Earth Science education gives students the opportunity to learn about the natural world. It also provides a means of developing a deep understanding of some of the most important global issues of today – climate change, air and water pollution, ocean acidification, and sea level rise to name a few. While topics I teach may vary with the course – climatology vs. environmental geochemistry, physical geography vs. oceanography, etc. – my role as an educator is to ensure that whether or not students in my classroom will go on to a career in the Earth Sciences, they will be able to act as well-informed citizens and think critically and scientifically about the processes that shape our planet.
I have sought training to improve my teaching abilities both at the higher education and secondary education level. During both programs, I interacted with educational theory, learned practical methods for effective teaching, and taught in the classroom. While teaching in higher education is very different than teaching in a middle or high school setting, both
experiences demonstrated the need for carefully considered curriculum that centers around facilitation of student learning rather than the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.
1. Creating an inclusive classroom environment
Unless students feel they have a place and voice in the classroom, achieving an equitable learning environment in my classroom is impossible. Implicit biases, microaggressions, and issues of accessibility are among the myriad of issues that reduce students’ sense of belonging and undermine the teaching process.
In order to create a classroom that allows students to feel safe and foster a constructive learning environment I must first acknowledge my own privilege. I must recognize the privileges that come with being a white woman in STEM. It is my responsibility to use those privileges to work against the factors that lead students to feel like they don’t have a place in science. To this end, I have sought to improve my ability to foster an inclusive classroom through active engagement in professional development workshops and seminars designed to foster discussion and improve knowledge on topics related to social justice, diversity, and inclusivity. Through these programs, I have gained practical skills for engaging in culturally relevant teaching, student-centered approaches to teaching, navigating through cultural difference, and active discussion of the cultural biases that operate in sciences.
Towards the application of what I have learned, I acted as a mentor and teacher in the Oregon State University (OSU), College of Engineering, Leading and Enabling Adolescent Futures in STEM (LEAFS) program. Acting as the facilitator for the Ocean Acidification group, I mentored three undergraduate engineering students in the creation of a half-day lesson designed to introduce K-12 students to the science of ocean acidification as well as the implications it has for organisms such as oysters, which are critically important to the health of Oregon’s economy and coasts. Designing the curriculum, of the top importance was ensuring each activity planned was well thought out and provided scaffolding and options for interacting to allow students to access the information in a variety of ways and ensure students were able to actively engage with the material. Hands-on activities and the use of the scientific method gave students an opportunity to see themselves as scientists and engage with some of the most important issues facing our globe.
In part, creating an inclusive classroom is identifying inequalities and addressing controversial and challenging topics. Use of critical theory and active engagement with topics that reveal, and challenge power structures are crucial to creating social change as well as informed and well-rounded learner and scientist.
To supplement to the course work required of the GCCUT program, I elected to enroll in GRAD 542: The Inclusive Classroom: Difference, Power, and Discrimination (DPD). As part of this course I worked to in part develop a DPD class: Natural Resources, Economics and Environmental Justice. The course is designed to examine the interplay between natural resource extraction and use within the context of economic, political, and societal factors that control access to these resources. As part of the course I developed a syllabus for the course as well as a lesson plan focused on the Flint Water crisis and the unequal exposure to environmental hazards that developed. While I have not yet been able to enact this course, I hope to fully develop and enact the course in my future position.
2. Engaging students in active learning and
While the teacher plays a key role in facilitating student learning, acting as the expert and provider of knowledge allows students to engage less with the content and become passive receivers of knowledge. Use of active learning strategies allows students to interact with material and create a deeper understanding of course content.
At times lecture formatting may be conducive to illustrating course material, however, even when lectures are used, I incorporate small group discussions or activities to help highlight key points. While I was the teaching assistant for GEO 431/531: Advanced Environmental Geochemistry, I created lesson examining ice cores as environmental archives of lead pollution. During this lesson, I incorporated two small group activities in which students examined figures from a peer reviewed paper and worked together to and draw conclusions. When students had finished, each group acted as teachers to the rest of the class, explaining their answers. Other groups were then encouraged to walk through if and why they had a different answer. Through this mechanism I was able to see where students were struggling with the material and was able to address these issues before continuing with the lesson. Engagement with these activities during the class later helped during students’ midterm exam when students were asked to again examine similar figures to those they had discussed during the class and draw conclusions.
When possible using experiential learning, such as engagement in laboratory exercises, field trips and field courses provides students an opportunity to gain first-hand experience with course content. Helping students begin to think like a scientist and engage in the scientific method creates a sense of ownership over the knowledge they’ve gathered and helps students practice making evidence-based deductions. As a teacher I have facilitated laboratory experiments, lead field trips, and helped students learn scientific techniques including mud core sampling, collecting stream flow, Secchi disk, and CTD measurements. Learning these skills helps students engage more personally with the data from these experiences, and helps students learn the scientific practices that scientists use when conducting experiments.
In conjunction with active learning, critical thinking plays a key role in helping students take ownership of their learning. Student engagement with primary literature, observational practice and interpretation of findings is necessary for students to leave the classroom with a better understanding and ability to engage thoughtfully with the outside world.
As the teaching assistant for the online writing intensive course GEOG 323: Climatology, I work with students through the development of a scientific research paper on the climatology of a region of their choice. Over the course of a term students submit a proposal and three drafts of their paper, with each edition asking students to add additional components. In my role as editor of their papers, my focus is on drawing their own critical thinking out. Thus, my comments focus on helping students with methods of using data to interpret results and making conclusions that support a thesis statement they’ve crafted. Over the course of the term I am able to 1) determine areas where the whole class is struggling and areas where a particular student needs more guidance, 2) help students develop their scientific voice, and 3) see student improvement with course material and the writing process.
3. Steps to improve teaching practice
As an educator I am continually working to improve my teaching. Critical examination and reflection of our own process is the only way to improve as teachers. Towards this goal I have sought out professional development opportunities to learn about best practices and strategies for teaching online and in large classroom environments. I have also worked to incorporate student feedback into my teaching through examination of student teaching evaluations.
As a graduate teaching assistant for GEOG 323: Climatology, I have worked to improve the quality of feedback I have given to students on their term papers. Over the three terms I have taught this course I have transitioned my feedback strategy from predominantly in-line edits, towards a focus on larger areas of the paper that needed the greatest focus (e.g. abstract, discussion, use of figures, missing content, etc.). During my most recent term teaching the course I’ve also begun color coding in-line edits to improve recognition of errors. This technique helps students to more easily identify issues when sifting through the feedback provide on their papers. Since employing these changes, I have noted an improvement in quality of students’ term papers in student evaluations of my interest in their learning as well as in my evaluation of their performance. I have also noticed increased improvement in areas where students often struggle – abstracts, introductions, discussions, and conclusions.
My goal as an Earth Science educator is to create an environment that is student-centered, where students actively engage with and inform the course content and build confidence and skills in making evidence-based conclusions. Introducing students to Earth Science in a deep, meaningful way, creates opportunities for students to understand the world around them. These connections and the understanding of what influences and shapes our world creates scientists and citizens who are well informed and prepared to discuss, and search for solutions to some of the biggest issues facing our society.