“Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”Friedrich Nietzsche

Every time I get confused, I like to take a walk. I do not mind the distance: striding, I aim to get to that intersection, then the corner of that street, then to that tree until somehow, step by step, I find myself at my destination. As a student and a researcher, I use the same approach to solving difficult questions: breaking them into small pieces, trying to address each piece separately and putting the solutions back together to seeing where they fall into the big picture. This has been my approach to teaching as well: I teach my students to break the questions into small pieces and focus on a small piece at a time until they find out how to solve the large problem at hand. In this way, I aim to foster independent critical thinking and to equip my students with the skills to approach difficult questions and justify their arguments.

At the Nicholas School, which houses multiple disciplines approaching sustainability and the conservation of natural resources from different angles, I often get to be the teaching assistant (TA) for master-level courses, targeting different aspects of development and economics: primary data collection and analysis (Social Science Surveys (ENV 557) in Spring 2010), introductions to valuation of non-market goods, pollution control and resource economics (Environmental and Resource Economics (ENV 520/521) in Fall 2008, Spring 2011 and Fall 2012) or evaluations of development policy interventions like improved cookstoves that have the potential to reduce the respiratory disease burden among women and children in developing countries (Global Environmental Health (ENV 538) in Fall 2009 and Fall 2010). Not surprisingly, these courses attract students from multiple disciplines like biology, anthropology, sociology, epidemiology, business, public policy and economics; the students also have varying experiences: some are straight out of college, whereas for others calculus and statistics are a nebulous memory. They are all very engaged in the topics covered, but for one reason or another, do not always have the necessary math and statistics skills or the confidence to approach the subject matter. Therefore, in my recitation sessions and office hours, I start with the very basic concepts and, step by step, try to build my students’ intuition for the subject matter.

For example, in the introductory Environmental and Resource Economics class I always start with reminding students how to plot a line by finding the intercepts. I then give them linear equations for the supply and demand and ask them to plot the lines and find the market equilibrium. Graphing the two lines, students observe the equilibrium is the point where the prices and quantities for the two lines are the same and then can easily solve algebraically for the equilibrium values. In the process I will guide them with questions, but will not lecture them how to arrive at the answer. Thus, by starting with basic familiar concepts like plotting a line, my students learn how to solve a more complicated problem of finding the market equilibrium quantity of a good. Having mastered that, they gradually learn to apply the basic concepts to more advanced problems like comparing the performance of permits and taxes in terms of efficiency, when there is uncertainty in the slope or intercept of the marginal abatement cost curves. By building upon concepts, I try to make students learn gradually and to build their intuition for the subject matter.

The number of students in my graduate TA classes ranges between 24 and 130 students. Yet, despite the large class sizes, I strive to make my teaching interactive by alternating lecturing and in-class group activities. For example, I give my students problems to solve in small groups. Students work with their teammates for a few minutes, after which we all discuss possible solutions as a class. Being a TA has taught me that I cannot explain a concept well unless I myself understand it thoroughly: when I listen to someone else explain a new concept to me, the latter almost always makes sense, until I have to explain it to someone else. Couching the idea in my own words makes me think about the implications, critically assess whether or not I find the explanation cogent and then identify the part that I need to revisit. For this reason, asking my students to explain the concepts and solutions to their classmates, either in their group or in front of the whole class, is one of my primary approaches as a teacher. This method achieves two goals: first, my students learn to identify the weak spots in their explanations. In this way they also gain confidence in the subject matter because they find out what they know and understand well and what they need to channel their efforts to. Second, because a large number of my students come from various backgrounds and have not yet been inculcated with heavy math and economics jargon, they often explain concepts in more intuitive and less technical ways. Thus, their classmates often seem to grasp the material faster.

Communicating ideas well is what I try to teach my students to do when they explain a concept to their classmates or submit an assignment. To this end, I ask them to follow the same steps when they solve a problem: restate the problem in their own words and define their goal (thesis), then break the goal into smaller parts with their own sub-goal (arguments) and address each sequentially before putting them back together to provide the solution (conclusion). In going through the steps, I encourage them to revisit how each argument supports the thesis and make sure the pieces flow together well. In order to begin to appreciate the importance of effective communication in real life, students use real data to approach real life issues like evaluating the effectiveness of protected areas in stalling deforestation and alleviating poverty on the island of Sumatra.

My goal as a teacher is to create a dynamic hands-on learning environment that equips students with the primary tools to approach problems in development or conservation. To this end, I have been trying to integrate media in my teaching like problems sets that ask students to map and analyze real data or online polls that allow me to assess student comprehension in class without penalizing students for making a mistake while they are learning. I look forward to opportunities to teach courses in resource and development economics or the economics of biodiversity conservation and explore further how media can facilitate student learning.