Teaching

Teaching Philosophy and Goals

I believe that one of the most valuable skills a college education can provide is being proficient at independent learning. As professionals, students will encounter many unforeseen challenges where they will be required to gather, review, and evaluate information, assemble a cohesive understanding, and provide appropriate solutions to a problem. Thus, my teaching intends to help students focus on how to know, rather than on what to know. My primary goal as a teacher is to facilitate students’ learning by sparking their interest in a topic, fostering inquiry, and guiding them in seeking, evaluating, and analyzing information. I consider a successful student to be the one who assimilates the theory, articulates the core concepts within a wider context, and puts them into practice to solve a problem or drive innovation and discovery. My ultimate aim is to help students hone their professional and scientific skills, such as information management, hypothesis formulation, and critical thinking, and to encourage self-motivated exploration of technical and scientific questions.

Pedagogical Methods

Articulating the real-life significance of a topic and its relation to students’ own experiences is the crucial first step in sparking interest in a subject and encouraging self-learning endeavors. I have widely employed this approach in my teaching, including when I guest-lectured an introductory course in agronomy on the use of decision support systems. I began the lectures by asking students about the decisions they make on a daily, weekly, yearly, and once-in-a-lifetime basis. Students responded with all sorts of answers. Some were trivial, others funny or even thoughtful. Then I posed a similar question, but this time about examples of crop management decisions farmers would make before, during, and after growing a crop and continued by describing how decision support systems might aid them. This technique allowed me to more effectively connect with my student audiences, who remained engaged and inquisitive throughout these sessions.

Whether leading a field day, instructing trainees at modeling workshops, or mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, I have seen first-hand that engaging students one-on-one with question-based cooperative arguments is effective in stimulating critical thinking and examining the underlying assumptions of an idea. Using this strategy, I seek to cultivate a systems-level understanding of crop production. In my teaching, just as in my research, I use systems-thinking to answer questions such as: What is the interrelation among the constituent parts of the system? How do systems change over time? Or, how do systems work within larger systems? By pondering these broad questions, students can begin to frame the exploration of real-world management questions in terms of how they affect dynamic intertwined processes such as crop growth, water and nutrient cycling, and climatic change. This approach was my primary strategy as I mentored three undergraduate students through Science With Practice, an experiential learning and work program, in which I guided these students in developing their own research projects, including field and lab experimentation, data analysis, scientific writing, and presentation components. This experience taught me that addressing students’ questions—be they about debugging code or formulating a hypothesis—with systematic inquiry is not only the most meaningful way to influence their learning, but can many times also yield insights applicable to my own work. Two of these students decided to pursue Master’s degrees after the program, while another contributed key observations and insights to a journal article currently under review.

Barriers to information access have decreased substantially, even compared to my own college years. However, the sheer volume and wide-ranging quality of the information available now demands the ability to sieve through, evaluate, and synthesize information to make it useful for decision-making. Developing this skill is typically more an art than a science, so exposing students to information management activities and resources is key to my teaching approach. An example is my ongoing Teaching Practicum experience this fall semester. I developed the curriculum and delivered a week-long series of lectures about nutrient management in a sophomore-level agronomy course with an enrollment of nearly 130 students. I designed an assignment that required them to conduct a literature review on one of eight plant nutrients, collecting information on its physiological role, deficiency symptoms and management, then synthesize the information and present it in a visually appealing “extension-style” factsheet. I compiled a nutrient management booklet using the best factsheet examples from the class, and distributed it to students so it could be used as a resource to study for the final exam and in their future professional practice.

booklet
Student-produced factsheet booklet

Courses of Particular Interest

I will seek to strengthen university  undergraduate education by developing and delivering curricula that integrate basic concepts of agronomy, soil and atmospheric sciences into introductory- and mid-level courses. In terms of graduate education, I would focus on developing curricula to address topics at the interface of agriculture and computational research, aiming to enhance students’ awareness and understanding of advanced data analytics and process-based simulation models.

Linking Teaching to Research

Cropping systems simulation models are widely used around the world to support research and on-farm decision-making, and they will continue to be an integral part of my own research. Although simulation models are commonly used to train surgeons, astronauts, and accountants, they are widely underutilized for teaching agronomy and ecology despite their tremendous potential. Integrating simulation models into course curricula will enhance students’ learning about complex processes and how these are affected by environmental and management factors. Although operating models requires substantial training, which realistically cannot be achieved within the span of a college course, opportunities exist to design more learning-friendly platforms built around the models. I envision my teaching program to be at the forefront of this development, actively seeking collaborations with experts in pedagogy and information technologies to turn these models into more effective teaching tools.

Outreach Vision

As an agronomist, I strive to provide decision makers with relevant and rigorously tested information to support the design and implementation of strategies to improve farm profitability and sustainability. My aim is to put the latest scientific knowledge and data analytics at the fingertips of those whose decisions influence the landscape, and to build understanding across sectors and interests groups. Simulation models are widely used around the world to support research and on-farm decision-making, and they will continue to be an integral part of my own research. Integrating simulation models into extension and teaching programming will enhance learning about complex processes and how these are affected by environmental and management factors. Although operating models requires substantial training, which realistically cannot be achieved within the span of a course, opportunities exist to design more learning-friendly, interactive platforms built around the models.

My experience as a contributor to Iowa State University’s Forecast and Assessment of Cropping sysTemS (FACTS) project, a multidisciplinary effort that provides publicly available in-season predictions of soil dynamics and crop yields, has made me aware of the challenges to design decision-support tools. Not only the underlying science and assumptions need to be robust, but successful tools also should be easy-to-use and provide relevant, timely information, well targeted to producers’ needs. I envision my extension program to be at the forefront of this development, actively seeking collaborations with experts in pedagogy and information technologies to turn these models into more effective experiential learning tools. I look forward to elaborate on this vision during future discussions.