Rachel K. Thiet (PhD)

Core Faculty and Director of MS Program
Department of Environmental Studies

Teaching Philosophy

A great teacher is defined by the transformations she inspires in her students. How are students leaving my courses transformed by the experience?

As relevant environmental studies training requires the integration of disciplines, effective teaching integrates competent and creative content delivery, preparedness, generosity, emotional intelligence, and humility. An effective teacher knows her subject deeply and its broader connection to other disciplines, but remains a deep learner and models curiosity as a way of being. She shares intellectual space with her students generously and encourages each student to contribute her unique perspectives and experiences in ways that enrich learning. An effective teacher is a quiet but astute observer of social interaction and manages group dynamics subtly and effectively. She is commanding in her competence, preparedness, and organization, and shows implicit and explicit respect for her students.

Below are the specific outcomes and transformations I aim to see in students leaving my courses.

Students better understand connections among ecological and earth systems, and between natural and human systems.

I am a mechanistic ecologist and I encourage students to take their intellectual analyses deeper by thinking mechanistically. I challenge students to ask what underlies a process or problem or solution, and in this way to grow in their critical thinking skills and the depth of their analyses. I model this way of thinking in the way I deliver content: I don’t merely describe – I also explain. For example, it’s not enough to describe to students that acid rain reduces forest productivity; I explain how this happens at various spatial and temporal scales, explaining the effect of H ions at clay exchange sites, the effect of Al toxicity and Ca deficiency in plant cells, and the cumulative effect of acidification on NPP at landscape scales. In this way, I model for students how to make explicit connections between above and below ground ecology, biogeochemistry, cellular biology, and geology. I provide readings and assignments that draw from all of these various disciplines, work across scale, and integrate these disciplines in mechanistic ways, and I expect students to make these connections in their class work and discussions.

Students have stronger scientific problem-solving skills and greater confidence in their scientific skills.

Students in my courses evaluate others’ primary research and conduct their own scientific research. Through conceptualizing, developing, conducting, and writing up and presenting a scientific project, students develop problem-solving, experimentation, and science communication skills. By going through the scientific process of discovery, students learn to appreciate the role of empirical science in understanding and solving complex environmental problems. For example, in my Soil Ecology, Wetland Ecology, and several of my field courses, students are required to develop, conduct, write up, and present a scientific study from start to finish. I explicitly require students to conceptualize their projects in the context of broader ecological relevance, so that their empirical science is always connected to larger ecological questions, problems, and solutions.

Students understand scientific questions and environmental problems as intimately connected to culture, politics, and socio-economics.

In my courses, students gain experience reading and critiquing ecology and earth science literature that couches scientific data within cultural, political, and socio-economic contexts. For example, in my Earth Systems and Climate Change course, student groups work on a semester-long State of the Systems research project in which they evaluate, synthesize, and present information about physical Earth systems processes, environmental data, global change processes and effects, and socio-economic adaptation and mitigation efforts in a particular geographic region of the world. In this project, students are challenged to integrate the physical, life, and social sciences, and I explicitly expect students to work across spatial and temporal scales. I model this interdisciplinarity in my own content delivery throughout the semester.

Students are more intellectually mature.

My courses transform immature thinkers who oversimplify complex ecological issues into nuanced thinkers who understand and account for complexity. I provide literature, scientific information, and opportunities for classroom and field discussions that help students to see that popular, trending viewpoints in our field are usually oversimplifications of complex, nuanced issues. By providing carefully chosen readings that offer alternative viewpoints and contradictory data, and by encouraging students to explore various viewpoints in regular class discussions, I challenge students to look more deeply at the causes they support and the viewpoints they hold. Typical discussions in any of my classes include using evidence in the literature to consider, for example, that local food does not always result in lower net carbon production; that genetically modified foods may mitigate hunger in some global regions; that biodiesel may be an unsustainable and dangerous response to peak oil; that earthworms actually harm some natural ecosystems; and that global environmental change may improve the standard of living in some human communities and enhance ecosystem functioning in some global biomes. Students leaving my courses are more sophisticated critical thinkers who can evaluate scientific data and consider unpopular and inconvenient viewpoints, so that they are less likely to regurgitate trendy sound bites and take oversimplified stances.

Students are more confident in their willingness to take risks.

Students make connections at their own rates. In my courses, no student question or contribution is stupid. Creating a feeling of emotional safety in my classroom is absolutely critical if students are to grow through exploring complex ideas, challenging assumptions, and pushing themselves into uncomfortable territory. Thus, I spend considerable time in the first weeks of any class creating an emotionally safe environment in which students feel free to explore their thinking and perceptions without fear of judgment or ridicule, and I maintain this emotional tenor during every single class meeting throughout every single semester. Creating and maintaining and emotionally safe classroom environment does not make a classroom “soft”; instead, it creates a social environment in which students feel free to challenge both themselves and one another, so they improve their analysis and communication skills. Throughout this process of creating a safe environment, I maintain strong leadership by earning trust and respect through my preparedness, competence, structure, and formal content delivery.

Students have a clearer sense of the strengths they bring to our field as environmental leaders.

By fostering in my courses an exploratory learning environment above all else, students are freer to explore and discover their respective strengths and weaknesses and their truest passions, and thus move closer to finding their most valuable contributions as leaders in our field. The ability to ask informed questions based on deep study and critical thinking, and to effect meaningful solutions through experimentation and taking risks, is vital for conceptualizing and effecting informed solutions to complex environmental problems. Simple thinkers and timid actors are not effective leaders; as a teacher, I seek to make students more intelligent and more courageous.