My approach in the classroom is active, project-based learning. I developed my pedagogical approach as a participant in Preparing the Professoriate (PTP), an immersive, flagship program at NC State, in which Ph.D. students co-teach with a faculty member for a semester and teach their own courses the following semester.
I co-taught “Introduction to Ecology” to over 200 undergraduate students in fall 2015, functioning essentially as a professor. Historically, this course had a traditional structure; students attended lectures and labs, and interacted with the instructor minimally. This approach left many students behind on core topics, notably natural selection, biogeography, and predator-prey interactions. My focus was to improve student comprehension through “flipping the classroom”, i.e., I provided independent learning exercises on these topics, and we spent class time discussing concepts students found challenging. For each topic, students worked through learning modules outside of class that recreated classic ecological experiments in a video game format (URL: simbio.com). At the end of each exercise, students submitted questions, and I developed five-minute lectures on the topics they found challenging. This approach improved learning in measurable ways; test scores increased from previous years, as did evaluations of the course.
During this experience, I learned how to implement that latest active learning techniques and am now uniquely qualified to apply them in future classrooms. I also have had the unique experience of designing and implementing my own course. After co-teaching this large lecture class, I designed and taught two sections of an urban ecology course to a smaller group of advanced undergraduates. Students learned to read scientific papers, identify creative aspects of research, and assimilate scientific information into a project that communicated findings to the public. Students covered a wide range of topics, from a video on sea gull ecology in landfills to infographics on the effects of habitat fragmentation on insect communities and how media has changed perceptions of biodiversity. The success of these projects affirmed that this is how I will teach going forward: students will learn by engaging their creativity to create products that communicate research findings.
I have developed three key strategies that I consider essential to my pedagogy:
- Create an environment conducive to critical thinking and growth. Discourse is a critical aspect of learning in the sciences. To promote open discussion, I use several techniques, most of which involve showing students that we are all learning together. When students answer questions wrong, I point out the interesting aspects of their answers to highlight the fact that all answers move discussions forward and facilitate creativity. To keep students constantly participating, I use active learning, guest lectures, and discussions to replace or augment traditional lectures.
- Continuously improve my approach in the classroom in response to student feedback. Students have regular opportunities to provide feedback on my courses, from content to delivery. In my classes, students write minute papers at the end of every other session, where they can express what content is interesting or confusing to them. To improve my approach, I have also solicited peer and faculty observations throughout my time as an instructor.
- Cover information in multiple ways to reach diverse learners. My original intention when introducing active learning modules was to devote all time traditionally spent lecturing to discussion. However, by soliciting student feedback, I learned that their responses to the modules were polarized, with almost half preferring traditional lectures. In response, I planned short lectures on the most challenging topics and used these to fuel discussions. Student responses to the modules improved, which indicated to me that teaching the same material in multiple ways is critical to reach diverse groups of learners.
Future courses: The course I developed, titled “Ecology of Cities: How organisms die, cope, flee, or evolve and what it means for our future”, received rave reviews. I plan to teach this again and expand it into a course on the five key drivers of biodiversity change—climate change, habitat conversion, invasive species, pollution, and exploitation—which is a topic at the heart of my research. I am also interested in developing seminars on recent research topics, including methods for restoring biodiversity, evolution in the Anthropocene, and, more specifically, evolution in cities, a topic that has garnered a great deal of recent interest in ecology and evolutionary biology. Long-term, my goal is to develop an inquiry-based course in which students design and complete urban ecology projects.