Teaching

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Working with stellar Clemson undergrad Adam Speake to measure stream sediments with gusto!

My goals when teaching are that my students 1) integrate the course topics into a cohesive conceptual framework and 2) learn how knowledge is generated, as well as what to do with it. To help students achieve these objectives, I use a relaxed discussion-focused approach, question-based inquiry, and strive to create a class experience that is Integrative, Flexible, and Fun.

Integrative: Making connections among concepts is as important as learning the concepts themselves, and maintaining a dialogue with students helps assure that those connections are being made. My goal for each class period is not only to cover new topics, but to integrate those topics into an expanding cohesive conceptual framework. While traditional lecture certainly has a place by providing students with the raw materials for a conceptual framework, a more interactive discussion-based approach can help students assemble all the components. By actively maintaining a positive back and forth exchange with my students, I am able to identify topics and concepts that need more attention and assess how well the students are bringing different concepts together. Having a deliberate discussion about how each new topic fits into a conceptual framework is more engaging and consequently more effective than simply rehashing previous topics in a traditional lecture format.

Flexible: When preparing course material, biology teachers have a sometimes overwhelming wealth of topics and illustrative examples to choose from. I take great pride in carefully selecting course material and presenting it in a way that is effective and enjoyable. However, exactly predicting the best set of topics for any group of students is difficult. Consequently, I am always ready to modify ad lib, or even abandon a slide show and lesson plan if the students’ curiosity or insight steer us in a different direction. While venturing away from the safety of a planned lecture can be unnerving for a lecturer, such unexpected twists have led to some of my most stimulating and productive class-room experiences. For example, during a recent invited lecture about stream insect taxonomy, a keen student pointed out the similarities between early insect developmental stages and more “primitive” animal morphologies. The student had converged on Haekel’s idea of recapitulation and set us of on an hour-long discussion of evolutionary theory, convergence, and divergence. We skimmed through my slides, but rather than talking about how those divisions were made by taxonomists, we discussed them in terms of evolutionary processes. Subsequently, I heard the conversation continue after class, and throughout the long walk to and from the afternoon seminar. Though we may have missed out on my plan for a riveting discussion of how to differentiate larval mayflies from stoneflies, the students were zealously engaged in a discussion of some of the more challenging concepts of organismal biology.

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Hanging out at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science with the Virginia Tech Invertebrate Zoology class. No better way to experience invertebrate diversity than sloshing through the inter-coastal mud!

Fun: I am a scientist because I know that science is fun. I teach science to show others how fun it can be. Making science fun keeps students actively engaged, both in the classroom and beyond, and inspires future scientists. Thankfully, showing students that science is fun may be easier now than ever before. Several highly successful popular media outlets have demonstrated a ravenous public appetite for science, when scientific stories are made comprehensible and engaging for diverse audiences. I incorporate these media into my classes. For instance, I point students to social media platforms such as IFL-Science which provides daily Facebook feeds of recently published hard science in a very tractable and fun tone. I show short videos such as ZeFrank’s hilarious and mostly accurate “True Facts” mini nature films on Youtube. While these videos are obvious lampoons, the students challenge themselves to assess and discuss the validity of the “true facts”, drawing on course material to delineate factual statements of organismal biology from those that were embellished or humorously made up. Incorporating these non-traditional materials keeps the classroom mood positive and keeps students engaged in their learning experience.

In addition to providing an integrative, flexible, and fun learning environment, I help my students actually do science and disseminate their results. Doing science in the classroom provides a mutually beneficial opportunity for me to improve my research through teaching, and provides the students an inquiry-based learning experience that promotes student ownership of their intellectual development. I study worms that live on crayfish throughout North America. In my invertebrate zoology laboratory class, students use this system to conduct real experiments in the field and laboratory. After a quick introduction to the crayfish worm symbiosis, students work in groups to develop a question and hypothesis about crayfish and worms. After a few discussions about scientific method, the students design and conduct experiments to test their hypotheses. At the end of the semester, each group presents their findings to an open audience of faculty and graduate students with a Q and A session afterwards. Having students design, conduct, and disseminate their research improves the classroom experience in three important ways; 1) the students learn how knowledge is generated and continually modified by the scientific process, 2) they learn how to integrate a specific question or finding with a broader body of knowledge, and 3) the students become personally involved in guiding their own learning experience and conveying their newly acquired knowledge to others.

I have developed my teaching style while instructing a diversity of laboratory courses, including invertebrate zoology, entomology, and graduate course in stream ecology. In addition to a diversity of teaching assistantships, I have worked with faculty to develop my own curricula. Working with Bryan Brown at Virginia Tech, I developed the laboratory component of an Invertebrate zoology course, and frequently contributed lectures to the classroom component. I also co-designed an honors biology laboratory with Dr. Lukas Landler and Dr. Art Buikema at Virginia Tech. Those experiences were some of the most challenging and rewarding parts of my professional development thus far, and look forward to future challenges as I continue to develop as a teacher and mentor.

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SURF undergraduate intern Ali Peters sampling the crayfish microbiome .

Advancing research through graduate and undergraduate research mentoring will always be one of the largest and most enjoyable components of my professional career. In addition to classroom instruction, I have also had the great pleasure to directly train and mentor 12 undergraduate researchers and interns. Several of those students are now pursuing their own graduate degrees in biological sciences. Teaching and training undergraduate researchers has not only been rewarding and enjoyable, but has considerably improved my science. So much in fact, a few of them are very deserving co-authors on my papers!

Teaching biology in an integrative, flexible, and fun environment will enrich every student’s intellectual development. And, it just might sway a few more bright minds our way.

 

 

Evidence of teaching excellence

The Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech rates its graduate students each year based on both teaching and research performance. I received the highest rating of “excellent” every year, and was awarded the Virginia Tech Doctoral Assistantship Fellowship in 2014 for excellence in teaching and research. Each semester, all Virginia Tech instructors are assessed by their students as part of the Student Perception of Teaching (SPOT) program. I received a mean score of greater than 5/6 for every metric of instructor performance, every semester. I have taught extensively with two of my references; Bryan L. Brown and Mac Strand. Below I have provided some SPOT feedback from the students of the Honors Biology course I co-designed and instructed in the spring of 2015 (full SPOT reports available on request).

“Very supportive in ideas and helping those ideas come to life and helping you step by step at achieving success.”

“He provided constructive feedback and generally showed that he cared about each student and their personal understanding of whatever they were doing in his class.”

“Let us have independence to apply what we learned.”

“He always helped in any way he could and he was very understanding when I was confused.”

“James is very nice and very passionate about what he does.”

“I really like James and really appreciated the mutual respect he has for his students.”

“James was great all semester and i really appreciate everything he did for me and my classmates, he was excellent.”

“James was always willing to help and answer all questions. Very nice. Helpful. Enthusiastic about science.”

“He knew a lot about the topic.”

 

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