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This paragraph tells you who I am.

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My Philosophy of Teaching

My Classes

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As Elizabeth Warren explains, nobody became rich on their own; their success was only possible due to the many and varied contributions of others. Similarly, no scientist makes game-changing realizations on their own, and no educator becomes effective solely through their own efforts; all rely on the groundwork and infrastructure built by others.

I am fortunate in having encountered several wonderful instructors throughout my education. My own journey as a scientist and an educator has been formed and shaped by many others throughout my life, my style becoming an amalgam of the styles of all of these people. As with the products of meiosis, perhaps none of the individual parts is unique to me; rather, the novelty is in the combination of these parts.

In fifth and sixth grade, I was taught by Mr. Greg Logacz. My two years in his classroom were the most meaningful years in all of my education. Mr. Logacz ran a non-traditional classroom, not only by the standards of the mid 1970s, but by today’s standards as well. Though I already enjoyed learning, in Mr. Logacz’s class I developed a greater passion for education, including the desire to be an educator myself.

In his class it seemed that everything was a game, a friendly competition. We worked and competed, singly and in groups, with winners being offered a boon such as the ability to leave for lunch early. Information was manipulated in an enjoyable way, and we couldn’t help but to learn. His discussions and assignments regularly incorporated humor – some found their mark, some slipped by unnoticed, and some avoided detection for a time. It was years later that I realized how humorous his oft-used term “repetitious and redundant” truly was! I didn’t feel like I was in school; I was playing and having fun, and in the process learned more in those two years than seemed possible. Most importantly, I learned how to learn.

The core of my teaching philosophy has been shaped by various instructors and others in my life, and by Mr. Logacz most of all. The following are what I feel are its most critical elements.

Environment is critical. Students learn best and are more likely to develop a personal investment in the course when they are in a safe, supportive, and comfortable environment, and when they feel connected to their instructor. I am very proactive in developing such an environment. I find a more casual atmosphere to be desirable, and I attempt to minimize barriers that separate me from the students in order to foster such an atmosphere. I dress casually, ask that they call me by my first name, speak in a conversational rather than professorial tone, and move around the room into areas that are “theirs” during lecture. I encourage students to ask questions during class, assuring them that even if they somehow ask a stupid question, I will treat it as if it is a wonderful question. Calling students by their first names, engaging students in dialogue in class, and periodically interjecting humor also foster a comfortable environment and help to make students feel invested in the course.

Learning should be fun. Learning is inherently enjoyable; absolutely everyone finds some type of learning to be pleasurable and personally rewarding. Yet somehow learning in school is often treated as a chore, a monotonous undertaking through which one must persevere. Bah! Lecture portions of a course need not be traditional “I talk, you listen” sessions; I find them to be far more effective when they are interactive, with students as active participants. Toward this end, I build effective PowerPoint presentations to accompany lecture, and make them available to students before class. This reduces the time they need to spend taking notes and thereby increases the time available to think, process the material, and contribute to the discussion of the topic. I also routinely have students act out biological processes, moving about the room representing such entities as electrons, pigments, amino acids, tRNA molecules, sugars, or enzymes. The students have a great time with this, and so do I.

Attitude and passion are infectious. Being passionate about biology and about learning are as natural to me as breathing, and it would be impossible to avoid sharing this passion with my students. Once students begin group discussions, presenting their ideas to the class, or acting out a process, this passion commonly manifests in students as well and spreads rapidly through a classroom full of susceptible hosts.

Humor has a place in the classroom. In my classroom, it has a very prominent place. Through the use of humor I become more like an actual person to students and thus become more approachable and frankly, more fun and interesting to listen to.

Learning involves processing information, not just recitation. Parrots are not really learning, nor are students that can merely recite words that they have heard. Once a concept is introduced in class, I work to show its connections to other topics in and outside of the course and build upon it, encouraging students to view this information from multiple perspectives.  I prepare substantive worksheets to accompany my lectures, again asking them to summarize, to analyze, to compare and contrast, to apply information in a novel way, or to otherwise manipulate information, all the while gaining a deeper understanding of the material. My exams also stress understanding rather than echoing material.

Students should be pushed out of their comfort zones. Frankly, so should instructors. When my brother and I were avid skiers, our constant rule was that if by the end of a day’s skiing you hadn’t fallen down multiple times, then you weren’t trying hard enough, you were taking the safe and boring route, and your development was stagnant. Comfort breeds complacency, while intentional disequilibrium promotes deeper thinking. I encourage discussion on absolutely any facet of a subject; no topic is off limits. It is amazing how intently students listen when subjects considered “controversial” are being discussed.

Everything is connected. Courses and disciplines are all artificial constructs of convenience; in truth, they are all interconnected, with each field impacting and blending into the others. To illustrate these complex relationships, I tend to follow a certain unifying theme throughout all of the sections of my courses, themes such as the structure of the cell, critical features of life, or changes in characteristics of populations through time. While discussing these topics, I also work to show their relationships with other areas of study, such as the effects of World War II on scientific progress or the impact of 17th century French feminism on the field of biology. Additionally, I draw upon experiences from my past jobs, relating such topics as medical products litigation, sustainable agriculture, composting, alternative energy, and environmental testing to demonstrate the relevance of the topics we are currently studying.

Students can learn through various senses. Though I am not convinced that people are fundamentally either visual, auditory, kinesthetic learners, I do acknowledge that instruction geared to all three of these senses tends to be quite effective, and that the use of diverse teaching methods is desirable. I painstakingly search for relevant images to display while discussing topics in class, and try to incorporate physical activities whenever possible. For example, seeing an image of an enzyme on the screen, participating in a discussion focused on the fit between an enzyme and its substrate, and watching the shape of my hand change slightly to achieve a better fit while I shake a student’s hand has proven to be very effective in teaching students how enzymes work.

Science is a process, not just information. Students certainly need to learn a great deal of information about science in my classes, but it is equally important that they learn how such knowledge is gained, how one “does” science. In the laboratory portion of my classes, students conduct numerous experiments, designing a subset of these experiments themselves, collect and interpret their results, and present their findings. In the lecture portion of my classes, we spend literally weeks each semester reviewing series of classical experiments that helped provide a deeper understanding of a key biological process. The critical thinking skills gained in this endeavor are, or course, widely applicable in and out of the scientific arena.

You can’t teach students everything, but you can teach them how to learn. The information students learn in class can be valuable, but even more valuable is their understanding of how to learn. I focus on foundational information in my classes, and then show students how to use this information to address more complex questions. These critical thinking skills often don’t come easily but are truly invaluable.

Educated people make better global citizens and stewards of the earth. I am educating the next generations, the people that will care for this country, this world, and this planet in one way or another. I would prefer to live in a world in which educated people with a global awareness make thoughtful decisions, and I feel an obligation to do my part to make this happen. I am fortunate to have so many students from diverse cultures, and their experiences and perspectives certainly enrich the class and our understanding of the world. I don’t ask that students agree with me; I just ask that they think.


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