Teaching and outreach

Teaching philosophy

Students in my field botany class investigate a wild peony population in southern Oregon (2010)

I enjoy teaching a range of topics related to ecology, botany, lichenology, science communication, and data analysis and visualization. As an educator, I strive to help my students think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively with diverse groups.

I seek to make natural science accessible to everyone, and I am especially interested in promoting the success of students from groups that have historically been excluded from research and higher education, including BIPOC students, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities. In my classes, I try to create a warm and friendly environment where students feel a sense of community and belonging. My teaching is guided by a growth mindset, where students can start wherever they are. I design classes to promote consistent student engagement through regular interactive activities and discussions.

jespon buildlings
Exploring urban lichen communities on the edge of campus — lichenology workshop for the UC Berkeley Jepson Herbarium (2018)

Taking students into the field is one of my favorite parts of teaching, and I love the unique opportunities for learning that occur while hiking along a trail, where examples of connections between plant communities and landscape context are in panoramic abundance.

College courses I have designed

At Stanford, I designed an inquiry-based course where students learn by conducting ecological research, which I have now taught several times. As a group, we collect data on lichen microbiomes, lichen functional traits, environmental variables, and air pollution patterns in the vicinity of the Stanford campus. Students then develop independent projects using whatever parts of this dataset they find most interesting. Students learn to analyze their data using the statistical programming language R, write final papers following the format of the journal Ecology, and make short videos for a general audience to communicate their findings. The course has received excellent student evaluations.

As a postdoc at UC Davis, I designed and taught a three-credit lichenology course with lecture, lab and field components in the Environmental Science and Policy Department. California has a remarkably low ratio of lichenologists to lichen species, so I am pleased to note that almost a third of the students from my class engaged in independent research involving lichens after the course ended.

For more information on my teaching experience, please see my CV.

Students from my UC Davis Lichenology course try on Ramalina menziesii  (California’s state lichen) wigs on one of our field trips at the UCD Quail Ridge Reserve – a veritable lichen diversity hot-spot! See some of the creative outreach materials the students created.

Selected quotes from student course evaluations

“I like that the course did not have any assumptions about our previous knowledge of ecology/stats. As a first-gen / low-income student without a great science background in high school, this is probably the most accessible science course I’ve taken at Stanford and I really, really appreciate it.”

“The lectures were engaging and interesting, and the friendliness put out to the class by Jesse was outstanding and endearing. The field trips were absolutely killer.”

“I do think that my scientific writing improved a lot in the course. Now when I write, I am much more conscious of my reasoning, components of the content, and diction.”

Teaching winter tree identification in Wisconsin

“Really enjoys what he teaches. Approachable and accessible. Doesn’t overcomplicate things or get lost in the details. Really thoughtful about designing assignments to be useful and interesting.”

“I’ve never taken a class that felt this thoughtful in its design. I took a lot out of it.”

“You are so kind. It makes the course more light-hearted.”


I believe that connecting and communicating with diverse groups outside of academia is a key part of being a scientist. To this end, I build relationships with land managers, members of the conservation community, and the general public through collaborative projects and outreach events, and citizen science projects.

I particularly enjoy leading plant and lichen identification workshops for people of all experience levels, and usually do a few of these every year–see my twitter page for upcoming events. Please contact me if you’re interested in having me speak or lead a workshop at an event.

Presenting my research results to land managers at the Missouri Department of Conservation