I am driven by a desire to help students expand their own thinking and get excited about the natural world. I work to give students the tools they need to pursue careers as change makers. In the classroom I approach these goals in several ways. Above all else I emphasize process over content. I help students engage in the scientific process. Through this practice of science students learn concepts. However, I find that when students leave my classroom they have the skills they need to find new credible sources of information and understand new concepts as needed. I help students build a lattice of background knowledge they can use to make connections and integrate new ideas more easily in the future. In the past several years I have experimented with several different approaches towards these goals:
Advanced Plant Physiology – Fall 2014 Bard College
Course Description: In this class we will explore physiological, developmental, morphological, and anatomical adaptations of flowering plants to diverse environments. We will utilize readings from textbooks, popular science, and the primary literature to explore concepts such as: drought adaptation, seed dormancy, plant hormone signaling, phytoremediation, and biorobotics. Students will be expected to lead critical discussions of special topics in the primary literature. Labs will be an opportunity to design experiments to address some of these concepts in more detail.
This class was designed as a mini-graduate student lab (this was an advanced undergraduate course). For labs each week, all students were given materials lists and time constraints. They then wrote very short (1-page) grant proposals, proposals were reviewed by three peers, the top proposals were discussed in more detail and one proposal was “funded.” At this point the “funded” proposal was done by the entire class over the course of several weeks. The results were then analyzed as a class and each student wrote up the results in a short scientific paper. We did this whole process twice over the course of a semester. The second project results were presented as a poster at the Ecological Society of America conference in 2015 with all students in the course as co-authors:
English, J.**, Delliquanti, R.**, Dahan, D.**, Black, T.**, DePietro, D.**, Dickerman, N.**, Gao, Y.**, Hendler, D.**, Keddy-Hector, I.**, Lansbury, R.**, Mastrodimos, L.**, Tripp, I.**, Weissman, J.**, Woolner, C.**, Wright, A.J. Flood priming and leaf loss in Brassica oleraceae. 2015. Annual Meeting for the Ecological Society of America, Baltimore, MD.
Introductory Botany (majors) – Fall 2013 (Sarah Lawrence College), Fall 2014 (Bard College), Spring 2015 (Bard College)
Course Description: Imagine a super toxin that killed every living plant on earth: how long do you think we would have before we felt the impact? Could human civilization survive forever without plants? This course, intended for students considering majoring in Biology, provides an introduction to the essential components of botany including: morphology and basic plant identification, photosynthesis, respiration, cellular function, reproduction, and the use of plants in human society. We will work from textbooks and spend a substantial amount of time discussing how to read and utilize primary literature. Labs will be used to familiarize ourselves with plant form and function through hypothesis testing and working with data.
I have designed this course to build basic scientific skills over the course of the semester. Students read from the scientific literature and present in small groups on aspects of the literature that they should be focusing on in clearer detail: (1) figure interpretation, (2) connections to the big picture context for the study, (3) constructing a narrative, (4) justifications for author conclusions, (5) experimental design.
Simultaneously students engage in experiments in the lab in a similar way. We start with a small-scale transpiration experiment. Students are given materials lists (fans, desk lamps, seeds, soil, pots) and asked to read several articles on transpiration, light, temperature, and wind. In small groups students are told to choose one variable (light, temperature, or wind), construct a hypothesis, and design an experiment to address this hypothesis. This lab takes several weeks and introduces the concepts of replication (and pseudoreplication), controlling for outside variables, and randomization. We repeat the process as a class using a simple experiment for the effects of species diversity on plant germination and biomass production. Students finish the semester by proposing a small group experiment (with justification, hypotheses, experimental design, timeline, and materials lists), conducting the experiment, and presenting the results from the experiment in an in-class poster session.
Building curriculum to improve science literacy for non-scientists
I am currently an Assistant Professor of Ecology at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). I chose FIT because it is at the forefront of designing and implementing techniques for educating non-scientists. With courses such as: Math for Toy Design, Chemistry for Cosmetics, and Ecology & Environmental Problem Solving, the educators at FIT are on the ground, developing curriculum that gets artists and designers excited about science. As most science educators know, once we remove the barriers to learning that many students acquire early in life (“I’m not good at science/math,” “Science isn’t cool,” etc) we can emphasize the same critical thinking skills and the same process skills that we would emphasize in any other science course. Furthermore, as scientists we know that developing this type of science literacy in the population is essential. In my pursuit to improve science literacy for non-science majors I have developed several courses. I emphasize the systems thinking framework to help students break problems down into essential parts, organize their ideas, and demonstrate their understanding quickly and easily:
Botany for Artists & Designers – Fall 2013 (Pratt Institute), Spring 2015 (Bard College)
Course Description: This course provides an introduction to the essential biology of plants, including plant form (morphology) and plant function (physiology). We will spend time collecting, identifying, and drawing plants around the Pratt campus. We will also use examples from pollination biology and agriculture to discuss how plants function as part of larger design systems. This course will give students the background needed to identify plants around New York City, understand how plants function in a larger environmental context, see biological diversity as design inspiration, and practice drawing in a scientific context.
In this course, students are expected to understand systems in several ways. Students learn about angiosperm reproduction in terms of flower shape, color, and smell. They learn about complementary structures in pollinators and case studies of particularly tight co-evolutions between plants and pollinators. Students then use their understanding of this system to design a plant-pollinator system that doesn’t exist. They use the principles of co-evolution and morphology to inspire this design. They can paint, model, 3D print, dance, or draw this plant-pollinator system in some kind of visual artistic format.
For their final project students write a short position paper on the ecological consequences of GMO’s and monoculture farming practices in agriculture. Students use sources from the scientific literature to research this paper. Students are broken into two groups and debate the two sides of this paper for the final class session.
Ecology & Environmental Problem Solving – Fall 2015 (FIT)
Course Description: In the past two hundred years, humans have dominated nearly all of the earth’s systems: humans are polluting the air and waterways, species extinctions are more common than ever before, and the burning of fossil fuels is irreversibly changing the climate. If this concerns you, don’t fret! You will have the opportunity to make decisions throughout your career – in any field – that affect the environment in positive or negative ways. This class will help you understand ecological science and apply it to environmental problems. This connection will help you make informed and environmentally sustainable decisions throughout your life.
This course uses Thinking in Systems (Donella Meadows) to strongly emphasize the systems thinking framework for students. Students start by constructing systems diagrams for non-biological systems. The systems diagram is then used to help students understand the climate, biogeochemical cycles, population growth, species invasions, and agroecology. Throughout the semester, students use their growing knowledge of ecological systems to debate controversial topics in Ecology (e.g. green marketing, human population growth, species extinction).