Welcome to the web site of
John W. Merck, Jr.
jmerck@wam.umd.edu

Educational Interests:

Introductory.
Upper Division.
Proposed courses.


All students are individuals with unique needs and incentives, and their aptitudes fall on a continuum of skill and motivation. For simplicity's sake, however, I have chosen to describe my undergraduate educational philosophy with two end-members of this continuum: the naive student in an introductory course, and the committed natural science major, recognizing that most undergraduates will display elements of both.

Introductory Science Education

One of the most persistent and striking impressions that I have gained from teaching introductory natural sciences is that a significant fraction of students arrives in college with little or no knowledge of the scientific method, and a shaky foundation of scientific factual knowledge. The primary responsibility of science education, it seems, is born by institutions of undergraduate education. To shoulder this responsibility effectively, undergraduate science education should focus on two themes: the scientific method, and the underlying coherence of scientific knowledge.

In my teaching, I both explain the scientific method explicitly, and frame other issues, wherever possible, in terms of hypothesis falsification. In developing the syllabus for "The Age of Dinosaurs" I organized the entire course around this theme, drawing numerous connections between the scientific method and culture. These included the history of the scientific method and the concept of hypothesis falsification; the identification of pseudo-science by spotting ungracious refusals to accept the falsification of cherished hypotheses; and other aspects of the material at hand that reinforced the concept of hypothesis falsification as the sine qua non of scientific practice.

The coherence of scientific information is a quality that academics may take for granted, yet we must remind ourselves that many college freshmen have not yet experienced the realization that independent facts can join in a coherent system. When we are mindful of this, students' frequent resistance to the "rote memorization" of what must look like interminable lists of atomized facts seems almost reasonable. Our task is to encourage students intuitively to grasp that these facts are actually not atomized, but form a coherent intelligible network of knowledge. This requires that they be persuaded to absorb a sufficient mass of related information that they can experience this realization for themselves. In "The Age of Dinosaurs" this was encouraged by the relentless organization of material around the dinosaurian evolutionary tree, which invited students to grasp the pattern of evolution as the organizing principle into which facts could be assimilated. Once students understand this system of organization, I generally found them ready to see connections between it and related issues, such the history of the continents and the evolution of plants and invertebrates.

If experience has taught me anything, it is that for introductory natural science education to be worthwhile, these two themes, the scientific method and the coherence of knowledge, must be conveyed successfully. Failure risks producing graduates whose darkest suspicions of natural science as something incomprehensible and irrelevant have been confirmed. Perfunctory efforts cannot expect to succeed. Success depends on the instructor's continued awareness of the class' performance, mood, and receptivity to new information, and the ability to quickly recognize and correct their own pedagogical errors.

Finally, instructors must attempt to overcome the educational limitations of the lecture hall by using appropriate audio-visual and multimedia technologies. For a multimedia aficionado, this is as often an exercise in avoiding infatuation with the technologies for their own sake, as one of adopting them. I have found carefully crafted multimedia to be an outstanding tool when used independently by students. In contrast, I have often found the extensive use of multimedia in the classroom to be more distracting than informative. Thus, with multimedia, as with all other educational strategies, the instructor must constantly reevaluate its effectiveness. My experience at the University of Texas has provided opportunities for me to develop pedagogical skills in both introductory and upper division courses and classes ranging in size from less than ten to nearly five hundred students. I am now eager to export these skills.

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Upper Division Science Education

Upper level undergraduate education presents different challenges. Upper level students usually come to courses in their chosen major motivated. Here, the tasks are to identify and overcome students' specific difficulties with the material, to make them aware of the full range of academic and professional avenues opened to them by their major, and to instill realistic expectations of those avenues. These tasks cannot be adequately addressed in the classroom, and require the fostering of mentoring relationships.

Mentoring relationships can be based on interactions as simple as regular one-on-one communications outside of class, and as profound as collaboration in major projects. In my teaching, I have employed various strategies to encourage office hour attendance, and have set up regular informal discussion groups to facilitate such communications, all with noticeable effect on performance and motivation. My most profound development of mentoring relationships, however, occurred through the involvement of talented undergraduates in research and multimedia development projects. The development of the interactive multimedia material for "The Age of Dinosaurs" involved the participation of up to eight undergraduates at a time. This setting was an ideal venue for communication between undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, providing unique exposure to professional role models. This not only facilitated their intellectual development, but enabled them to find and exploit educational and research opportunities that would have been unknown to more isolated students. No less important were the tangible benefits of the research and digital technology skills these students obtained. These included access other projects and to employment in the multimedia industry.

Through my association with "Multimedia Production for the Natural Sciences," in which mentoring relationships between students and faculty are deliberately fostered, I have seen many other undergraduates benefit similarly. For these reasons, the development of research and media-development projects involving undergraduates will be among my highest priorities as a faculty member.

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Proposed Courses:

In addition to introductory biology and geology courses, I am prepared to develop and teach any of the following: