(Note: These pages refer mostly to classroom teaching in an academic setting, primarily for undergraduates. For more on informal education, outreach, and cooperative extension, see Outreach. For graduate seminars on interdisciplinarity, see Research:Interdisciplinarity and for the graduate training program in outreach and extension, see Outreach. For my private tutoring business, see Solera Individualized Learning.)
While it is easy to say “I believe everyone can learn if you meet them where they are,” I have had direct, visceral experience of this. In addition to teaching a variety of University students and adult learners in the US, I have also taught rural farmers in Zimbabwe. Standing out in front of a traditionally-built hut with a colleague translating for me as we explained how GPS satellites work, my main concern was that the inflatable globe we were pointing at would be punctured by the ubiquitous acacia spines on the bushes around us, not that the farmers would not understand what we were telling them. They had already demonstrated to me how quickly they grasped technology and concepts, served by a teaching philosophy and style which is learner-centered, socially-aware, and focused on relevant and practical, hands-on content.
I have two complementary teaching interests. First, I work to demystify complex quantitative methods (mathematics, statistics, computer programming) for people who often feel intimidated by them, either due to their disciplinary training (ecologists, social scientists) or their personal background (women, non-traditional students, people from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, community members). Second, I am personally motivated by an insatiable curiosity about the natural world and how humans fit into it, and reciprocally motivated by endless enthusiasm to communicate what I learn to others. Therefore, my broad goals for student learning are to 1) provide diverse students with skills in a variety of quantitative modeling, mathematical, and statistical areas, as well as their combination with qualitative analysis techniques; 2) to shape their thinking about these skills as tools available to be matched to the task that presents itself to them; and 3) to achieve these goals in a disciplinary context of complex social-ecological systems, hoping that greater quantitative and mixed-methods skill on the part of a more diverse group of people can lead to greater sustainability in these systems.
Even in undergraduate and graduate instruction, I apply philosophies of adult informal education (Knowles 1973) and communities of practice (Wenger 2000) regarding the importance of relevant, social teaching which is grounded in practical application. Within this approach, my core teaching philosophy is that anyone can learn complex skills if you create the right learning environment and find ways to meet them where they are intellectually and socially rather than expecting them to come to you. Therefore, I also strive wherever possible to individualize my instruction to the student, checking in frequently to make sure they are following the material, and finding out what the student already brings intellectually and socially and respecting and building from that.(McInerney 2013). The learning environment I work to create is characterized by respect, humility, and fun, recognizing the importance of learning as a social activity. I deliberately choose an informal style to encourage peer learning and to be a more approachable authority figure (particularly when teaching highly quantitative skills). In my experience, lower formality and more direct, one-on-one interaction helps both teachers and fellow students to engage more effectively with students from diverse backgrounds who may experience challenges and barriers in the traditional hierarchical, formal classroom.
I also believe that learning is not only fundamentally a social activity — it is also a multi-modal activity involving reading, writing, hearing, rephrasing, and explaining to each other (The New London Group 1996). Though not all of these modes are most useful for all students, repetition (especially trying different delivery methods for the same information) is part of retention. Central to my teaching is the use of practical examples tailored to my students’ experience and hands-on work that helps them to apply abstract concepts to concrete problems. I also seek to incorporate into my teaching the practical skills students will need: writing, programming, mathematics and statistics, giving presentations, and evaluating peer-reviewed research literature. I believe practical learning is particularly effective when there is a specific goal or project with an output that serves the students’ interests — for example, for both undergraduates and adult learners in informal settings, to find projects and cases which relate to their experiences or problems in their own lives; or for graduate students, methods they will use in their dissertation or professional career, and/or projects that contribute towards a publication or dissertation chapter.
- Knowles, M. (1973) The Adult Learner: a Neglected Species. Gulf Publishing Company.
- Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7 (2) pp. 225-246.
- McInerney, D.M. (2013) Educational Psychology: Constructing Learning. Pearson Higher Education AU.
- The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard educational review, 66(1), 60-93.
I have long experience with hands-on instruction, teaching astronomy labs as an undergraduate at UC Davis, geology lab and field courses as a masters student at UC Santa Barbara, and programming and statistics courses as a PhD student at UC Berkeley in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, for which I was awarded an Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor award.
In Astronomy labs at UC Davis, I taught hands-on use of telescopes and location of deep-sky objects (globular clusters, nebulae, and the like) as well as in-class lectures. My favorite lecture was on emission spectra. I was a Learning Skills Counselor and Tutor for a year at UC Santa Barbara before beginning graduate study there. I conducted group sessions for students in the “Physics for biology majors” series as well as doing drop in tutoring for a variety of math and science classes. I was then a teaching assistant for a further two years (including some summers) in geology classes ranging from upper division seismology and thermodynamics to lower division, general education courses on dinosaurs, geological catastrophes, and physical geology. At UC Berkeley, I was a “graduate student instructor” for courses on experimental design/analysis of ecological data and for the Environmental Studies senior thesis class. I was privileged to teach fellow grads and advanced undergrads statistics in the former, and to assist and witness remarkable growth in graduating senior undergraduates in the latter.
My experience with designing and running graduate student courses starts with coordinating a graduate seminar on interdisciplinarity in environmental studies with Dr. Louise Fortmann, in which I organized topics and speakers. We published a paper on our approach in Biodiversity and Conservation, and won a Breslauer student conversation award from the Institute for International Studies. The seminar included participants with a variety of backgrounds (nontraditional students, students of color, and students from different disciplines; see Interdisciplinarity for more details). I then worked to develop from scratch a program for graduate students interested in outreach and applied research, bringing in speakers from Cooperative Extension to talk about their work and give workshops on outreach skills. Ultimately, with faculty support, I developed a three-year pilot program for training graduate students in extension skills, the “Graduate Students in Extension” program, supported by UC Agricultural and Natural Resources (see Outreach for more details).
Since graduate school, my teaching has included assisting Dr. Jennifer Reardon with the core course in the Science and Justice Training Program, where I led several discussions and contributed feedback and potential reading selections for the curriculum. I have also conducted workshops and one-on-one trainings with community researchers in rural Zimbabwe on mapping and simulation modeling, with additional distance-learning support via “How-To” sheets and consulting via WhatsApp (see Critical Participatory Data Science for more details). Finally, I developed and taught (as Instructor of Record) a local chapter of the California Naturalist Program, the “Mount Diablo Region” course, adapting the statewide curriculum for local ecology and environmental issues, selecting and coordinating with guest speakers, creating hands-on activities for the citizen science component of the course, and consulting with students one-on-one as they developed their required capstone projects. I continued to serve as co-instructor in the next iteration of the course, and finally as advisor and mentor to the most recent instruction team (also see Outreach).
See a list of courses I’ve taught, read my statement of teaching philosophy from my pedagogy course at UC Berkeley, and my two essays on teaching problems I have encountered, how I solved them, and how I assessed the solutions: anonymous grading, and individualized instruction.