I teach biology to spark an interest and appreciation for the diversity of life on earth…
Humans are innately curious—we want to know why the natural world is the way it is—, and biology is the discipline that unlocks this curiosity by asking questions and devising experiments to evaluate competing hypotheses. Because we can all ask questions, science is for everyone, and learning about biology enriches our lives. The world is a more interesting and compelling place when we know the stories of the plants, animals, and microbes that live alongside us, and this is true for all students regardless of background or future career.
I have been instructor of record for two courses, both of which I designed and implemented: a field ornithology course designed for upper-level undergraduates (three credits, full semester course with a field trip over spring break), and a seminar on birdsong designed for all students (one credit). Teaching these courses was the best part of my time as a graduate student.
While my overarching aim is to inspire a lifelong passion for biodiversity, I organize my teaching around two more concrete goals that can be assessed within the timespan of a single course. My first concrete goal is that I want students to learn the key concepts of the subject of the course. I design my courses by first describing a small number of key concepts, and then use active learning exercises to explore each foundational idea. I assess the effectiveness of my teaching through frequent low-stakes quizzes at the start of class, which help me understand when I need to spend more time trying different ways to communicate an important concept, and when students have mastered the material.
My second concrete goal is that I want students to improve their communication skills. Almost all careers require the ability to effectively communicate in both writing and speaking, and developing these skills takes practice, practice, and more practice. I therefore make sure that students practice writing and speaking as often as possible. Most of this is ungraded— for example, one-minute papers at the end of class for students to write about a topic they liked, think-pair-share activities for students to discuss a question first with their neighbors and then as a class, or in-class debates to explore different sides of controversial topics in biology such as wolf reintroduction. I then use structured graded assignments—rough drafts and then final versions of written essays, research reports, and oral presentations—to measure students’ progress in communicating their ideas about biology.
Last, I am fond of having students explore material through artistic expression.
Snowy Cotinga tell me who’s leading your flock not Mitrospingus
- Teresa Pegan, describing her investigations into mixed species flocks in tropical birds