Glaciology - Geophysics - Radar Theory

Guiding Philosophy
The Ph.D. process promotes intellectual silos. The subjects become increasingly technical, the debates exist within a narrow community over an even narrower range of topics, and it becomes easy to lose perspective on the larger scientific and societal context. That process taught me just how valuable my own liberal arts education has been, and has helped me to distill my teaching philosophy and the qualities I hope to instill in future students. To appreciate diversity of thought, to be aware of their own biases, and to be open and engaged even as subjects fall outside the comfort of their world view or expertise. By leveraging the uniquely interdisciplinary nature of Earth Science, I believe students can develop these qualities alongside technical and communication skills, allowing them to maximize their impact after leaving.

Earth is a set of many interconnected systems. To fully describe Earth's climate through time, you need an understanding of the atmosphere and ocean, the tectonic history and distribution of continental masses, the evolution of the biosphere, and the human impacts from energy and land use. Students need to be able to think on time scales of seconds as easily as millenia, and about processes that act on the atomic level as well as those acting over the entire planet. As a result, teaching Earth Science is uniquely challenging in its scope; we need to provide students with the tools to approach these expansive questions and the curiosity that helps them enjoy the challenge.

With this in mind, I strive to build scientific literacy in my students, emphasizing quantitative rigor, physics first-principles, and the importance of the larger Earth context for understanding individual processes. The reality is that only a small fraction of the students taking Earth Science and Physics courses will end up as professional scientists, but by exposing them to the breadth of observations and analytical techniques used to understand the Earth system, I hope they leave with a greater appreciation for the scientific process, and a critical eye that seeks and evaluates evidence, contributing to a more informed public.
Applying that philosophy in the classroom -- lessons from my teaching experience
As professional scientists, we are taught to interpret the dynamics of natural systems based on patterns we see in the data; however, as teachers, we often present students with the interpretations without ever providing them the opportunity to draw conclusions on their own. This leads to a misguided sense that there is an inherent ``truth'' to science, instead of conveying that science is an ongoing reinterpretation of our observations. To combat this in the labs I have taught and the five courses I have helped to teach, I have made it a point to introduce concepts through three different lenses: history, accepted theory and observations, and modern scientific frontiers.

Science history is important for several reasons -- it is a reminder that the basic scientific process is unchanging with time, and erroneous ideas of the past (that are often used as foils against the modern scientific process) were never inconsistent with the historic data. Galileo's telescope did not change the way the planets moved, it simply added more celestial bodies to the picture, demanding a fundamental revision of the intellectual framework in order to accommodate those new observations. Science history also provides context for which problems we have solved, and which questions are yet unanswered. When students learn that Arrhenius documented the greenhouse effect in 1896, it changes the way they view climate science, and helps the students move beyond basic concepts to more nuanced issues.

Lessons on the accepted theory, which make up the majority of the coursework, should provide not only subject matter expertise, but investigation and communication skills that can be applied outside of the Earth Sciences. This means that my classes strive to be interactive in a way that incorporates the full scientific process, taking students out of the classroom for data collection, and building up their technical skills through the resulting data interpretation and formal presentation. Students should engage with all forms of media, critically evaluating sources that range from mainstream news to peer-reviewed literature, and should be asked to generate products that communicate science leveraging modern technology. This can be diverse in nature, from numerically modeling a system and producing animations for YouTube, contributing to a course Wiki, or developing outreach materials that engage younger students and future scientists.

Finally, I think it is essential that students get exposed to state-of-the-art research through their coursework. This serves to highlight the limits of our understanding, and introduce the cutting edge instrumentation, analytical techniques, and field campaigns that are active in pushing the frontiers of the science forward today. I find exposure to current issues in Earth Science can be both a source of inspiration and grounding for students who are considering continuing in science, providing a realistic picture of the excitement and the challenges faced during an academic career.
Teaching through research and mentorship
One of the most important components of setting up a strong science program is involving students at all levels in research. As an advisor, I aspire to provide my students four things: flexibility, opportunity, exposure, and a pathway forward. Flexibility allows my advisees to explore their own interests, even when they are outside my own expertise. My background in geophysical methods, geodesy, and continuum mechanics provides a basis for a wide variety of research topics in the cryosphere, but I value when student interests push me into new areas, as it helps us both develop as researchers. Research success then depends on our ability to find additional resources together, including new collaborators, short courses, and domestic and international site visits.

Exposure to a broad audience helps students in multiple ways, helping them strengthen their communication skills while simultaneously building up a research portfolio that will help students applying for graduate school or other post-graduate endeavors. I would make it a priority to provide presentation opportunities both within the school and to the larger scientific and public communities. This also helps students develop their own professional network, an important step in ensuring a smooth transition after graduation. One of the most challenging yet most important roles of an advisor is to help students define their own path forward, aid in their professional goals either inside or outside academia, and minimize the psychological stress that often comes toward the end of their undergraduate education.

Ultimately, my approach as a teacher and mentor is to help students build their intellectual curiosity, help them to understand the Earth system, and achieve their own career goals. This can be a challenge given the scope and duration of geologic problems. I encourage students to look into the data, and through interactive exercises I provide them the analytical and observational tools to connect with concepts in the Earth Sciences in a way that will outlast their memory of assigned readings. Only some of them will end up with careers in science, but all of them will know how to think critically about scientific questions related to the environment.

© Nick Holschuh - April 2018