A first step into the unknown world of academia…….

At the beginning of this blog I did promise to include some writings that would at least be semi-useful (hopefully!) to future students hoping to move into a career in marine science; so here it goes!

From today I am beginning a year long Postgraduate Teaching Internship at UWA.  I was lucky enough to be accepted into the course last year, and with teaching semester 1 just around the conference the professional development aspect of the course will begin soon!  One of the pre-requisities for the course is keeping a reflective journal of my experiences (good and bad!) during the year…so why not just do this on my blog!  At least it’ll keep me honest about whether or not I’m meeting the original goals I set myself at the beginning of the internship, it’ll be interesting to see how my approach to teaching changes over this time and who knows, someone may even find it useful to read through!

The real purpose of this internship is to give some formal training to PhD students who are potentially interested in entering into academia at a later stage in their careers.  Most lecturers (or at least many that I have spoken to) never received formal training, and instead had to ‘learn on the job’, gaining the good and bad habits of other faculty members around them and bringing teaching strategies learnt from their own time as a student.  The professional development aspect of the course aims to teach us some of the main principles about teaching, that could be useful in any subject (from art to physics to marine ecology!).

I will be teaching in two units this year: “Marine Systems” (an introductory marine science unit for 2nd years) in 1st semester and “Ecological Processes” (a 3rd year unit focussing on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems).  For me, there are some broad goals I hope to achieve during this time:

Engaging the students with more relevant assignments: Back when I was an undergraduate, I remember working on many assignments, but not feeling a great deal of pride or love for the final product.  Instead, it felt like more of a ‘box ticking’ exercise needed to pass the course, with the work produced looked at once by the marker and then cast aside forever.  Given the huge amount of time that goes into some of these undergraduate projects (e.g. 100 students putting 5 hours into a project is 500 hours worked!), this seems like a huge waste to me!  Why not get the students to produce something with the aim of it being in the public domain, availabile for anyone else to read, something that they take a great deal of pride in?  I have a few ideas about how to work this into the existing course structure (many of which involve the use of social media), so this will be one of the main points I bring up during my training!

Instil passion for ecology and marine conservation into students:
I love what I do, and possess a strong passion for both ecology as a science and the conservation of the marine environment.  I try to get this passion across to audiences in every single presentation that I give, as I feel people are most engaged with my research when I am excited to tell them about it.  Since this approach has served me well in the past, I hope to use it again when teaching the students.  It might be a bit lofty to imagine that I will give them an inspirational lecture that they will remember for the rest of their lives, but if I could at least engage them, challenge their views of science, and get them discussing (however briefly) concepts I have raised over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer after class then I’ll feel pretty good about it all!  And if I can see the students getting genuinely excited during my teaching, then all the better!

Make some long term changes to the teaching of marine science units at UWA
The internship itself only runs for one year, but I really hope that some of the changes that I make in this time last significantly longer than this.  Yes, not everything I attempt will work, and yes, I’m not going to revolutionise university teaching in a year, but if I can make some significant, lasting changes to one aspect of the way both units are taught then I think the internship will have been fairly successful.

Most of all….have fun!!!
Of course it is a serious project to undertake, but this internship will allow me to communicate with like-minded people for a significant amount of time over the next year, discussing exciting research, future directions of ecology, and how this is important for humanity as a whole! I believe that it is the responsibility of researchers such as myself to pass on the knowledge and skills that will allow future marine scientists to develop….but this doesn’t mean we can’t have lots of fun while we do it!!!

One pre-requisite of the internship is to keep a reflective teaching journal, so I may try to incorporate this (or at least some of it) onto this blog to keep everyone up to date with how it is going!  As for now….I’m off to start reading through some of the effective teaching texts I’ve been given!!!  If anyone has any advice for this aspiring lecturer, feel free to leave some comments!

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