There is no greater reward for a teacher than to see his students learn. We define learning as any activity that leads us to surpass what we perceive as our limits, be they intellectual, or physical. In this sense, learning to hit a fastball is not so different than learning how to solve engineering or scientific problems. What differentiates these two activities is the reward. Overcoming one's physical limit is associated with a multitude of very strong rewards (e.g., endorphines), especially when it occurs within the realm of agonism (e.g., prevailing in a competition, winning a trophy) or music (e.g., playing a difficult solo on a stage). Overcoming one's intellectual limits is instead usually rewarded by the "gotcha!", "I get it!", "eureka!" moment: the feeling of discovery. One of the main challenges of education is that learning (and the rewards that come with it) can only be achieved by the students themselves. Nobody would play Sudoku if the answer would be revealed at the beginning and would just have to be memorized. Nobody would play baseball if the coach would be holding the bat. I believe that the purpose of teaching is to facilitate learning. A teacher does not create knowledge in the brain of students. Only the student can. The teacher guides, helps, and facilitates the process of learning and discovery which the student chooses to undertake. The teacher is an enabler, not a spoon-feeder.
The first task of a teacher is to show the student the many available strategies for learning. Every brain is different: some learn by reading, some by watching, some by listening.
The second task of a teacher is to explain concepts and how they are related. Why? For two reasons: 1) Science is increasingly more about understanding the concepts than about knowing the details. The information age has given us instantaneous access to any detail, and yet it has made concepts and their interconnections harder to discern. 2) Understanding most scientific concepts is much harder and time consuming than learning a fact. Our brain must fit any new concept within the framework of the ones it already knows (what we often call "digesting a concept"). If it cannot find an immediate fit, it will try to reject it as wrong or foreign. We usually accept and store a fact without much processing.
Once the concepts are consolidated and connected in the mind of student, the teacher can focus on empowering those concepts with details, facts, data, numbers, case histories, etc...
The third task of a teacher, especially in universities, is to turn students into top flight professionals who earn and keep the best jobs possible. Getting students to possess an iron grip on the technical skills (both concepts and details) is just the beginning. As our society becomes more connected and hectic, "soft" skills (e.g. leadership, project management, time management, stress reduction) are often as important as the technical skills. Soft skills are typically not taught in academia; they are expected to come with experience. Nonetheless, academia provides, especially at the graduate level, an ideal setting for teaching soft skills. A graduate student can be exposed to most of the "soft" and "hard" requirements of a real job within a protected environment that allows him to experiment, fail, retry, learn, and, most importantly, improve.
My lab will focus on using research (i.e., from hypothesis to publication) as a tool for teaching (something I learnt from my mentors). I believe that students will learn more, will do better (i.e., publish more), and will be more creative, independent, engaged, and productive if they know that they are participating in a learning experience rather than in a job contract.
This objective will be accomplished through a variety of approaches. For example, a fraction of the student's time will be devoted to the formulation (and, potentially, the pursuit) of independent research proposals under my supervision. This experience will i) stimulate their imagination, ii) train them in communicating their ideas convincingly, iii) teach them how to handle some managerial activities independently, and, most importantly, iv) show them the thrill of pursuing their own ideas.