Interdisciplinary education can be useful for approaching complex human-environmental challenges that face our society today. My philosophical approach to teaching environmental studies topics is problem-oriented and focused on exploring and developing solutions. Instead of asking students, what is your major? I ask, what is your problem?
Many of today’s international, social, and environmental challenges are multi-faceted and do not exist in a disciplinary vacuum. Beyond gaining expertise in traditional core disciplines that are relevant to the environmental problems we face today, I believe that incoming generations of undergraduate and graduate students require additional training in critical thinking skills, communicating across disciplines, and developing practical skills to become future problem solvers. My goals for the student learning process are as follows:
1. Introduce complex facets and theoretical underpinnings of social and environmental problems facing our world today;
2. Promote critical thinking skills and acquisition of research and technical tools to evaluate social and environmental problems;
3. Encourage independent learning, such that students can know from where and how to seek out additional resources to formulate their assessment of social and environmental problems; and
4. Develop written and oral communication skills that are required to diagnose and propose solutions for addressing those problems both within and beyond the classroom.
In support of my teaching philosophy, I encourage students in my classes to evaluate cases of environmental problems that draw from the theories and concepts from the natural and social sciences. Assignments include reading materials, writing reflection pieces, constructing conceptual models of social-ecological systems, and preparing analytical reports and policy briefs for relevant stakeholder audiences and scholars from different disciplines. For advanced classes that are more research-oriented, students also learn about participatory research methods, qualitative comparative analysis, and quantitative analysis for the environmental sciences.
Reflecting on my belief that higher education plays a significant role in promoting the development of informed citizens and leaders in the environmental sciences, I strive to make the learning process as relevant to the real world as possible. Thus, the purpose of in-classroom activities is therefore to review and practice specific skills, such as technical knowledge of using ArcGIS, NVivo, and statistical software (i.e., R and Stata), simulated scenarios of professional interactions students are likely to encounter in their future careers, and discussions and debate of relevant literature and current events in the fields of environmental science and international development.
The following are examples of courses and topics that I can teach:
Introduction to Environmental Science & Policy
Introductory Statistics for Environmental Sciences
Theories on Social-Ecological/Human-Enviromental Systems
International Development Policy & Practice
Central Asia & Eurasian Area Studies
Participatory Research Methods
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
My journey to become a teacher started over 10 years ago, in 2005, as an HIV/AIDS educator for a non-governmental organization, called Support for International Change (SIC), which was formerly based in Arusha, Tanzania. In a collaborative teaching team with American and Tanzanian students, we taught an HIV/AIDS curriculum for roughly 200 primary and secondary children in rural Tanzania. In addition, we organized and conducted trainings for roughly 500 adults in rural Tanzania. The following summer, I returned to the SIC office to assist with refining the SIC educational materials and developing a first draft of a peer educator training manual.
After the experience of teaching and developing educational materials in Tanzania, I have incorporated my passion for teaching into my longer-term career aspirations of working in higher education. As such, I developed a one-credit international colloquium undergraduate course at the University of Arizona to introduce and discuss the history, region, and current events of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.
I gained additional teaching and facilitation experience over three years while working at the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona. I first assisted and then led trainings about how to use geospatial technologies, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing, and online collaborative mapping, to address a number of local social and environmental topics. In 2009-2010 and across over 140 contact hours, I trained audience numbers of 620 youth and adults from the general public on how to use collaborative mapping tools for their own research interests.
The following are some examples of projects in which I have facilitated the education of geospatial technologies for various audiences to address real world problems:
Working for the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona, I assisted with trainings for ranchers from southern Arizona about how to use online collaborative mapping tools to map buffelgrass (a fire-prone invasive grass species) on their properties in order to reduce fire risk.
In collaboration with Flagstaff Citizens Against Substance Abuse and Coconino Coalition Against Drugs, I facilitated a youth civic engagement project that documents spatial perceptions about alcohol accessibility from local businesses among high school and middle school students in Flagstaff, Arizona. Results were shared with the Flagstaff community and local businesses in order to raise awareness about underage drinking.
Internationally, I trained 20 undergraduate volunteers from universities in Khujand, Tajikistan to assist with research on sustainable land management. We covered topics on sustainability, environmental science, participatory research, and introducing the necessary vocabulary for the purpose of assisting with the research.
At Duke University, I gained university-based classroom experience as a Teaching Assistant for undergraduate (Introduction to Environmental Science and Policy) and graduate-level courses (Population Ecology, Environmental Modeling, and Data Analysis for Environmental Sciences). I led classes, including discussions, labs and lectures, facilitated a semester-long book discussion group of Jeffery Sachs’ Common Wealth, developed quiz and exam questions, and designed lab materials for teaching simple and multiple linear regression.
I believe that the process of learning does not need to be difficult, painful, or boring. Some common goals for most educators are to engage students in new ways of thinking, instill in students an appreciation for topics across various fields of study, and promote a passion for lifelong learning. While these are certainly noble goals, becoming an effective educator can be challenging without some knowledge of the learning process on the part of the student, as well as the delivery of information on the part of the educator.
In order to become a better educator, I am participating in the Certificate in College Teaching Program at Duke University. As a result of this training, I am much more aware of and how to take into take into account the following in my classroom and course design:
1. The principles of the learning process (Kolb 1984) and theories on how people learn (NRC - How People Learn)
2. The design of in-classroom and out-of-classroom activities that can facilitate learning
3. The heterogeneity in learning styles and personalities that can influence the process of acquiring knowledge and participating in educational activities
4. A multitude of formative and classroom assessment techniques to reinforce student learning and educator awareness of the levels of student knowledge (Angelo & Cross 1993)
5. How to develop measurable course objectives and design activities to support course objectives
6. How to design lectures and improve presentation skills in order to best communicate new and complex concepts to an audience