Teaching and Outreach
Teaching and Outreach
I believe the geosciences in general, and more specifically paleoclimatology, is an important and inherently fascinating subject. Through the study of our planet we learn the key processes that shape our environment. This has significant impacts on our immediate future, as we address the complexities of climate, drinking water and agriculture under a changing climate. I study geosciences to help make the world a better place. How could I do this without communicating my results? Publishing in journals is just one facet of science communication, getting our science to the general public and to students is just as important.
I consider teaching as an opportunity not just to learn ideas and concepts, but also to learn how to think. One undergraduate course that typifies this approach is Quantitative Reasoning, a course that teaches students how to think almost any problem through using basic principles, akin to Fermi problems, calculating convection, cooling, diffusion, flow and falling using simple math. In science, an order of magnitude calculation is often what’s needed to test a proof of concept, to calculate whether an answer is at least reasonable.
Research led teaching helps convey important concepts while building important scientific skills. A few years ago while on a field trip to the Great Barrier Reef for third-year biology and geology students, we combined traditional content teaching such as coral chemistry and reef development with aspects of study design and implementation, teaching research skills as well as content.
I also love teaching in out in the field! Teaching in the field is a unique opportunity as it allows education at a different pace and increased physical interaction with the environment. This allows students to develop critical scientific skills that are difficult to replicate with short teaching hours in a laboratory or classroom setting. While on a geological mapping course in the Australian bush, I taught small groups of students the ability to build hypotheses based on observations, make predictions as to what they expect to encounter next, figure out where was the best place to test these predictions, and then test their hypotheses with additional observations. The field is also a great place to teach concepts of scale, how observations made in individual outcrops or hand samples can be translated to local changes and ultimately to regional tectonic events.
My mentoring philosophy is based on helping others find their own way through advice and two-way discussion, as opposed to the more prescribed experience of content transfer and methodology in teaching. I mentor a senior undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In scheduled meetings and via email correspondence, I have helped my student consider their own objectives and goals as part of a wider project and design a sampling strategy that will best reach these goals. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I have provided technical mentoring to graduate students on laboratory equipment and data analysis as well as professional mentoring on the postdoctoral job search.
Outreach is important for all areas of society. In today’s media landscape, public scientific literacy is at threat, raising the importance of communicating results from scientific work to the public. We have an urgent need to make sure that our discipline can be and is understood by everyday voters. To inform them about the challenges our society faces and what we can do as scientists to address these problems. Ultimately, with so much of scientific funding coming from government sources, and therefore public scrutiny, it is crucial to the future of science to communicate discoveries clearly, concisely and in a manner that is accessible.
Improving the geoscience literacy rate involves going beyond those directly studying the subject, reaching out to other students, to children, and direct to the public. During my PhD I was a founding editor of the department’s graduate student outreach blog ‘OnCirculation’. I wrote 76 articles, and facilitated many more. I attended a three-day Workshop in Science Communication run by the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, a workshop by the Alan Alda Centre and have been a guest on the ‘Further Afield’ podcast talking about science and adventures while on fieldwork.
My favorite teaching moment of the last few months was a panel discussion on climate change towards the end of an Introductory Oceanography class. We had a lively discourse on climate change, personal and political actions and responsibilities with an ever-increasing number of raised hands from the non-geoscience majors. By providing a chance to discuss a critical issue with an expert, an opportunity likely not encountered before, we were able to inform and engage these students in a critical topic.
I demonstrated on a week-long first-year field course in Australia taken by many initially as a science credit. We spent a week visiting outcrops and locations along a stretch of the southern New South Wales coast. The ability to teach and learn in a relaxed environment allowed for the transfer of not only content but the reasons why geosciences was an interesting subject and why it was something that had value to the students. The course was credited by many as confirming or changing their choice of major, with successful ‘conversions’ from physics and law.
I was a repeated guest lecturer at the ACE Science Seminar Scheme for middle school students in the Australian Capital Territory. Here the focus was not only on explaining my research in easy to understand terms but also on the breadth and diversity provided by a career in science. Dispelling stereotypes and learning what scientists do, are, and look like, encourages young students into STEM. The best feedback from the course came from one student who previously was worried at the age of 13 that he didn’t yet know what profession he wanted to do when he grew up. Through my lecture on my career trajectory and day to day working life he learnt that it didn’t yet matter and that it was more important to be excited and engaged by STEM, and the possibilities it might bring him.