I approach every class, every teaching moment, as an opportunity to make geology relevant to my audience. Relevancy is critical. I work hard to connect geology to business, politics, policy, religion, economics, history, law and to a student’s sense of self. I challenge myself to captivate and excite my audience. I want each student to feel my passion for the ways that geology relates to their life. I strive to provide more than knowledge enrichment. I appreciate that each student enters the classroom with a unique life experience that guides her/his thinking. No student has my life experience. I avoid the fantasy that they want to become me. I try hard to connect with students where they are, and with who they are. My goal as an educator is to help guide and empower each student to obtain a more enlightened view of their place in the natural world. I strive to liberate students from their intuitive theories of the natural world, many of which are fraught with misconceptions about their personal relationship with nature.
Reflecting on my life from childhood through my master’s degree, I can never remember thinking that I would want to teach in any capacity, let alone that I would thoroughly enjoy teaching. Through college, I was an incredibly nervous public speaker who would hide behind the lectern and speak as fast as possible to end my misery. I look back now and picture my younger self giving class presentations, and being incredibly nervous and fidgety, hands in my pockets jingling whatever change or keys were there. I remember watching other students who seemed confident and poised, able to easily speak in public. For me, that was a struggle. Here, rather than provide a catalog description of the courses I teach, I provide a brief narrative of my evolution as a teacher and mentor.
As a master’s student, I had two formal teaching experiences where I learned to speak a little slower, with a little more composure, and to empty my pockets before class. The student evaluations for those classes indicated that my teaching abilities were barely average, at best. After earning my M.Sc. degree in geology, I left academia to pursue a career in industry and, simultaneously, to embark on the wonderful journey of fatherhood. To help make ends meet, I taught an Introductory Geology course at a community college. I taught two evenings per week to an audience that consisted almost entirely of non-traditional students. I taught the lecture and laboratory components of the course and got to spend time with the students, getting to know them on an individual level. I learned quickly that my teaching was ineffective. The way I had been taught, and the way that I was teaching, failed to capture the students’ attention. Students were struggling to memorize content and regurgitate it on assessments.
Fortunately, during the twice-weekly labs, I had time to speak individually with the students and I learned about the students as people; who they were, what they did for their day job, why they had returned to school, what their goals were. I learned that they were taking introductory geology to satisfy their one natural science requirement for their associate’s degree. None of the students enrolled in the class with the goal of becoming a geologist. But, I discovered that they liked going to the beach, or the lake, or hiking in the mountains. I found that the students enjoyed doing things in the natural world. They did not dislike geology. Rather, they did not have an appreciation for how geology fit into their lives. I learned that I needed to contextualize course content and make it relevant for people with diverse backgrounds, career goals, and personal interests.
I’ll give one example that I consider a light bulb moment. I remember vividly one student who told me about his time stationed on a Navy submarine. He was familiar with sonar, or echo sounding, where sound waves are emitted from the submarine and bounced off the ocean bottom in order to calculate the distance from the submarine to the bottom of the ocean. As we were talking during one of the labs, I mentioned Harry Hess who was a Professor of Geology at Princeton University from 1934-1965 and enlisted in the United States Navy during World War II, where he was captain of a transport ship in the Pacific Ocean. I learned about Harry Hess from my MSc. advisor who was an undergraduate at Princeton and took classes taught by Professor Hess. The ship that Hess captained was outfitted with sonar, then a newly developed technique, and Hess realized that the sonar data being collected as the ship traversed back and forth across the Pacific Ocean were mapping the topography of the ocean floor. Hess realized that the ocean floor was not flat, which was the conventional thinking at the time. Quite the opposite, the sonar data allowed Hess to discover the presence of underwater volcanoes and extensive, linear ridges at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that resemble the seams on a softball. This discovery, first reported in a classified report to the Navy, was among the critical pieces of evidence that led Hess and others to develop what is now known as the Theory of Plate Tectonics. During my conversation with the student about Harry Hess, sonar and underwater volcanoes, I could see the student’s level of interest increase. It was palpable. It connected to him on a personal level. I had similar conversations almost every week with other students during that first semester of teaching at the community college, and after each class I would drive home and reflect on how real world examples helped students connect with the content. I noticed that these students would be particularly attentive during lecture and actively engaged during lab if they felt a personal connection. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning how to make content relevant for the students.
During that same semester, at home, I was learning how children learn. I learned that parenting is about experiential learning. Showing. Doing. Allowing children to experiment. Allowing children to make mistakes. Children naturally engage in inquiry-based learning. I learned that communication was far more than verbal. Body language, pitch, gestures, facial expressions, motion. All of these are important tools for effective communication. I developed a part-time passion for psychology and human behavior. I learned that the same inquiry-based learning that engaged and stimulated my daughter also engaged and stimulated the adult students in my night class. They enjoyed the labs because they were doing geology. And when they realized a tangible connection between some aspect of geology and their life, they were more engaged.
I taught that same night class for an additional three semesters and progressively modified my lecture style to make it interactive, engaging. I began using the think-pair-share collaborative learning strategy. I learned to walk around the classroom, shunning the lectern. I developed an appreciation for the different learning styles among the student body. I began using multiple ways of presenting content: overheads, slides, chalkboard, and videos. I asked students to problem-solve and make presentations. I learned that just as my daughter developed trust in me, which made her more receptive to learning from me, the adult students in my class were more engaged when they felt that I knew and appreciated them for who they were, not just as students in my class. I began each semester telling the students about my life journey and asking each student to tell me three things about themselves that would help me get to know who they were. I found that teaching was rewarding and that I had a knack for engaging with students and making the scientific content timely and meaningful. My fulfilling experience teaching those night classes played a huge role in my decision to return to graduate school to earn a PhD with the goal of becoming a university faculty member where I could teach and mentor students as a career.
During my dissertation studies I taught several courses, ranging from introductory geology laboratories to a senior level course where I taught both lecture and lab for three semesters. I worked diligently to develop appropriate pedagogical approaches for each course. I learned the importance of scaffolding a course around desired learning outcomes. I continued to educate myself about learning styles, to attend seminars focused on improving teaching and learning, and asked faculty for feedback on the development of my own teaching. When I attended professional conferences, I attended sessions in my discipline and also sessions that focused on education. I also became the proud father of three more children, including spending one year as a stay-at-home dad with our second child. I experienced the similarities and differences in learning styles of my two daughters and two sons that reinforced the need to avoid a one-size-fits-all teaching approach for the diversity of learning styles among university students. Co-parenting one child with learning differences gives me a fuller appreciation for the challenges many students face in the classroom. It takes patience and creative thinking to help all students achieve their personal best.
Since joining the faculty of the University of Michigan in 2012, I have taught or co-taught six different courses. I taught the following three undergraduate courses: Introduction to Geology (n~90-120); Mineral Resources, Economics and the Environment (n~130); Energy from Earth (n~40-70). I taught twice the graduate course Advanced Mineral Deposits (n~10). I co-teach the summer field course Sustainable & Fossil Energy: Options and Consequences (n~11-22) in Wyoming each year. Each of these undergraduate courses is open to the entire student body, and the majority of students enrolled are from outside the natural sciences. Their reasons for taking my classes are the same as the adults I taught in those night classes nearly two decades ago. They sign up because they want to check the box that fulfills a requirement for natural science, or upper level writing that is satisfied by my mineral resources course. For many students, my class may be the only natural science class they take during their undergraduate tenure at Michigan. As such, my classes may be their only opportunity to make conceptual changes regarding their understanding of science and the natural world. I embrace this and meet them where they are. I have no science pre-requisites for my undergraduate courses. I find Michigan students to be smart, motivated, capable young adults. Therefore, I try to share my enthusiasm for the subject matter and to keep the students engaged.
I am a firm believer in educational outreach. I almost never say no to an invitation to visit a K-12 classroom, or guest lecture in another course on campus. I co-organize and co-teach a week-long summer school in Accra, Ghana, each summer that draws about 125 participants from several Ghanaian universities, as well as people from government and non-government organizations (NGO’s). I hosted Professor Gesler Murray from the University of Liberia for six months as a participant in the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars Program (UMAPS). Professor Murray’s interaction with our research group was an amazing learning opportunity for me and our students.
I co-teach annually the undergraduate course Earth & Space Science, which is open only to students in the School of Education. My co-instructors and I scaffolded this course around the Michigan K-12 Science Standards. The course uses learning modules and lesson plans from real classrooms. We use these to demystify important concepts in astronomy and earth science. Each week consists of one traditional meeting where a particular topic is discussed, followed by a second meeting where students develop and work through lesson plans for that concept. I want the future teachers to hit the ground running. This is an incredibly valuable class considering that each of these future teachers will engage with as many as 900 students over her/his 30 year teaching career, which means that each iteration of this course reaches as many as 27,000 students. Having four children at various stages of K-16 education and spending lots of time myself in K-12 classrooms, I am keenly aware of the need to empower future teachers to embrace and teach science accurately.
I believe strongly in exposing students to field experiences. Since 2012, I have voluntarily led or co-led student field trips to Chile (n=1) and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and neighboring Ontario (n=3). These trips are not part of a formal class, nor are they counted as part of my teaching load. I voluntarily organize and teach them because they provide students from our entire department the opportunity to see geology in action, as well as its relevance to the real world. Each of these trips had 16 to 29 participants, a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. Each trip had a geologic theme, and also included the role that geology played and continues to play for local society. These field trips are excellent teaching opportunities and allow me to get to know our students. I plan to lead a field trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 2018 and Israel in 2019.
I value student research at the undergraduate as well as graduate levels and enjoy mentoring students at all levels. Since arriving at the University of Michigan in 2012, I have graduated 3 PhD students and 1 MS student. I also graduated two MS students in 2014 who remained at my previous institution after my departure. I have four current PhD students and a fifth beginning in August, 2017. My philosophy for mentoring graduate students is simple. I want their thesis research to help achieve their goals, and for the research to increase our collective knowledge of the natural world. My research group is my academic family and I do everything possible and appropriate to make sure that my graduate student mentees develop intellectually and develop their marketable skills for whatever career path they choose. I develop open and honest relationships with each of my graduate students. I meet weekly with each. I proactively encourage my students to apply for internships if they seek a career outside of academia. I make sure that each of my graduate students attends at least one conference per year, normally two, where they present their research to academic and industry professionals. I also encourage my graduate students to develop collaborative relationships with researchers outside our university.
Since arriving at Michigan in 2012, I have mentored or co-mentored twenty undergraduate students. Each of these students was engaged meaningfully in research with myself, and several of them worked also with one of my graduate students. This model allows my graduate students to gain valuable mentoring skills. Among my greatest joys is mentoring students across academic disciplines, and I have had the privilege to involve undergraduates from EARTH, Program in The Environment, Economics, Near Eastern Studies, Environmental Engineering, and Computer Science in my research program. I strongly believe in experiential learning. One project that I’ll highlight included taking six undergraduates to Ghana where they completed summer-long projects that culminated in the development and publication of three web-based teaching modules focused on aspects of sustainability. Another project involves four undergraduate students working with me to conduct a microgrid feasibility study for the City of Ann Arbor. All of the projects allowed the students to design real-world solutions for real-world problems. They are fully engaged because the research is relevant.
Across my teaching efforts, I work to integrate hands-on, inquiry-based learning with the intent to empower the students to seek their own answers to questions, and to formulate their own questions. I encourage students to be skeptical, not cynical. To engage in solutions based practices. I strive to connect meaningfully with students in each class. On the first day I tell students who I am and how I got here. I have students tell me what their major is, why they registered for the course, and to identify something that interests them. I use the information throughout the semester. I try my best to remember students and their majors, even in large lecture classes, and emphasize relationships that cut across disciplinary boundaries. I annually update every lecture of every course and always include a current event in every lecture that highlights the relevance of that day’s topic. I walk around the lecture room. I use think-pair-share. I implement multiple teaching techniques. I develop short activities in class to get students thinking about a particular topic. I ask lots of questions and solicit student feedback. I incorporate seemingly disconnected topics to contextualize material as broadly as possible. Topics that we discuss include the role for international black market oil sales to fund ISIS, resource extraction and bribery in the Brazilian government, the real reasons that coal jobs declined and the reality that President Trump can never bring coal back unless he eliminates the capitalist system that allowed natural gas to usurp coal, the fact that pollution associated with mining in Mongolia is embedded in their smart phone, and the reality that farm to table is unrealistic for our growing global population. I don’t judge. I do not tell students what to believe. I do not make judgments about what is ethically right or wrong. I encourage each student to recognize her/his intuitive theories and misconceptions of the natural world, and gain the self confidence that she/he can achieve conceptual change. I want the students to learn how to make their own decisions based on evidence. When students graduate from Michigan and move onto their desired career pathways, I want them to think about all the facets that make society’s dependence on natural resources such a tangled web. No matter their ultimate career or lifestyle, each person will use phones, computers, roads, air conditioning, vehicles, medicine, and endless other products that depend upon natural resource consumption. Today’s students are the future decision makers for our society and I want them to understand the impact of their choices.
In 2017, I was awarded the Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prize for development and implementation of inquiry-based learning strategies (one of five across the University). And despite healthy skepticism of their ability to accurately gauge teaching effectiveness, my student evaluations consistently indicate that my efforts to strive for excellence in teaching are working. I was awarded in 2011 the Distinguished Teacher Award for the College of Sciences at my previous institution, and at the University of Michigan I have been flattered to be voted Best Professor by students in Earth & Environmental Sciences in 2016 and 2017.
In summary, I find teaching to be an incredibly rewarding experience. I don’t pretend that it’s easy. It certainly has never come naturally to me. It takes tremendous hard work and tenacity to be an effective teacher and mentor. Being a good teacher requires knowing, appreciating and respecting your audience. I have an open-door office hours policy where I leave my office door open at all times and invite students to visit me anytime. I eat lunch in my office and encourage students to join me for lunch. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many students at all levels who stop by. Often, students visit throughout a particular class, and return in subsequent semesters for career advice, advice on which courses to take, how to find an internship, how to apply to graduate school, how to write their resume and market themselves. Students come by to talk geology, politics, religion and science. I know without any doubt that the personal connections I make with these students improve their learning outcomes. Not just the outcomes measured quantitatively by exams, but students’ development as young adults who see their place in the world a little differently because someone made their relationship with the natural world more relevant.