Teaching Experience:

Teaching Philosophy

Teaching gives me the opportunity to show students the fascinating and complex biological world around them. I enjoy teaching, because of the challenge of engaging students in the class material. Some of my best teaching experiences have been in small classes, such as Field Ecology, where I can show students how to look at an ordinary object such as a stone wall, a forest path, or a tennis court and think about it from a biological perspective. Large lecture courses pose different challenges, but when possible, such as in EEB 245/Evolution (180 students), I break up the 75-minute lectures with demonstrations or thought experiments. For example, when discussing taxonomic classification, I bring in a large collection of stuffed animals, and have the students classify them using different classification schemes (Aristotelean, Linnean, etc.). The students become aware of the limitations of all these schemes in a much more memorable fashion than if I had only lectured on the topic.

I have used new technologies to increase student participation in larger classes. Since 2005, I have been part of a pilot project to use handheld "clicker" devices in introductory biology courses at UCONN. We estimate that during the pilot phase of this initiative, over 75% of students participated in answering questions via this system, and we expect similar or better results in the future. These devices could also be used to redesign courses; in workshops at UCONN's Institute for Teaching and Learning, my colleagues and I have discussed ways of designing courses that use continuous assessment instead of concentrated study in the days before exams. We believe that continuous assessment will lead to better retention and is a better model for how the postgraduate world operates. I am interested in exploring this aspect of course design further.

I enjoy the possibilities of more individualized instruction in small courses or tutorials. I have taught laboratory and science writing courses, including EEB 293WC, Field Ecology (7 students; Fall 2005 and Fall of 2006). This course is a mentoring course that allows individualized instruction. Students' primary assignment in this course is to develop an individual research project, collect and analyze their data, and to prepare a presentation of their project similar to presentations at annual meetings of scientific professional societies. Students develop their research topics while participating in a series of weekly exercises designed to showcase different field techniques and data analysis tools. In the Simon Lab at UCONN, I have helped train undergraduates in field and laboratory techniques, including collecting field samples, conducting hybridization experiments, dissection, extracting DNA, and cloning and sequencing.

Writing is an important skill for scientists. At UCONN, I have regularly taught EEB 245W, a writing section associated with the evolution lecture course. In this course, I work with students to improve their science writing, develop a term paper topic, and complete a term paper. Instruction involves exercises in library research as well as smaller writing assignments to allow practice for the term paper. I write hundreds of comments or suggestions on each student's papers, ranging from corrections of writing errors to comments or questions designed to engage the students in a discussion, and I hold follow-up individual meetings with the students to hone their writing skills.

I consider the internet to be a valuable teaching tool. Web pages can enhance a course by making reading materials, background information, and examples readily accessible to students. The web also has a role in less formal teaching. For several years, I have co-designed and maintained a website with information about cicadas (see http://insects.ummz.lsa.umich.edu/fauna/michigan_cicadas/Index.html). During cicada emergences, this website receives hundreds of visits per day. When I came to UCONN, I incorporated most of the material in that website into Cicada Central (http://hydrodictyon.eeb.uconn.edu/projects/cicada/). This website contains factual information about our collections as well as natural history information that is available to the general public, and it is also an access point to our online databases of cicada emergence records. Although we do not currently track traffic at this website, we estimate that during peak periods, the website may receive thousands of visits per month. The website is a resource and information access point for the general public, who, along with amateur naturalists, media interviewers, and filmmakers, submit questions concerning cicadas.

© 2007 John R. Cooley