Judith A. Sclafani, Ph.D.
As a science, geology is unique in that it elegantly intertwines physics, chemistry, and biology to explain natural phenomena. This means that it is both a richly complex science to learn and an easily relatable science to teach, since it often deals with concepts and issues that have direct societal relevance. Unlike other sciences, the Earth sciences are often not well taught at the high school level, but many students recognize their importance to addressing climate change. Most of the students I teach will not become scientists, but all will need to participate in society. I want students to leave my class with an understanding of how science works, the ability to think critically about scientific issues, and a feeling of confidence in their ability to make informed decisions.
For students that decide to major in geology, I aim to demonstrate that biotic change drives and is driven by physical and chemical Earth processes. This Earth system perspective is the fundamental learning objective that I structure my courses around. I have found that when students feel that their individual interests in geology are relevant and connected to the bigger picture, they maintain stronger engagement with the course material and develop more confidence in their abilities as geologists. I want to encourage students to pursue their interests, develop expertise, and practice sharing knowledge with and learning from their peers. These skills are the foundation of how science is done.
Training undergraduates in the collaborative nature of science is important to building a diverse and inclusive scientific community. Achieving these goals requires tailoring courses and lessons so that they are appropriately difficult yet engaging for all types of learners. To do this, I create a supportive and inclusive learning environment where students feel comfortable exploring the topic at hand, are encouraged to actively participate in the learning process, and are aided in making connections to relevant real-world concerns.
Empowering students and fostering collaborative learning environments
An important component of empowering students in a collaborative learning environment is providing research training to young scientists. During my PhD, I mentored three senior thesis students. Although they were helping with parts of my dissertation, I felt it was important to make sure they took ownership of their projects, engaged fully in the scientific process, and knew that their contributions were important. I saw it as my responsibility to provide the support that allowed them to feel comfortable and empowered. To facilitate this, I held weekly lab meetings where we discussed everyone's progress and generated ideas to improve the project. I also invited them to join me on a museum trip to collect the specimens that they would be working on and a field trip to see the method that they helped develop in action. I am incredibly proud of both the enthusiasm with which they approached the project and the results and interpretations that they produced; their contributions were invaluable. Through this experience, I discovered how fun it is to work with a team of students and how revitalizing their fresh perspective and sense of wonder can be to a project.
Active and inquiry based learning
I believe that field trips are an important component of geology classes and should be implemented whenever possible. They were a major factor in my decision to major in geology as an undergraduate and they are important for helping students visualize geological concepts and processes. I really enjoy getting out and seeing rocks and sharing that enthusiasm with students. That being said, not all students enjoy and/or are able to get out in the field, so it is important to make field experiences accessible to all learners. This can be accomplished by toning down the intensity of field trips (e.g., focusing on road cuts, avoiding strenuous hikes, discouraging rock climbing) and through technological advances such as virtual field trips.
Making science relevant
The goal of every class should be to add to a student’s knowledge and skill base in a way that will foster their growth as a learner. In an introductory class, where many students are science-phobic, my aim is simply to make science seem approachable. I hope that non-science students walk away from my course feeling that science is something that they can understand and that it is relevant to their everyday lives. I have found that many undergraduates are very concerned about climate change. In my introductory classes, I link concepts to public discourse, both generally and by starting each class with a “Geology in the News” slide. Student feedback indicates that they enjoy talking about current events and are excited to better understand the world around them.
For upper level courses, I emphasize the importance of pursuing and communicating knowledge about the Earth. My goal is to demystify the process of doing science so that students recognize that they can participate. I do this by incorporating published data sets and scientific papers in class assignments and have found that these efforts help to empower students as learners who can engage with real scientific material. I also incorporate a science communication exercise within a larger semester project. In sedimentology, where students conducted individual research projects, they presented their results to the rest of the department. In Earth history, students turned what they learned for a term paper into a video or blog to share with the public. Improving science literacy is one of our greatest responsibilities as scientists. We should be conveying this to our students and encouraging them to develop science communication skills as they are developing their skills as scientists.
I am prepared to teach and develop courses in the following subject areas:
Introductory courses – oceanography, geology, climate change, Earth history, evolution/fossils
Upper level courses – physical, chemical, and biological oceanography; paleobiology, paleoceanography, and paleoclimatology; sedimentology, stratigraphy, and basin analysis; field methods; data analysis