One of my obligations as a Professional Engineer and teacher is to ensure that future generations can solve problems. The unique challenges facing a growing world with limited resources will require diverse ideas and the collective tenacity to develop ideas into implementable solutions. By fostering a learner-centered environment, providing equitable access to learning,and implementing scholarly teaching practices, I aim to not only train critical thinkers, but also to empower problem solvers who can transform ideas into meaningful action.
Fostering a learner-centered environment. Active-learning has been shown to increase student performance in engineering and other STEM fields.1As a teacher in a learner-centered environment, I will facilitate the synthesis of knowledge rather than the direct transmission of knowledge. To engage students in the hard, messy work of learning, I will design courses to emphasize the application of knowledge to address persistent and emerging problems. As an instructor for a graduate-level biological wastewater treatment course, I presented biological principles and associated mathematical models as tools to assess a broad range of environmental problems. In addition to presenting classic examples of biological nutrient removal, I also assigned a problem that used a fictitious, novel organism to transform an emerging contaminant. I asked the students to assess the kinetics and stoichiometry of the newly “discovered” organism, model its activity in a bioreactor, and suggest a microbial community strategy to improve bioreactor performance. With this activity, students demonstrated that they could apply their fundamental knowledge and thought processes to solve a new environmental challenge.
In addition to requiring students to think critically to solve problems, I will foster a collaborative class culture. Group activities are central to learner-centered teaching; however, steps must be taken to ensure groups elevate the learning experience. As a teaching-assistant for an introductory environmental engineering course with ~100 students, I ensured positive group collaborations by becoming familiar with individual students early in the semester (through personal surveys and team-building exercises), clearly disseminating my expectation of mutual respect, and assigning specific roles for group activities. I intend to continue exploring and developing best practices for group work as I grow as a teacher.
Providing equitable access to learning. Diversity of thought is key to achieving optimal solutions. While learner-centered teaching strategies have been shown to benefit underrepresented minority students,2instructors must be intentional in creating an equitable learning environment. I believe that inequity is a major reason that three-fifths of incoming STEM students do not complete STEM degrees.3To promote an inclusive learning environment, I will implement five proven strategies4: (1) give students the opportunity to think and talk about course material (eg, think-pair-share activities); (2) encourage, demand, and actively manage the participation of all students; (3) include culturally diverse and relevant examples; (4) monitor behavior to cultivate divergent thinking; and (5) teach all of my students. I grew up in a poor rural area but attended high school with students from affluent suburbs. I have experienced the dread of being wrong in front of the “smart kids,” the eventual feeling of being an imposter amongst the “smart kids,” and the fear of being stripped of my status as a “smart kid.” As a teacher, I will help individual students realize that they have opinions and ideas that matter, regardless of their background, GPA and standardized test scores.
Building an inclusive course also extends to course content. While teaching in the past, I have included environmental engineering examples that could impact people from various backgrounds. For instance, when teaching wastewater treatment, it is tempting to emphasize novel, exciting technologies, but these technologies are generally only implemented in urban areas with large wastewater treatment facilities. Therefore, I also include examples from rural areas (eg, septic tanks) and developing countries (eg, composting latrines). Furthermore, environmental problems are commonly tied to socioeconomic disparities. For instance, some of the most persistent polluters (eg, meat packing plants) employ large numbers of underrepresented minority and migrant workers. Urban communities with the worst local environmental problems (eg, lead poisoning, basement backups) are often poor areas within cities. Therefore, students should be made aware of issues of environmental justice as they relate to civil engineering. As part of teaching an introductory environmental engineering course, I developed a problem set and writing assignment related to the Flint Water Crisis that allowed students to explore these issues.
Implementing scholarly teaching practices. I view my teaching philosophy as a dynamic philosophy that is free to change as I grow as a teacher. I will use scientific inquiry to refine my teaching philosophy and teaching methods. Scholarly teaching relies on a cycle of developing, assessing, and refining teaching strategies. In using this cycle, I aim to both improve the learning environment for my students and to share my teaching experiences with the scientific community. The ability to implement scholarly teaching requires data collection to test if learning objectives are met and if other desired outcomes are achieved. To collect data, I will track performance of students on formative and summative assessments and solicit student feedback throughout the course. By implementing scholarly teaching practices from the outset of my teaching career, I hope to continually evolve and improve as a teacher and disseminate learner-centered strategies to the teaching community.
1 Freeman, S.et al.Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A.111, 8410-8415, doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111 (2014).
2 Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E. & Freeman, S. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science332, 1213-1216, doi:10.1126/science.1204820 (2011).
3 Waldrop, M. M. Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right. Nature523, 272-274, doi:10.1038/523272a (2015).
4 Tanner, K. D. Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE Life Sci Educ12, 322-331, doi:10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115 (2013).