In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv introduced the phrase, “nature-deficit disorder,” to describe the decreasing role of outdoor experiences in the lives of children. Children are spending more and more time inside and less and less outside learning about the world around them. The most worrisome outcome from this trend is not the future absence of hikers or climbers or biologists, but the absence of people who see the natural world as one they fit into. My goal as an educator is to help combat ignorance of the natural world by bringing it into the classroom, and by taking my students out of the classroom as much as possible.
My strongest memories as a learner came from the most experiential lessons. Unfortunately, lecture-based instruction is common amongst scientists, particularly due to the tradition of attending talks at conferences. When I began teaching as a graduate student I relied on the easiest mechanism I knew – lecture. I was able to effectively teach the handful of students who could learn from lectures, but missed all the students who needed other instructional styles. As I have become a more experienced teacher I have incorporated different styles into my lessons to reach these additional students. As much as possible, I incorporate inquiry-based discussions (“Why do you see this pattern in the distribution of earthquakes?”), demonstrations (convections currents in an aquarium), lab activities (model bathymetric mapping with a shoebox) and current research (exploration of hydrothermal vents) into the lessons I teach.
I believe that one of the most important learning goals is an understanding of how science is done. This includes how to make observations, form hypotheses, conduct experiments, and question data and challenge assumptions. I try at the very least to include the vocabulary of science (prediction, hypothesis, theory, conclusion) into lessons and assignments. More importantly, I encourage students to embrace the scientific ideals of questioning both the patterns they see in the world and the conclusions reached by other scientists. I do this by leading discussions in the field where I ask students to look for patterns and generate hypotheses to explain the patterns, and by leading discussions in the classroom where I encourage the class to come up with alternative hypotheses to explain presented data.
The largest challenge I encounter in my classes is understanding and confronting student preconceptions and misconceptions. These hidden and persistent errors in understanding can be very difficult to draw out. I begin drafting each of my lessons by carefully examining the misconceptions I had when learning the material, assessing why I had those misconceptions, and recalling what it took to overcome them. Detailed consideration of the subjects in the lesson can help predict where other misconceptions may arise. Because it is possible to have a working, but incorrect, understanding of a topic, I ask my students to explain the process by which they come to their answers in assessments.