To teach is to facilitate learning. Learning can take a wide variety of forms, often reflecting diversity in student backgrounds. Although teaching practices and philosophies vary widely, I believe that the ultimate goal of teaching is to cultivate knowledge and appreciation for a certain subject to foster future inquiry and reflection within an intellectually safe environment. Within the life sciences, instructors teach a wide variety of courses that vary in subject matter, curriculum flexibility, and class structure. While each course presents idiosyncratic challenges for effective learning, I believe that active student engagement, diverse teaching methods, periodic reflection, and community-based experiential learning are powerful tools for teaching students core skills and content in any classroom.
Here, I outline my teaching philosophy by expanding on my personal experiences as a teacher. I highlight my expertise in experiential learning and teaching writing within biology. Students’ personal, hands-on experiences with biological phenomena, whether through research in the lab, or excursions in the field, bolster their understanding of core content and convey a deeper appreciation for the material at hand. Moreover, writing is the primary means by which scientific advances are communicated. Developing transferable skills, such as writing, benefits biology students well beyond the classroom. Thus, although I have broad interests, experiences, and capabilities as a biology teacher, my successes with experiential learning and teaching writing have granted me a nuanced perspective as an instructor in the life sciences.
I have used a variety of pedagogical methods as an instructor in academic environments. As a teaching associate for an introductory zoology lab section for non-majors at San Diego State, I collaborated with departmental staff to collect and care for live organisms as teaching aids. Beyond hands-on experiential learning, this course also involved lectures to communicate core concepts to more visually-oriented learners. During my lectures, I often integrate videos, audio recordings of nature, and other forms of media, such as recent popular science articles, to highlight ongoing research or recent discoveries about the organisms or concepts at hand.
One strength I possess as a teacher is my expertise with experiential learning to convey core content and skills, including observation, reading, and writing. As an instructor for three field courses (once in Kenya and twice in the Galapagos), I have facilitated immersive learning experiences in the field. One particularly effective assignment required students to record personal observations of their natural surroundings, which were then shared in small groups to generate research questions and hypotheses about ecological processes and animal behavior in the Kenyan highlands. Student groups carried out experiments, performed statistical analyses on their data, and synthesized their findings into a manuscript. Although many students encountered logistical or experimental problems, students gained insight into the scientific method and formed social bonds with their classmates.
Writing is an essential skill that is rarely taught explicitly within the context of the life sciences. As an instructor of two different First-Year Writing Seminars at Cornell, I developed and taught multiple classes to improve students’ science writing proficiencies. One particularly effective series of assignments centered around a review article on the decline of an endangered species of each student’s choice. Including preparatory activities, revisions, and in-class discussions, the sequence of assignments took place over four weeks. I first took students to the library to demonstrate how to effectively find and evaluative primary literature and then asked students to write an annotated bibliography of at least 10 sources. After discussing what constitutes a ‘reliable’ source of information, students incorporated their annotated bibliographies into a first draft of their review paper. Students peer reviewed their classmates’ first drafts and received feedback from me, the instructor. Students incorporated their revisions into their final drafts and reflected on their experience with peer-revie and revision. After writing a scholarly, review article, I asked students to use the knowledge they gained from their research to compose a piece for non-scientific audiences, either through popular science writing, a satirical essay, or a narrative focused on the conservation efforts of their chosen organism. Thus, this assignment sequence required students to actively manipulate their writing style to effectively communicate their research findings for different audiences—an essential skill for being an active and engaged scientist. I was awarded the James Slevin Assignment Sequence prize from the Cornell Knight Writing Institute for this series of assignments.
Student Diversity and Assessments
Each individual student enters a classroom with their own academic background and learning style. In order to maximize my effectiveness as an instructor, I acknowledge that students vary in how they learn and the cultural and socioeconomic perspectives that they bring to the classroom. By fostering a safe intellectual environment where different opinions can be expressed and different learning strategies can be explored, I aim to increase students’ learning capacities. In addition to recognizing and supporting student diversity, I ask students to reflect upon their own learning experience. Different forms of student assessment facilitate communication among students and instructors towards achieving a more productive learning environment.
Research and Reflection on Teaching
Teaching is a vital academic skill that is refined and improved over a lifetime. I active perform research and reflect on my teaching practices to improve my pedagogical skills. I recently co-facilitated Writing 7100, which orients incoming first-year writing seminar instructors at Cornell. This course enabled discourse among graduate students from humanities and science departments about effective teaching practices. I am currently a Graduate Research and Teaching Fellowship at the Cornell Center for Teaching and Excellence Fellow, where I am actively researching how experiential learning, such as the Galapagos Field course, impacts biology student performance and retention. I plan to continue my research and reflection on teaching throughout my career.
I have gained a nuanced perspective on teaching biology and science writing from various positions as an instructor, including lab, field, and classroom environments. I have demonstrated my capacity for curriculum development that engages students across a wide variety of backgrounds and learning styles. Teaching is a life-long endeavor; as a faculty member, I will continue to reflect on my own pedagogical choices and research the effectiveness of different teaching strategies in order to maximize student learning.