Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Teaching the students I have—not the students I thought I would have

UC Merced Ecology Class, Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 2015
           In 2012, when I applied for my position at the University of California Merced, my teaching statement was an abstraction. At the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory, my “teaching” was limited to the training and mentoring of some of the country’s (and even the world’s) brightest undergraduates, graduate students, and Postdoctorates. I had a firm understanding of what it meant to be an under-represented minority based on my history of being a female earth scientist in a field and at a Lab where I was often the only woman at the table. My teaching philosophy back then was based on both experiences: training top students and encouraging diversity.
Ecology Class, Yosemite, Spring 2013
            When I come to UC Merced, I hit the real world! I developed and taught five different classes in three years: Fundamentals of Ecology, Stable Isotope Ecology, Biogeochemistry, Field Ecology, and Sustainability in the Anthropocene. At UC Riverside, I taught Freshmen Seminars on topics revolving around environmental issues, as well as Stable Isotope Ecology and Biogeochemistry. My biggest teaching challenge was a general education class for non-science majors on Earth’s Resources and Sustainability. This class was stretch on my abilities to deliver the material on energy and mineral resources to students unfamiliar with chemistry and basic geological concepts. I was only marginally successful, perhaps reaching about half the class. Accepting you’ll only influence a few students out of a pack was difficult to swallow.

            During my first class at UC Merced, Fundamentals of Ecology, an upper division class with about 50 students, I made a number of assumptions about my students and my teaching that turned out to be fundamentally incorrect. As I lectured, I looked out on students who simply stared back at me, not a pencil or pen in hands or a notebook in front of them. When prompted to answer questions in class, only a handful of students raised their hands to reply. At test time, I was disappointed in their performances and questioned my ability to construct reasonable assessments. Incorrectly, I had assumed that all students were striving for an “A”, whereas in reality, many of them were “comfortable” with receiving a “C”, the minimum passing grade. In lower division classes at UC Merced, students were trained to depend on Powerpoint lectures and subsequently lost or forgot the importance of paying attention to the professor and writing down important ideas as they unfolded in lecture.
Justin Singh (l) and David Araiza (r), Vernal Pools, 2013

            As I was so new on campus without a laboratory, I delved further into the mind of UC Merced’s undergraduates in my class. It was easy to identify the top 15% of high-achieving students. Sadly, it was also as easy by midterm to identify the bottom 15% of extremely low-achieving students. My interest lies in working with that middle 70% of students who have the potential to go up in their achievements with the proper guidance and encouragement. At UC Merced, and UC Riverside as well, our student body has a high percentage of 1st Generation college students, along with students who’s language at home is something other than English. In addition, UC Merced’s undergraduates may be in the top 11% of their high school classes, but often they come from under-performing high schools, and many are required to take remedial math, chemistry, and writing before they can take college level classes. To encourage better study habits, I created open notebook exams, required students to read and write about primary literature, and promoted active discussion during class.

            When you spot talent in your classroom—grab it and hire that person—quick! It was in my first ecology class that I recognized two undergrads that I snapped up at the end of the semester to work in my new laboratory. David Araiza, a slight young man with close-cropped hair, sat in the first row directly in front of me for every class. At test time, he was prepared with No.2 pencils, colored pens for drawing diagrams, and of course a calculator. When the grades were posted, he was usually the only student to argue for additional points. I learned then that his goal was med school, a goal that many of UC Merced’s biology students lusted after.
Bobby Nakamoto (in dumpster) and David Araiza, 2014

            Only a very few “A” students actually are accepted into the state’s very few medical schools. As graduating senior David wrote an email and asked for a job. He joined me in the lonely, nearly vacant lab in the Castle building 12 miles from main campus. Without any instrumentation, David joined Chris and me on measuring basic plant growth parameters on UC Merced’s Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve. He ordered supplies, organized the lab, and did “duties as assigned.” When the isotope ratio mass spectrometers were installed 10 months later, I trained him about how complex instrumentation worked. At the end of his two-year time, he was running all of the instruments, training students, and managing the day-to-day aspects of the lab. In addition, he studied and took the MCAT examination, got married, had a child, and was accepted at UC Davis Medical School for fall 2016. He’s completing his 4th year and expected to graduate into a community-based family practice in California’s Central Valley, where decent medical is hard to come by.

            A second student who stood out that first semester was only a sophomore. On exam days, he wore a tie or a bowtie and dress pants. His first examinations placed him among the “A” students. His third midterm performance was sub-par. I wrote to the student, Bobby Nakamoto, asking him to come in for office hours. After a few days of not hearing from him, I called him to the front of the classroom after lecture and asked directly when he was coming into my office. It was the start of a six-year professor-student relationship that continues to this day.
Bobby Nakamoto--learning dilution curves, 2014

            As my first semester wore on, I often looked to ecology students Bobby to explain simple mathematical concepts that some of the students weren’t grasping. He has a knack for explaining abstract concepts in simple terms, something I struggle with. Bobby worked as a volunteer for the following semester, then I hired him as a student assistant. He was assigned nutrient analyses of soils, meteorite extracts, and waters. Both of us think through procedures sequentially and abstractly. I could give instructions with a few words and a wave of my hands. He understood and carried out the work silently. When he was about to graduate, Bobby looked around at other graduate schools, but no one was smart enough to bring him into their program. He joined my lab group, now a senior graduate student, the person who can fix anything and is my right hand now that I’m physically limited.

            As my lab grew, I often invited students to work in the lab, who were not the typical “A” students that are easy to work with. They did simple tasks like glassware washing, weighing samples, or grinding soils. One of these students, Peter Nguyen, volunteered in this capacity for 18 months. The son of Vietnamese refugees from the “American” War, Peter was expected to head to med school. I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. His love was sport clothing and e-sports. Miraculously, he found a Master’s program at the University of Oregon in Sports Apparel. I await his making his first million.
First UC Merced grad students: Joy Stewart and Jon Nye, 2014

            My first graduate class at UC Merced, Stable Isotope Ecology, Spring 2014, was an eye-opener yet again. I assumed that all graduate students taking a class wanted to learn and master the material, take advantage of the fact that I was an expert in this field, and embrace the field and laboratory possibilities open to them. About mid-semester, I realized the graduate students were consumed with their teaching assistant duties, fledgling research, and other classes. UC Merced’s graduate program does not include a detailed comprehensive examination like many other universities. As a result, grad students could put in the minimum time for a “B” and earn class credit without mastering the subject matter. Subsequently, I have modified my teaching of graduate students, recognizing that when they learn a subject, they are searching for its application and relevance to their area of study and research. In the first couple of weeks, I learn about that student’s interest in the subject, Biogeochemistry or Stable Isotopes, and try to tailor their research papers and readings towards what is important to them. In fall 2015, I created a separate discussion section, laboratory section, and field project just for grad students, so that they can learn the material at a deeper level.

            When I was physically able, I engaged students in observing the natural world through field trips to local places of ecological interest. At UC Merced, we spent a lot of time at UC’s Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Natural Reserve, which is immediately adjacent to the campus. All students were required to attend a field trip to Yosemite National Park. At one time I was surprised how few students in Ecology and Earth System Science had been to Yosemite, which is only 1.5 hours from Merced. I learned that it is not uncommon for 1st Generation students, whose parents might be farm workers or other laborers, to strive for working indoors. As a result, I trained students to use field guides, binoculars, GPS units, observe plants and animals, take samples, and build hypotheses around what they observe in the natural world. Students loved this approach when they are asked to look at the environment around them.
Student explaining fire ecology, 2015

            After six years of on-the-ground teaching experience at the University of California, my teaching philosophy has evolved to embrace each student as an individual, bringing out their abilities--one student at a time--and helping that middle 70% of students to attain higher academic achievement. 
Bridget Lee (left), grad student UC Riverside

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