in an exam setting. I am committed to using high-tech, innovative, and active learning techniques no matter the size of the class. I use structured jigsaw discussions as a way to expand on course readings, promote fairness in group discussions, and create active expert roles. For example, in a class on marine noise pollution, I assign students to one of three papers about the effects of noise on marine life. One paper is about zooplankton, the second is about fish, and the third is about right whales. The students share the major takeaways from their article with each other, they think about the effects of noise pollution on the entire ecosystem, and discuss their ideas for solving the marine noise pollution problem. I also believe purposeful service learning can enrich a student’s learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. In my Pathways of Pollution course, a course built on experiential science and service learning, I have students engage in citizen science efforts by completing weekly marine debris surveys, collecting data using the Marine Debris Tracker application, and sharing their results through blogs and presentations. I also have them working with local organizations on real data, producing products that will be useful beyond the bounds of our classroom.
My present, personal, and purposeful approach has been implemented at the University of New England and Duke University, was informed by coursework for the Certificate in College Teaching, and captured as part of receiving the 2016 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.