I view teaching as both a fundamental building block and one of the inspiring forces that leads students to great things. There is no single formula for successful teaching, but when it happens we (both teacher and students) are forever changed. As a student, I experienced and benefited from several great teachers, and want to do my part to keep the chain of inspiration alive. More recently, as a researcher, mentor and lecturer, I have found that connecting with students in the classroom helps fuel desire for growth and innovation in their and my own research.
In order to truly connect with students, professors must develop engaging courses and coursework, and continue refining their material and approach to reflect changes in the field and changing needs of students. Some of the most engaging lectures I have experienced were honed over many years, sometimes spanning an entire career. My experience has been that even the most engaging lectures need to be augmented by workshop-style activities. To design a successful workshop, the teacher needs to understand their audience and tailor their material to rely on the student’s existing knowledge base while developing new skills and making connections between concepts.
My formal education is deliberately broad, and therefore provides a strong foundation for teaching inter-disciplinary topics. My undergraduate degree focused on ecosystems, my master’s degree focused on air quality modeling, and my doctorate honed in on atmospheric chemistry at regional and global scales. The pressing problems of our day (e.g., climate change) are by their nature multi-disciplinary. Our most important, complex problems require an understanding of natural systems (focus of my undergraduate studies), along with anthropogenic systems in the context of policy (focus of my masters). Even as we layer these understandings, we must continue to ask fundamental questions about what we know and the strength of our assumptions (as accomplished in my dissertation).
I teach an undergraduate/graduate introductory course focusing on global air pollution and climate change. This course would start with an overview of the history of climate science and work up to the current state of the science. The course would combine conceptual-level understanding with hands-on calculations. These calculations would range from quantifying sources, sinks, and lifetimes of greenhouse gases to simplistic radiative forcing models. Through hands-on activities, the students would gain appreciation for the strengths of our current understanding of climate change, along with the remaining uncertainties.
At the graduate level, I teach a course that focuses on integrating models and observational data. Observational data, while still sparse for many pollutants, has grown in availability due to both increased focus and advancements in measurement technology. For example, satellite observations of many pollutants are now available, offering a new frontier of data with which to evaluate our understanding air pollution sources, transport and fate. This course would begin with an overview of observational products available for air pollution and climate scientists. Next, the class would review literature focusing on integration of observational data into mathematical constraints systems. Simultaneously, this course would have computer labs that focus on interacting with common data formats for large datasets (GeoTIFF, netCDF, GRIB, HDF5). Finally, each student would utilize an observational product to constrain a scientific topic of his or her own choice.
In each teaching setting, I adapt the course to best meet student needs. I do not expect all students to have the same academic background, aptitudes, or goals. Grading will focus on components that are core to the class. At the undergraduate level, the core expectations will be concept comprehension, skill development, and effective communication. At the graduate level, students will be expected to apply the concepts and skills to their own research in ways that make meaningful contributions.
I want to teach because I personally know the benefits and impact that a good professor can have. I want to challenge students while providing them new tools to exceed that challenge. The tools and perspective shifts that teachers can provide can breathe life into a subject and ignite intellectual curiosity. Ultimately, it is that intellectual curiosity that leads to the innovations that shape our world.