Teaching Statement

5 Key Aspects of James Callahan's Teaching

As a STEM educator, I see it as my duty to help my students develop scientific intuition, an aptitude for problem-solving, and rational thinking habits. All three are key components in the toolbox of life skills that they can use to access fulfilling careers and be informed global citizens. In my classroom, students cultivate these skills as they work together to concretize abstract mathematical and scientific concepts through small group activities. After starting my pedagogical career as a full-time high school instructor teaching algebra-based physics, I returned to school myself to work on a PhD and served as a discussion, lab, and head teaching assistant in several introductory college chemistry courses. Drawing on successes and challenges from my past varied teaching experiences, I design my classes to give students clear pathways towards achieving meaningful learning objectives, while ensuring that the content is accessible to everyone irrespective of their past STEM performance. Overall, my teaching helps students dispel any preconceived fears of math-heavy classes and gain confidence in their capacity to think logically and reason quantitatively.

I carefully scaffold the curricula of my classes to be accessible so that students’ backgrounds in math do not hinder their success. Mathematical thinking is integral to analyzing physical systems. But in the first year that I taught high school physics, I noticed that many of my students consistently struggled to correctly answer test questions with a heavy math focus. As part of a larger curriculum project that summer, I analyzed the extent to which these math-heavy questions helped students learn physics and removed any that were outside the course’s more conceptual learning objectives. For the remaining essential math topics, I generated a customized set of practice problems to help my students reactivate their knowledge from past math classes and transfer it to the new context of physics. At the start of the next year, students worked through these problems in small groups and together with me at the board during a new math review unit tailored to the course. These two weeks of exclusive math review paid dividends: student performance on math-heavy test questions was markedly higher all year long. Together, these interventions allowed me to spend the rest of the course helping my students grapple with challenging physics concepts in lieu of math review.

When I taught high school physics, one of my overarching course goals was for students to develop their ability to clearly communicate scientific ideas to their peers. Towards this goal, every month or so I would ask my students to write a short summary of a recent popular science article and to suggest someone else in their life who might be interested in reading it. Crucially, I encouraged them to write about scientific topics that sparked their individual interests, irrespective of the class’s subject matter. For example, one student was passionate about fashion and art, so she chose to report about synthetic materials engineered to be woven into fabric to create novel visual effects. In addition to accomplishing the communication learning goal that I set out to achieve, this low-stakes assignment let students explore their STEM passions outside of the realm of introductory physics. My students taught me a lot through these reports too! Years later, as COVID-19 began, I found myself remembering an article a student had written about, discussing how eco-friendly hand dryers were unfortunately also very effective at spreading pathogens from poorly washed hands.

Extensive research has shown that when students actively participate in class, their learning improves.[1] To help my students stay engaged and take charge of their learning, I employ a menagerie of pedagogical practices including structured group problem-solving and metacognitive reflection. When I taught weekly discussion sections for college general chemistry, my students spent most of the hour working hand-picked practice problems to reinforce the concepts from that week. For each problem, I typically had students first work towards a solution with the person next to them as I walked around to observe and answer questions. After a few minutes, we then reviewed the solution on the board, and I highlighted the general principles involved. In that same course, I asked my students to reflect on their learning by filling out a weekly, five-minute survey that asked which problem was most challenging from the previous week’s problem set and why. Skimming through these metacognitive reflections before section allowed me to quickly assess what topics students were still having trouble with and review them during the next discussion. At the end of the year, this led one student to remark in my reviews, “I never felt a question would go unanswered.”

On top of helping my students bolster their mathematical fluency and scientific intuition, I work with them to hone their executive functioning skills, such as time management, communication, and breaking down complex tasks. Just as in high school, students in introductory college STEM classes are often still learning how to juggle classwork and non-academic life obligations. To help ease this transition when I taught college general chemistry, I sent out weekly e-mails reminding my students of due dates, providing “Tips and Tricks” for upcoming lab activities, and offering words (and emojis) of encouragement before exams. Many students greatly appreciated this structure, with one saying in an anonymous review, “He is very organized and prepared. The e-mails he sent out every week are extremely helpful”.

As a trusted adult in my students’ lives, I recognize that I play just as crucial of a role in their personal growth as in their academic development. With this in mind, I completed a national certification course in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) in 2017. Through MHFA, I learned not only how to assist a student in the midst of a mental health crisis but also where I could direct them for professional psychiatric help. While grading college chemistry exams later that year, my colleagues and I were alarmed to notice that one undergraduate had written about suicidal ideation and feeling out of place all over their exam pages. Calling on my MHFA training, I took these writings seriously and called in an anonymous mental well-being check on the student through the university. On a course-wide scale, I explicitly tell my students that I value their well-being and verbally affirm that they are worthy of respect and love regardless of their grades. Mental health is inherently personal and complex, so I am intentional in showing students that I care throughout the year, so they can feel welcome in my class and motivated to engage.

Through my teaching, I help my students foster a positive relationship with math and grow into reflective, quantitative thinkers as they mature into successful, independent adults. As each new course begins, I share with my students that I am always looking to improve on my instruction. Just as they reflect and receive feedback from me on their learning, I regularly self-reflect on my teaching and ask for student feedback at several points in the year. Along these lines, a new strategy that I am excited to try out is giving students more choice within assignments; I think that letting students select how to meet a learning objective may help them become more invested in the course. I am appreciative of the opportunity as an instructor to be one small part of a student’s overall educational experience and excited to continually improve my pedagogy for many years to come.

References: [1] Freeman, S., et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS, 111(23), 8410–15. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111