My journey into mathematics has fundamentally shaped my teaching approach. I did not start out particularly enjoying mathematics. I always had anxiety with mathematics and I could never see the utility of mathematics. So, I went to university and studied empirical ecology. However, my whole perspective shifted when I took an undergraduate biomathematics course. The teacher sparked my curiosity by showing me that I could do biological experiments with mathematics. The power of mathematics to think through almost unlimited questions was exciting. Therefore, my approach to teaching mathematics, especially to students who don't have a mathematics background, is a reflection of my journey. Specifically, my approach is centred around sparking the flame of curiosity, providing a safe environment, ensuring accessibility, encouraging experimentation, bridging disciplines, and fostering reciprocity.
For me, excellent teaching is the ability to spark the flame of curiosity in students. I see my role as a teacher to facilitate and encourage the students' curiosity. In doing so, the student takes ownership of their own learning process, increasing their excitement and satisfaction through the course. To foster curiosity, I am a proponent of active- and problem-based learning. For example, in my Storytelling in Science Writing workshop, I get the students to analyse the story structure of a scientific journal article as a group. Through this group exploration, students start to make their own connections between writing and storytelling, setting them up to continue this exploration in their future writing tasks.
A safe environment to fail and learn is critical. I believe that we do our best learning when we make a mistake and then learn some new understanding about the world. Therefore, one integral job of the teacher is to create a teaching environment that allows for students to make mistakes without guilt or anxiety. One strategy to achieve a safe environment is to use multiple low-stakes (formative) assessments early in the semester to ease students into the course and allow them to make mistakes with minimal consequences. Another strategy is to praise students' thought processes and effort more than the eventual outcome. As a Writing Services teaching assistant, I embolden students through the iterative process of writing by complimenting the student’s thought processes and methods of writing more than, for example, whether their grammar is correct.
I believe strongly that courses should be accessible to ensure all students reach their potential. If a student has difficulty accessing course materials or the classes, then the environment is no longer safe and sparking the curiosity flame becomes almost impossible. Where possible, I would use Universal Design principles in my teaching and provide multiple avenues to course content. When constructing my Storytelling in Science Writing online resource, I had to ensure all parts of this resource was accessible. I learned to create screen- readable pdfs and presentations. I also gained experience in producing content in video, web page, fillable pdf or slide deck, and other formats to support different learning needs.
As a trained empiricist, experimentation is fundamental to my way of thinking and my teaching approach. Experience has taught me that rigorous learning regularly happens through play and experimentation. As a teacher, I would endeavour to include inquiry-based learning in my courses. Specifically for mathematics courses, I would design exercises where students can experiment with parameters and functions akin to empirical experiments. One example of me encouraging experimentation in my current teaching with Writing Services is when I get students to write out multiple different versions of their idea and experiment with sentence structure and flow of information.
With a background in biology, economics, and mathematics, bridging disciplines is a major part of my teaching. I believe that students gain thought-provoking insights from interdisciplinary teaching. In larger classes, I would provide examples from multiple disciplines, solicit examples from the students, and where possible design assignments that compare multiple disciplines. In smaller classes, I would ensure that students have the independence to choose questions pertinent to their interests. One example of bridging disciplines in my current teaching is when I used the ideas from a sociology student's role-playing experiment to illustrate the structure of story and help the student communicate their ideas.
Learning does not stay at the student level. As a teacher, I would encourage reciprocity of the teacher-student relationship. To foster reciprocity, I believe being honest and vulnerable with students is integral. One practical way for me to be honest and vulnerable is to be open with students when I don't know something and invite the students to find the answer with me. Another method to foster reciprocity is by providing multiple opportunities for students and myself to reflect on the course content and on my teaching. For example, through a reflective exercise in my Storytelling in Science Writing workshop, the students provided me with a different conceptualization of story structure in science writing.
Many students who take first year mathematics courses will not specialize in mathematics and are often scared of mathematics. I believe the first step to capture these students' imaginations and instill the power of mathematics is creating a safe and accessible environment. Furthermore, allowing students to experiment with mathematics will help students to see the utility of mathematics for thinking through problems. Knowing that these students will be interested in many disciplines outside of mathematics, as an interdisciplinary researcher I will continually speak to the students' interests. Finally, I would ensure that the teacher-student relationship is reciprocal by being honest with students that I did not start in mathematics. By encouraging this co-learning of mathematics, students will approach mathematics through exploration instead of through rote memory.
My undergraduate biomathematics teacher sparked my fascination in mathematics despite my initial anxiety and lack of experience. Now, it is my turn to pass this spark to students who are mathematics shy through providing a safe place to experiment and play.