Ashley Blawas

Ph.D. Student & Comparative Physiologist

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Teaching Statement

The problem of finding biological solutions to the challenges of life at the depths of the ocean to the thin air at high altitudes makes the study of comparative and environmental physiology fascinating for biologists, ecologists, and engineers alike. Because of this interdisciplinary nature, I believe it is important to create a classroom environment that fosters diverse student backgrounds and ultimately encourages collaboration for scientific understanding, both within and outside of the field of physiology. The study of physiological function is founded on understanding how organisms deal with common challenges like acquiring energy, reproduction, and movement. Therefore, I strive to teach my students how to recognize patterns and apply prior knowledge, in combination with using the scientific method, when faced with novel problems. Regardless of students’ interests, I believe that collaboration, intuition, and experimentation are useful skills that can be applied well beyond a physiology course. To this end, I aim to equip my students with the ability to combine knowledge integrated from multiple perspectives, a developed intuition for how the world around them functions, and an understanding of the scientific method to inspire their continued scientific learning beyond the classroom.

To date, I have taught at the undergraduate level both as a guest lecturer (Biology of Marine Mammals, Marine Megafauna, Comparative Physiology of Marine Animals) and as a course teaching assistant (Marine Megafauna). Through these experiences, I have learned how to cater to multiple types of learning in a lecture-style class including using multimedia, real-time clickers questions, and drawing exercises, among other tools. In addition to preparing interactive and engaging lectures, as a teaching assistant, I was responsible for organizing and facilitating experiential learning through field trips and in-class, non-lecture activities for the 55 undergraduate students enrolled in the class. Students came from a range of different majors and grades which underscored the importance of short, frequent assessments (i.e., weekly reading questions, in-class assignments, blog posts) to gauge student learning in a diverse classroom.

I believe that students learn through a combination of observation, practice, and teaching. Therefore, as a teacher, I utilize a variety of tools to convey the course content. Beyond traditional lectures, I have used in-class or video-recorded demonstrations to convey concepts like the mammalian dive response. By watching the heart rate display of a diver submerged in cold water, students can observe physiological changes in action to cement the concept that a reduced heart rate during a dive helps the diver conserve oxygen. For conveying different types of locomotion used by marine animals I use side-by-side animations to compare pelvic, pectoral, and caudal oscillation. Because active learning in the classroom has been shown to improve retention, I also use real-time clicker questions to ask students to recall their learning and practice the applications of recently-taught concepts and interactive activities like “spot the seabird’’ to emphasize to students the challenge of studying these animals in the wild. Finally, students are asked to teach their classmates about recent findings related to marine megafauna research and conservation by writing blog posts and making short presentations in class. This tiered teaching style gives students multiple opportunities to engage with the material and several small assessments to measure their learning in different ways.

As I develop as a teacher, I am excited to continue to work with students to ensure that the material is delivered in a way that best facilitates their learning by incorporating content that is tuned to multiple learning styles. Because students enroll in a class with a variety of personal interests, I hope to incorporate flexible, creative projects into my future classes that allow students to explore a species, environment, or physiological adaptation of their choice. With technologies for hybrid classroom participation, I look forward to being able to bring more immersive experiences to my students through discussions with worldwide experts in the field and live video conferencing into field work for physiological data collection. These experiences will help provide students with the learning needed to develop an intuition for physiological patterns observed across species and habitats. In my future courses, I am excited to incorporate a component of scientific literature review related to each class’s lecture topic to empower students with the ability to understand the scientific method and how experiments can be designed to test new theories.

In college teaching, it is necessary to establish a classroom where students feel comfortable and energized to learn. Therefore, I will work with the students to establish classroom norms so students can maximize their engagement with the material. I will also create mechanisms for regular feedback from the students to best match my teaching with their learning. Ultimately, I hope to create a classroom where students are inspired to learn about the functioning of life around them and where I can provide them with the tools to continue scientific inquiry in their futures beyond the classroom.