Teaching, Digital Signal Processing, and Climate Change

I just finished teaching a new class on Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and will be teaching another new class on Climate Change next semester. Teaching a new class is a massive amount of work. For me, it involves immersing myself in material about a subject. My problem, I’ve learned, is that I’m unwilling to take existing material from someone else’s class and teach that. If I’m teaching a class, I’m going to design it from the ground up. Maybe I’m a perfectionist, or maybe every teacher is this way, but I’ve got to own something before I can teach it.

When I first learned DSP, as an undergraduate, I hated it. I remember learning how to derive a lot of equations. I don’t remember looking at any actual digital data. I remember coding up a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) in Fortran. The FFT is an algorithm for efficiently computing a Discrete Fourier Transform (DFT). It’s so widely used that it’s already implemented in many programming languages (Matlab, Python, etc.). Learning to write the FFT in Fortran certainly didn’t help me gain an intuitive understanding of the underlying DFT, and I haven’t ever written an FFT since! As a Geophysicist, I think of DSP as a set of powerful techniques and tools for analyzing digital data. Learning these tools requires learning theory, but learning to apply the tools motivates learning this theory. I spent a lot of time finding the balance between theory and application that made sense to me. You have limited time in a semester and must decide where to focus. I got a ton of useful material from colleagues (at SMU and externally) that each weighted the focus between these two end members differently (thank you to everyone who helped!). I found no single set of materials that met the balance I wanted (this is not to say they were any better or worse, just taught through a different perspective). I didn’t find a textbook that met my happy balance either. I ended up selecting The Scientist and Engineer’s Guide to Digital Signal Processing by Steven Smith as the main text (this textbook is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen for explaining concepts and application, but leaves out too much math). I stole the stuff I liked from everyone’s material, textbooks, and online resources to find my happy medium. I wrote an entire set of DSP notes in LaTeX, designed a bunch of pencil-and-paper quizzes and Python exercises that covered theory and application, and incorporated readings and examples of modern applications of DSP to Geophysical data. It took a lot of work to get there, and it’ll probably take teaching it another couple of times to refine it to the point where I’m really satisfied with it. Of course, the proof of success in teaching is what the students get out of it. The jury remains out on that.

Climate Change is a different type of course. The students will be undergraduates; many taking the class as a science breadth requirement. The course is going to be about the science of climate change. I don’t personally know anyone who has taught a class specifically on this topic before, but I have colleagues who have taught various related aspects before, many of whom have helped get me started with materials. I haven’t found a textbook I like that’s pitched appropriately for a broad undergraduate population and covers the breadth of topics I plan to explore. One of my favorite textbooks, Introduction to Modern Climate Change by Andrew Dessler, starts with a section titled ‘Why You Should Believe This Textbook’, noting that no other STEM subject would need to include such a section. Dessler does a great job explaining the basic physics at play (e.g., radiation balance and radiative forcing), but leaves out any description of how the modern climate system works, and there is only a passing mention of paleoclimates. Another textbook I really like, ‘Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and our Energy Future’ by Edmond Mathez and Jason Smerdon does a good job of describing the climate system itself, and paleoclimates, but is too complex for a non-STEM student. So, I’m back to the process of assimilating the best in everything I can find and building a scaffold on which to construct a course. Fortunately, there’s a ton of engaging material related to understanding the science of climate change that’s available online. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of disinformation and inaccurate news reporting about this issue. Understanding how to tell the difference, of course, will be an important learning outcome of the class.

I have some work to do over the holidays, in between relaxing, eating, drinking, and a ski trip. I’m going to enjoy the process. But perhaps some relaxing will happen first…

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