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Composing a Teaching Philosophy Statement

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Teaching Times features winners of the 2011-2012 Elizabeth Baranger Awards for graduate teaching in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. In this issue we highlight George Meindl (Biological Sciences), who will share with you his teaching philosophy statement. A teaching philosophy statement conveys who you are as a teacher, and explains how, and why, you teach. Composing such a statement can help you reflect upon what motivates your teaching, where you do well, and what aspects you could improve. Additionally, academic search committees commonly ask applicants to produce such statements and consider them seriously in the hiring process. It is therefore helpful to think not only in terms of indicating your fundamental teaching strengths, but also of differentiating yourself. What we like about George’s statement is that he contextualizes his reflection with specifics from both his personal academic biography and from his own disciplinary lens. We also like that it connects unique instructional strategies with his immediate and broader goals for his students.

For more information on composing a teaching philosophy statement, see the suggestions compiled by Lee Haugen. You may also be interested to listen to a conversation from last year’s GradEXPO panel on teaching philosophy statements, including Acting Associate Dean Stephen Carr’s unique take.

CIDDE TA Services frequently offers feedback on teaching philosophy statements for graduate students: contact  tahelp@pitt.edu or 412-624-6671.

During my early years as an undergraduate student in northern California I was interested in many subjects, but was unsure which of these warranted my undivided attention.  I sampled courses from many different disciplines, including philosophy, history and English, hoping to find a subject that most appealed to me.  In my fourth semester of study, I enrolled in an introductory botany class to fulfill a general education component of my degree.  After taking this course, I had a clear career objective: to further my understanding of the natural world, and to convince and instruct others of the importance of plants and the ecosystems they support.  For providing me this direction, I have only my general botany instructor, Dr. Michael Mesler, to thank.  To say Dr. Mesler was passionate about botany would be an understatement.  He lived for the study of plants, and this love and passion was contagious.  Dr. Mesler’s students consistently walked away from his classroom truly enthused about whatever topic was discussed on a given day.  To be an effective communicator in the classroom setting, one must possess a genuine passion not only for the subject, but also for conveying this information to others who know little of the topic, i.e., teaching.  I learned all of this from Dr. Mesler, and because of his influence I have developed a passion for both plant biology and pedagogy.  I can’t imagine a more fulfilling, valuable profession than that provided by teaching- a profession through which one can change the way that people view and understand the world.

As a Master’s student at Humboldt State University, I was able to teach laboratory sections for both general botany and plant taxonomy courses.  Through these experiences, I learned the importance of hands-on and experiential learning when studying topics related to the biological sciences.  While in the classroom, it is important to discuss key concepts and biological terms, but students take away much more information when they are able to interact with the organism being studied, e.g., through dissection or microscopy.  In addition, there is only so much that can be accomplished in the classroom- facts can be mentioned, discussed, reiterated, but often it is difficult to comprehend the biology of an organism and it’s place within an ecosystem without observing that organism in it’s natural environment.  As an instructor of botany and plant taxonomy lab sections, I took the initiative to institute field walks and field exams as regular components of the lab sections to promote experiential learning.  Observing plants in nature was vital for students to understand how they interacted with both their abiotic and biotic surroundings, and cemented concepts introduced in classroom lectures.  Observing organisms in their natural environments is particularly important for students living in city environments, such as Pittsburgh.  I have been able to incorporate field components to ecology lab courses here at Pitt by utilizing our city parks, and have received extremely positive feedback from students regarding these field excursions.

Working with Dr. Walter Carson and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, I developed a laboratory exercise in which students learned about managing an invasive species in eastern deciduous forests.  The emerald ash borer is an invasive insect that is killing native ash trees in the eastern U. S., leaving behind fallen logs and standing dead trees (coarse woody debris).  For this lab, I took students into Schenley Park and had them quantify the amount of coarse woody debris that was present in an urban forest.  Considering that most of the ash trees in Schenley Park will soon fall victim to the ash borer, students were then faced with developing a management plan for the parks service: what should be done with all of the additional woody debris that is sure to be produced in the near future?  While mature eastern forests have large volumes of coarse woody debris, park users might find the debris aesthetically unpleasing, or even dangerous.  Students were thus faced with a management challenge, and were directed to review the scientific literature to help them compare the amount of debris in Pittsburgh urban parks with that of mature eastern forests.  This activity allowed students to experience and observe a real problem occurring in nature- they not only read about the impacts of the emerald ash borer, but they went into forests and observed the effects of the beetles.  This level of hands-on, experiential learning really drove home the issue for the students.  Students were confronted with an issue, observed the issue in nature, discussed the issue with their instructor and fellow classmates, and then used critical thinking to analyze the data and devise a management plan.  Therefore, this assignment engaged the students effectively in hands-on, experiential and active learning.  I can only hope that activities such as these inspire my students to pursue careers in ecology and plant biology, and help to educate the next generation of scientists.


APRIL 2013

Contents:

School of Engineering Focuses on Flipped Class Model
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English Classes Use Digital Media
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BlackBoard Offers Free Mobile Application
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The Awkward Silence
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Strategies for Learning Student Names
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Composing a Teaching Philosophy Statement

2012-13 Elizabeth Baranger Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching
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