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.
Return to top.
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.
Return to top.
In addition to introductory biology and geology courses, I am prepared to develop and teach any of the following:
This highly successful introduction to the natural sciences for non-majors has been a mainstay of the University of Texas Department of Geological Sciences for roughly ten years, enrolling over 400 students at a time, providing for the employment of up to six graduate teaching assistants, and serving as a recruitment instrument for natural sciences majors. The popular appeal of dinosaurs, and the great number of scientific disciplines that contribute to vertebrate paleontology, enable this course to appeal to a wide range of student interest. I would like to recreate this success at your institution, and could conceivably offer the course immediately upon my arrival.
I can offer an upper division introduction to vertebrate paleontology. This course would be intended both as a survey for students in non-paleontological disciplines, and as an avenue for those wishing to pursue graduate degrees in paleontology. It would be organized primarily around the subjects of vertebrate phylogeny, vertebrate osteology, and the practice of phylogenetic systematics. Attention would also be given to vertebrate ontogeny and paleoecology. At least one field trip would be included to serve as an introduction to paleontological field recovery techniques.
I can offer an upper division survey of the theory and practice of organismal systematics for students of both paleontology and biology. Such a course would place the modern practices of systematics and taxonomy in a historical perspective, provide an introduction to the Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and review contemporary and recent schools of systematic theory. Above all, the student would become conversant with the application of phylogenetic systematic techniques to both morphological and molecular data sets.
The level of professionalism expected of presentations at today's professional meetings and the growing trend toward the digital processing of images for publication, and the increasing volume of digital image, sound, and video data being directly published in CD-ROMs and on web sites makes mastery of digital media technology a must for undergraduates bound for graduate school. I can offer an introduction to digital media technologies software development specifically designed for natural science majors. This course would introduce software for vector and raster based image-processing, sound editing, video editing, web site development, and multimedia application development.