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My Teaching Philosophy

What is a teaching philosophy?

A teaching philosophy statement is a typical requirement for faculty applications. It should reflect what *you* think about teaching, what kind of classes you'd like to teach, and how you would organize them. I recommend writing this based on the kind of institution or job you're applying for; a service-focused essay like mine below is great (I hope) at an undergrad- focused institution, but maybe not at a research intensive institute.

I'm about half-way through my PhD program, and I can't say yet where precisely I'll end up (which is good, because that sounds so boring!), but I can say that I think an undergrad only institute would be good for me. I could run a small lab and mentor undergrads, teach, and run outreach programs for the community. It sounds like a dream.

Source: Enterprise Management, Ltd., in 1987.

"When the facts change, I change my mind... what do you do?"

Below is my teaching philosophy. It is always a work in progress, as I learn more about teaching and learning. I can't remember where this quote comes from, but being able to think critically and evaluate, understand, and integrate new information is an important skill. My teaching philosophy is grounded in my personal experiences in education, in evidence-based teaching practices, and in active learning techniques.

Please enjoy, and do not use except for guidance in your own writing.

My Teaching Philosophy

“You don’t really understand science until you can explain to your grandmother.”

There’s some problems with that statement (also, bold move, Mast, to start off with a stereotype). My paternal grandmother was an opera singer, and the wife of a surgeon. My dad remembers lively dinner conversations focused on medical oddities and new surgical techniques, with his mother peppering his dad with quips and questions. My maternal grandmother worked with my grandfather, balancing the books, keeping track of orders, and staying on top of the newest technology for the construction company they built together.

Stereotypes aside, this quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein underpins my aspirations in science communication and teaching. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, I made a point to get my science out of the lab and into the world: after discovering how much I enjoyed outreach in undergrad, I continued in graduate school, working with various student groups to perform demos and conduct activities at local elementary, middle, and high schools. It can be challenging to explain the concept of shock absorption in the abstract to 5th graders, but it’s much easier (and more fun) when they can model a moon landing, with a cup as a rocket equipped with marshmallows to stop their astronauts from falling out of the cabin.

Using demos like this helped me when I took on a greater outreach challenge. I partnered with several middle school educators to teach elementary school teachers advanced math and science concepts and ways to incorporate STEM in their classrooms. For these teachers, it was an opportunity to understand where their young students were heading: issues at age six in understanding abstract math concepts, if not corrected, can seriously hinder students’ abilities to master calculus in high school, linear algebra in college, and so on.

In this program, I provided real life science and engineering examples to help the elementary school teachers visualize complex concepts more clearly. I designed and demonstrated a variety of simple and fun activities for them to perform with their students. They learned more when I took the time to develop examples they could connect and relate to, and when they could model the abstract in a physical way. Beyond lectures, my co-instructors and I led whole group and small group discussions, simple labs, and activities to help the teachers develop deep learning.

It was this hands-on, high student engagement attitude that I brought to my teaching assistantships. For each class, I provided examples for my students connecting the material to current events. We focused on partner work and small group discussion, and I began using more interactive methods like concept maps and jigsaw activities to help students retain the content.

In engaging with these different groups, I have been struck by two things: first, the vast differences between individuals in each of my groups, and second, the elasticity of the human mind. I have seen students of every age and demographic work hard to grasp a concept and succeed, and I personally have been called to respond to my students in different ways. Whether it’s helping a kindergarten teacher grasp scientific notation, or working with an undergraduate to master the art of the perfect lab report, I have realized that, to achieve successful learning, you must meet students where they are.

This has meant adjusting my teaching practices, and assessing the objectives of my course as it progresses. While I have a lot of enthusiasm for environmental engineering and can effectively convey that passion to students, I recognize that, for some students, that may be insufficient for them to learn. I believe that students must be motivated internally to be successful in a course, and I plan to create a classroom environment where they believe they can be successful. This includes having clear syllabus guidelines, a comprehensive course map, and developing rapport with my students, so they will feel comfortable approaching me with any issues they may face.

My teaching practice also includes a comprehensive diagnostic survey at the beginning of class, so that I can determine where my students are in terms of their familiarity and command of the material. In the past, I have organized student partners and small groups such that weak students are paired with strong students; the strong student can expand their knowledge by explaining it to their partner, and their partner is not left behind.

My intent for my classroom is to facilitate student knowledge, in which I help secure a primary foundation for my students, then to assist them in constructing more sophisticated and nuanced understandings themselves. To do this, I prefer to use a flipped classroom: using lecture videos outside of class, with short assessments to check understanding, and then using class time to complete problem sets and activities in partners or groups.

Technical content aside, I believe that the classroom is an important place for student professional development. Here, we as professors can help our students learn essential job skills: collaboration, data analysis, and written and oral communication. Understanding this, I incorporate projects like group presentations and comprehensive lab reports to help students develop and strengthen these abilities. These activities, especially in a lab setting, also serve to promote a sense of ownership in the material: they learn the concepts and teach them to each other, and see the concepts in a lab experiment they perform, and they analyze their data and write a comprehensive lab report on their findings. For many environmental engineering undergraduates, the skills they develop in this way will be crucial for them to obtain (and excel in) a job.

As I think about all the different people I’ve taught – children in elementary through high school, elementary school teachers of all ages, undergrads and graduate students – I think about Einstein’s quote. When I contemplate what I want my students to take away from my classes, I think about my course content, but in a broader sense: I want my students to be able to discuss these ideas comfortably with their peers, families, and employers, and to see parallels in current events or in papers from scientific journals. Thus, my task will be to facilitate the construction of a holistic understanding of the material and to build the ability to think creatively and critically.

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