My instructional philosophy is founded on the idea that the most important things that students should learn as undergraduates include critical thinking and problem solving skills and the ability to communicate effectively. Students majoring in biology must of course have a solid foundation in the natural sciences, including a familiarity with the relevant philosophies, methodologies and terminologies within the life sciences. They must be able to locate information, critically evaluate that information, and they must have a conceptual framework in place within which that new information can be incorporated. These skills and abilities will provide them with the knowledge they need to succeed at the next level—be that in graduate school, medical school, or the work force—and the flexibility to evaluate and incorporate new information and techniques as they develop in the future.
How can we best ensure that our students will achieve these goals while enrolled in our degree programs? As higher education continues to evolve—and especially in today’s digital world, in which courses are increasingly becoming available online, and at discounted rates—we must ensure that time spent in brick-and-mortar classrooms is both efficient and valuable. Although I see value and potential in online learning, especially for non-traditional students—I believe that personal interaction lies at the heart of a college education, and that experiential learning (e.g. hands-on labs, field experiences) must be a fundamental component of a life sciences education.
I am a firm believer in the effectiveness of active learning. Research has shown—and my personal experience as both a student and as an instructor can attest—that students often learn best when they are engaged in a discussion of the material, when they are working through problems or questions alone or in groups, and when they teach the material to their peers. An assignment in my Introductory Lab Module in Ecology and Evolution requires students to reconstruct a phylogenetic tree for a selection of living animals that we maintain in our teaching lab. I am always pleased to hear my students engage in animated discussions over which vertebrates have an amniotic egg and which do not. I believe they are far more likely to retain the knowledge they acquire from such an exercise than if they were simply required to memorize a phylogeny or list of characteristics.
Active learning exercise are often easier to apply in lab courses and small lecture or discussion classes, but I believe that even large lecture courses can incorporate active learning. I was challenged to put this idea to the test when I set out to transform my Introductory Biology course (which typically has about 100 students) into an active learning environment. My approach consisted first of modifying my lectures to consist of discrete lecture chunks, or tidbits, which are followed by multiple-choice questions that students answer using clickers. This keeps students engaged by forcing them to think critically about the material, giving them an opportunity to assess and monitor their own learning, and to compare it to that of their peers. It also helps me monitor the class’ understanding, and I can spend additional time following up on topics with which the class is continuing to struggle. I also incorporate opportunities for students to discuss questions with their classmates, using the “think-pair-share” method in which students respond to a clicker question individually, then discuss it with a partner, and then respond again. It always amazes me how effectively this method results in the majority of students arriving at the correct answer.
In 2012, I adopted for the first time a student-centered learning environment in the pre-lab lectures for my Introductory Lab Module. The lectures introduce the topic for the week, providing students with the appropriate conceptual background and analytical tools they will need to complete the lab. Whereas in the past, students passively received this information in the traditional lecture format, they now sit at small tables with their group members (groups consisted of 3-4 students each; tables sat 9-10 max.). Much of the lecture time now consists of students working through problems as a group, using portable dry erase boards to predict what biomes might occur at a given precipitation and temperature regime, or using laptops to conduct a t test on a sample data set in Excel. I have found that students feel much more confident in lab having already grappled with concepts and tools earlier in the week, and I suspect they are more likely to retain this knowledge in the future.
This approach generally means that less material can be covered in class, but I contend that it is more important to teach a few concepts well than to spend more time on topics that students never fully grasp. Moreover, I believe that in today’s world, in which information is easily acquired by the click of a mouse or a finger swipe on a phone, we must move away from the idea that students come to class to obtain information. Rather, I believe that we should focus on reinforcing the most critical, core concepts while also equipping our students with the ability to locate additional information, to discriminate between good and bad information, and to use the information in a meaningful way.
Despite being an advocate for active learning, I believe there is still a place for lecturing in the college classroom. As a student, I thoroughly enjoyed the lectures given by enthusiastic and knowledgeable professors, and I strive to emulate their example. I try whenever possible to use personal experiences and stories to illustrate how research happens, emphasizing one of my favorite mantras: that science is not simply a set of facts but rather a process. I have found that this approach is often a departure from the way many students were taught in high school science courses. However, I believe this mentality is important both for biology majors, who will go on to learn more about how to “do” science in their upper division courses, as well for non-science majors, since they will need to understand and appreciate the dynamic nature of science and the knowledge that results from it in order to make informed decisions as a member of society.
When designing labs, my approach is to create opportunities for students to address real questions by generating their own data and, when possible, to design and execute their own experiments. In my Introductory Lab Module in Ecology and Evolution, students are tasked with generating a hypothesis about the campus squirrel population that they can feasibly test during an afternoon lab session. Students research the squirrel species prior to lab, and much of class time is spent helping them hone their initial ideas into properly articulated hypotheses and then guiding them through the process of experimental design. I believe the students are more engaged in the lab when they “own” the study, and they are often very excited when they report back on their findings, even when their own hypothesis was not supported.
I also believe that learning should be fun, and I try to be creative when designing learning activities. In my Biological Diversity Lab, the first class consists of a trip to a local Asian food market. Students are put into pairs, given a small budget, and then told to purchase the most diverse set of items they can find. They are then forced to determine for themselves how diversity might be quantified and what “sampling” approach might best maximize it. After an hour of shopping, we get together and discuss (while sharing our interesting and tasty purchases) how each group interpreted “diversity,” what sampling approach was most effective, and the various ways in which sampling ingredients in a grocery store is—and is not—similar to sampling organisms in a natural environment.
Although such exercises are fun and memorable, I believe that there is no substitute for field-based labs when it comes to learning ecology and organismal biology. In 2012 I co-developed a new course on tropical field biology, which consists of a two-week trip to Belize where we explore tropical marine and terrestrial environments. Although such immersion experiences are often not possible for many students, I have found that even labs that take place close to home can offer many of the same benefits. Following the initial trip to Chinatown, the rest of my Biological Diversity Lab course consists of a project in which students collaborate with local experts to conduct a biological inventory of the Big Thicket National Preserve, one of the most diverse areas in North America. The data they collect contribute to an ongoing effort to catalogue the entire flora and fauna of the Big Thicket, and are shared with the world via the website iNaturalist.org. For larger courses, such as the Introductory Lab Module in Ecology and Evolution, we make use of the semi-natural environment on campus by examining the population biology of terrestrial isopods (“roly-polies”) and the competitive dynamics of invasive ants.
I also like to use multimedia and technology in creative ways to enhance the learning experience. While in Belize, students in the Tropical Field Biology course wrote daily blog entries on a taxonomic group (e.g. stony corals, amphibians) of their choosing. They later reported that this assignment helped them to make sense of the incredible diversity around them, to reflect on their daily experiences, and to communicate to the outside world—including their parents—what the experience was really like.
I am a firm believer in the importance of strong communication skills, and feel that students should hone this skill as part of their undergraduate education. All of my courses contain a communication component, and I developed a new course at Rice called Advanced Communication in the Biological Sciences (now required for all of our majors). This course consists of a series of relatively short assignments, including a literature review paper, a newspaper article, a blog, a poster, and oral presentations to local high school students. In addition to providing detailed feedback on their work, I developed an assignment in which students are asked to edit a real manuscript of a research paper and come up with an editorial decision about whether or not it is suitable for publication. In class, they compare their recommendations with those of their classmates, and then with the actual peer-reviewers’ comments. A similar assignment using a popular science article introduces students to the differences between writing for a scientific audience and for the general public.
I believe that it is important to engage students outside of the formal classroom, since many students learn better through one-on-one interactions and personalized feedback. I therefore place a high degree of importance on making myself readily available to meet with students during scheduled office hours as well as informally. I have always enjoyed mentoring students—as an academic advisor, a research mentor, and for the last three-and-a-half years, as a Resident Associate at Baker College. The latter experience has truly been life changing, not only because my family and I have been physically living with the students, but also because I have gotten to know so many students on a personal level, which has given me a greater appreciation for their needs and concerns. This has undoubtedly made me a better instructor, and has been personally rewarding in a way I never anticipated.