In most universities, part of being a Ph.D. student is also to acquire teaching experience. In the UK, during my masters and in the first years of my Ph.D. with Southampton, I worked as a demonstrator during lab and boat practical sessions on undergraduate courses “Introduction to Marine Ecology” and “Marine Invertebrates” as well as volunteering to teach on public “Discover Oceanography” boat trips. In addition through my previous work in diving centres and with conservation groups in Egypt, I felt I had adequate teaching experience and the correct field of knowlegde to take on a teaching assistant position during the intensive 10 day “Biology of Corals” Course at the Interuniversity Institute in Eilat (IUI).
The course was co-ordinated by my supervisor, Maoz, and Dr. Dan Tchernov of Haifa University. It attracted undergraduate and masters students from various universities in Israel affiliated with the IUI. Preparations began many weeks in advance to order lab consumables, organise a timetable and plan research projects and other tasks for the students.
This course was structured very differently from any other I had taught before. Days began at 8.00 with topic focused snorkelling on the institutes house reef learning to identify coral genera and observing species interactions. Guest lecturers were specifically recruited to present their specialist field such as Dr. Selina Ward from the University of Queensland who taught gave a fascinating coral reproduction lecture and Dr. Christine Ferrier-Pages from Monaco Scientific Centre discussing the use of stable isotopes in corals. A lab practical gave the students hands on experience assessing cnidarian anatomy and with the difficult task of coral taxonomy.
Most different to any teaching I had done before, each teaching assistant was responsible for designing, preparing, and conducting a practical research project with a sub set of the students. I chose to assess the influence of feeding and light regimes on coral physiology with my six students. I knew this would give them experience handling live corals, conduct many lab protocols, and further their understanding of coral ecology beyond the whole class lectures. The foresight and planning required for teaching such an experiment is far greater than when conducting one for yourself. Time during the course is limited so I had to optimise the timetable and group dynamic for maximum efficiency whilst ensuring enough time was dedicated to explanations.
Overall, I was lucky to have some very smart and hard working students in my group who gelled well together. I’m very grateful for their enthusiasm and for the fact that they kept me well fed throughout the course! I was also grateful to be part of a team of three other teaching assistants who had prior experience of teaching this course. And especially, since the course is largely taught in Hebrew, for translating instructions to me and getting me in the right place at the right time!
Revisiting core background of our field is good for all of us. I, for example, had to revise some coral genera which I don’t come into contact with so often. It is good to come out from our small research niche and remember the bigger picture.
For a first time teaching an intensive course, I feel like it went well. I had some great student feedback. Even so, I have made notes to myself for how to improve next time around, cases where extra preparation can be done, but also occasions where I can allow the students more freedom to contribute their own ideas to their project. Once the exhaustion has subsided and the lab is clean, I wish I could instantly run the course again implementing my new ideas, but, alas, the “Biology of Corals” course only runs once annually.