I embrace teaching to engage students with scientific inquiry and biology content and help them develop skills for their future lives and careers. My teaching philosophy has developed through teaching experience and professional training in pedagogy. I am committed to growing as a science educator, evidenced by my Graduate Teaching Certificate from the Institute of Teaching and Learning at Colorado State University. My teaching philosophy is centered on increasing students’ 1) sense of belonging and 2) critical thinking skills.
People learn when they feel like they belong and can be themselves in the classroom. A welcoming classroom climate encourages all students to participate and engage in the material and increases student motivation. A strong sense of belonging can be especially important for helping women and other minoritized groups succeed in college and leads to a richer education for all students, as more diverse ideas are voiced and discussed. This is relevant for students who may feel disenfranchised based on identities of race, gender, or sexual orientation. I use several evidence-based strategies in my classrooms to create a welcoming climate for all students. On the first day of class each semester, I openly discuss imposter syndrome with my students. Feeling like an imposter who is about to be revealed among your classmates is incredibly isolating, but an open discussion early on can counteract some of those feelings and increase motivation to learn and become a part of a community of learners.
Using inclusive language and content further strengthens the cohesion of a learning community. This includes introducing myself with my pronouns (in person or on my virtual screen) and inviting students to share their preferred names and pronouns with me, if they choose. I also strive to use language that is inclusive of all genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, and other identities and backgrounds. For example, I draw examples and content for lectures and learning activities from a variety of sources to make sure students can see themselves represented in the field. I acknowledge the complex histories of evolutionary biology, genetics, and invasion biology, including the history of racism, eugenics, and anti-immigrant attitudes. I also highlight the contributions of women and people of color in the curriculum and in my instructional approach. For example, I use a lesson on the invasive spongy moth (formerly, gypsy moth) to discuss culturally insensitive species common names and how we currently address it.
I emphasize that although I have high standards for achievement in my class, I offer support for all students and believe in their ability to achieve their desired learning goals. For example, when I taught Plants and Civilizations, a first-year class with several intensive writing projects, I introduced several ways that we would be supporting students throughout the projects. This helped students who may have low self-efficacy to build momentum for their learning and achievement throughout the semester. By talking about growth mindset early in the semester, I set up my classroom to be a supportive place to try new ideas and learn with each other.
I emphasize critical thinking over memorizing course content. Although I find the content of biology to be inherently exciting, I do not expect the same enthusiasm from my students in introductory biology classes. Many students in those classes do not need to know specific biological facts for their future careers. Instead, they need to know how to find, evaluate, and communicate information, which are critical thinking skills that can be employed across a diversity of fields. One of the ways I encourage critical thinking is through experiential learning assignments, in which students engage with concepts in multiple ways. For example, in the course Plants and Civilizations, we held debates on the use of genetically modified crops in sustainable agriculture in one week, and in another week, we looked at the issue of slavery in cacao production from the perspective of different stakeholders, like farmers, large companies, human rights advocates, and policy makers. These activities pushed students to support their opinions with evidence and communicate their ideas to the class, while also encouraging them to view issues from different perspectives and move beyond ‘pro’ and ‘con’ debates. Activities like these build students’ scientific literacy skills and help them analyze and create complex arguments.
The second way I teach critical thinking skills is through reading and writing assignments. For example, I developed three ‘Reading to Learn’ assignments for Ecology that taught students strategies for reading primary literature, how to dissect a scientific argument, interpret figures and tables, and other scientific skills while reading primary journal articles related to lecture content. Writing assignments also help students employ critical thinking. Creating mini-assignments centered on library skills, evaluation of sources, and developing skeletal arguments gives students an opportunity to practice critical thinking and writing skills in a low-stakes environment and receive constructive feedback. I have found that this approach improved the quality of students’ writing. My goal for all learning activities in my classroom, from lectures to discussions to assignments, is that students will be engaged with the content. Not all activities will be hands-on, but all will be minds-on.
I weave the themes of fostering student sense of belonging and critical thinking into every aspect of my teaching, from course structure and classroom management, to learning activities and student assessment. I am committed to continuing to learn pedagogy and improve as a teacher through self-study and professional development on effective evidence-based teaching practices. During my career, I am interested in developing classes on biological control, invasive species, and statistics for biologists in R for graduate or undergraduate students. I will continue to prioritize student experience and making all students feel like they belong in my classroom and can achieve their educational goals. My experience as a TA, guest lecturer, and through professional development during my graduate training has informed my current teaching philosophy, based on fostering student sense of belonging and critical thinking skills.