Nick Holschuh
Guiding Philosophy
Earth is a set of many interconnected systems. This makes Earth Science inherently interdisciplinary; to fully describe Earth's cryosphere 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 stimulate their curiosity to help them overcome the difficulty.

Despite this challenge, I believe Earth Science has a distinct advantage over other disciplines when it comes to engaging students: we live it. Students watch the seasons change, they wonder about earthquake risk in Cascadia, and look down as they fly over the US, marveling at the landscapes out their window. By drawing upon observations students already make about our world, and reframing them through process understanding, it is possible to spark a deeper curiosity about these phenomena we so casually observe in our daily life.

With this as my framework, I strive to build scientific literacy in my undergraduate students. The reality is that only a small fraction of them will end up as geoscientists, but by exposing them to the breadth of observations and analytical techniques in use, they will leave with a greater appreciation for the scientific process, and they will seek and evaluate evidence with a critical eye. For graduate students, I emphasize quantitative rigor and research creativity. Regardless of whether they end up in or out of academia, they leave prepared to come up with and execute on their own novel scientific ideas.
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 can lead to a misguided sense that there is an inherent ``truth'' to science, instead of conveying that science is an interpretation and ongoing reinterpretation of our observations. To combat this, I make it a point to introduce concepts through three different lenses: history, accepted theory, and modern scientific frontiers.

Science history is important as a reminder that the basic scientific process is unchanging with time. This provides context for some of the erroneous ideas of the past that are often used as foils against the modern scientific process. 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 helps us identify what we know, and as importantly, what we do not know. When students learn that Arrhenius documented the greenhouse effect in 1896, it changes the way they think about climate science, discriminating between first-principles and complex topics.


Lessons on the accepted theory, which comprise 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. To accomplish this, my classes would involve the full scientific process, from data collection and interpretation through to presentation. Students will engage with all forms of media, critically evaluating sources that range from mainstream news to peer-reviewed literature, and they should be asked to leverage modern technology to communicate the science. The result of this process can take a variety of forms, from modeling a system in Matlab 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 be exposed through their coursework to the cutting edge research that is taking place at the University of Oregon and around the world. This serves to highlight the limits of our understanding, as well as introduce the state-of-the-art instrumentation, analytical techniques, and field campaigns that are actively pushing the frontiers of the science forward today. I find exposure to active research can be both a source of inspiration and grounding for students who are considering continuing in academia, 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 a strong science program is involving students at all levels, including undergraduates, in research. As an advisor, I aspire to provide my students three things: opportunity, exposure, and a pathway forward. I provide my advisees the opportunity 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 resources and opportunities outside of my established research group, including new collaborators, short courses, and domestic and international site visits.

Exposure to a broad audience helps students in multiple ways, strengthening their communication skills while simultaneously developing their research ideas before publication. I would make it a priority to provide presentation opportunities both within the University of Oregon and to the larger scientific and public communities. Through this, students develop their own professional network, an important step in ensuring a smooth transition after graduation. Fostering that transition is one of the most important roles of an advisor, to aid in their professional goals either inside or outside academia, and minimize the stress that often comes toward the end of a terminal degree program.

This approach is derived from my experiences teaching at Carleton, Penn State, and the University of Washington, from undergraduate student and graduate advising roles, as well as from working in private industry at Chevron, and government research labs like the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.



Ultimately, my approach as a teacher and mentor is to encourage students' intellectual curiosity, build their understanding of the Earth system, and help them identify and achieve their career goals. 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 the geosciences, but all of them will be able to think critically about scientific questions contributing to a more informed public.



© Nick Holschuh - August 2016