Junior Faculty Spotlight: Jessica Oster
Global climate change is among the most serious and complex issues of our time, especially as it is projected to cause serious but uncertain changes in the stability of global water and food supplies. Productive engagement with the problems posed by climate change requires a sound understanding of climate science, but also careful consideration of the socioeconomic, political, and personal dimensions that surround this issue. My goal as an educator is to help students develop a firm grounding in climate science that is rooted in knowledge of Earth’s history, and an understanding of the scientific process and methods that will enable them to think critically about scientific research, the social and political implications of climate change, and the portrayal of these issues in the scientific literature and in the media.
In each of my courses, I introduce students to the inquiry and uncertainty involved in scientific research. One way I do this for the first-year students is by assigning two short articles from the same issue of a scientific journal that present somewhat opposing ideas on a topic –for example, climate records from west Antarctica that reach somewhat different conclusions on the role of global warming in recent ice melting. The students are often surprised that two sound studies could reach different conclusions. They question why a scientific journal would publish both papers when one must be “right” and the other “wrong”. This exercise provides a great jumping off point for discussing the research process – how scientists don’t set out aiming for one right answer, but rather want to do rigorous work to answer questions they are passionate about – and how good work often raises as many questions as it answers.
Through teaching and my own experiences as a student, I understand that students will retain more knowledge if they are given opportunities to make their own observations, do their own research, or try to explain a concept in their own words. For this reason, I apply a diversity of teaching styles in each course, from undergraduate courses for non-majors to graduate courses. In each of my courses, I employ a mixture of lecture, group work, discussion, flipped classroom modules, and project-based learning, and in all classes, students have opportunities to become experts on certain topics and teach their classmates. Learning how to communicate scientific information both orally and in writing to a variety of audiences is also a central theme in each of my classes. With my first year students, the focus is on learning how to digest scientific writing and translate it to a more general audience. With graduate students, the focus is on learning how to communicate at a professional level in classroom and conference settings.