Russell O. Colson - Passion for Teaching Statement

Early in my career at MSUM, a faculty member in the education department characterized a teacher as a pipeline through which knowledge flows to the student. This image did not work for me. Doing science was no more about passive knowledge than playing baseball was about knowing the rulebook.

About the same time, my faculty dean-noting that students she interviewed were well-motivated and appreciative of my teaching even when they struggled with difficult material-told me, "You seem to be a good coach." I'd coached baseball as a teenager, and this image worked. A coach encourages, instructs and pushes to excellence-like a teacher.

As my teaching matured, I realized that coaching was not enough. In some ways, I had to be that senior player who demonstrates good play and sound technique, guiding my students by example through the reasoning, approaches and puzzle-solving techniques of science.

These two elements, coaching and playing, became my model for teaching. In each class, as well as in research and advising, I strive to be both coach and player and to create a forum in which students and I become colleagues in discovery.

This philosophy is reflected in the geology program I've started and built at MSUM. Students regularly note the richness of their interaction with faculty and that it exceeds the faculty involvement at other schools in our community where they sometimes take classes. Faculty members in our program are substantially involved in all aspects of student growth. We work hard to know our students, and they know us. We are truly colleagues.

This philosophy is reflected in the undergraduate research program I've developed. I encourage students to find projects in which they have ownership, but I am fully engaged with them as they work on projects that are part of a collaborative whole. I not only provide guidance and advice, but I participate in experiments, analyses and interpretation. I work with them on writing their results and in preparing their presentations at professional conferences. I build community by bringing them to my home for cookouts and games. Many students have coauthored reports and peer-reviewed journal articles with me in the past 10 years; most have presented their own work at conferences. This experience has led to excellent job opportunities and acceptance into top graduate schools.

Finally, this philosophy guides my teaching. It explains my dedication to engaging students with conceptual puzzles that provide practice in real science reasoning. It explains why I do interactive lectures which allow sufficient flexibility and dynamics for me to show students my thinking process and for them to practice their own. It explains why every class I teach, whether it has a dedicated lab or not, has a significant lab and field component. Seventy-five percent of the courses I teach have field experiences. More than 1,400 students have learned geology in the field with me, nearly half on multi-day trips. Louis Agassiz, the great earth science teacher of the 1800s after whom a prehistoric lake in our region was named and who is the namesake for one of our area schools, said, "The book of nature is always open." He meant that it is in the field, and not simply in the classroom, that we learn about the earth.

Cliché as it sounds, I love my work. I love the sense of companionship that comes from working together with students who are excited to learn. I love the light in their eyes when understanding dawns. And yes, I even love to coach students who are frustrated and discouraged when the material seems too hard. Each opportunity presents a chance to become better than we were, to learn something new and to do it together.

To summarize my teaching and my joy in it: "My students and I do science together."


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