Class Description: There are two main components of this class, as written into its name—natural history and islands. The former is the study of nature, specifically the flora, fauna, and geology of our planet and the interactions between them. Famed 19th century writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau once said, “we need the tonic of wilderness,” which I think sums up the importance of natural history in only six words. We need nature because we are a part of it, we evolved within it, and we are sustained by it. Our species, Homo sapiens, first appeared about 200,000 years ago in Africa, but it’s only been in the past couple of hundred years that our lives have become disconnected from the outdoors (especially so in the past 20 years, since the spread of the Internet). Research shows that direct exposure to nature—through hiking, walking, even just sitting and staring at a tree (in Japan this is known as “forest bathing”)—lowers stress hormones like cortisol and improves mental and physical health in multiple ways. This class reconnects us with nature by telling the stories of the other 8.7 million species that call Earth home and how our species fits in with them.
The islands part of the class narrows our interest to the unique ecosystems of islands, those chunks of land surrounded by water. As the above quote from science writer David Quammen states, islands are special places where weird things happen, and are microcosms of the bigger world. Because of their discrete and usually small size, they make for ideal sites for studying ecology and evolution.
I believe undergraduate education is one of the keys to our society's success. During my Ph.D., I decided to focus my career on education at the college level, and am now teaching biology at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. I call my teaching philosophy P.A.R.E. (Personalized, Active, Relevant, Equitable). It boils down to getting to know my students as individuals and caring for them as people, using a variety of teaching techniques that actively engage students in their own learning, giving students answers to the question "who cares?" as often as possible, and creating a fair, accessible classroom environment based on respect.