“My theory is that the best way to teach is to have no philosophy, is to be chaotic and confusing; to catch this guy or that guy on different hooks.”
- Dr. Richard Feynman
The accuracy of molecular techniques in the X-Files TV show. The intersection of patent laws and genetic engineering. The impact of selective breeding on the evolution of dog breeds. These are all examples of moments in my teaching where I have combined the non-biology interests of my students with the material from Duke University’s Gateways to Biology: Molecular Biology. Over the course of 3 semesters and 6 lab sections I found that students better met learning objectives when the material was synthesized with their own passions. Introductory biology courses like Gateways to Biology rarely draw students who are zealous about the material for its own mystery; instead they are looking to fulfill a requirement or ace the MCAT. My role as a professor is to bridge the gap between their passions and the objectives of the course to create an exciting and engaging learning environment.
The freedom and format of being a teaching assistant in Gateways to Biology gave me the opportunity to add and amend the course materials to facilitate the connections between student interests and required material. At the end of each lab section students were asked to fill out a notecard responding to two or three prompts. On the first day of lab the prompt is to provide me with one non-biology topic they are passionate about. Responses have ranged from dinosaurs to investment banking. Student passions were then used to link the material to the broader world outside the classroom. Sprinkling these exciting and interesting connections throughout the lecture material remind detail oriented students that the material has applications beyond examinations and sparks new interests in students who may have found the particulars uninteresting. Students who are able to follow this example start to make connections of their own during two-minute paper assignments and during the final graded oral “Exit Interview.” Students who can synthesize their knowledge from the laboratory with their career goals or personal interests have met the core objectives of the class.
I did not develop this important teaching tactic on my own; I learned from my students, my colleagues and my experiences. When given the opportunity to alter the provided lecture material for the lab I first thought back on my most memorable learning experiences. I remembered a project on the biodiversity of bananas where my partner dressed up as a banana and I wrote banana facts on a couple dozen bananas. I remembered a presentation in graduate school where my partner and I proposed applying accelerated evolution techniques to brewer’s yeast to improve yield and circumvent GMO laws. I remembered choosing a topic for my PhD research that combined my lifelong interest in the deep-sea with my interest in genetics and genomics. All of these experiences had something in common—I was able to choose a topic that was interesting to me while still relevant to the assignment. Second, my colleagues helped shape this idea by providing feedback and collecting ideas during our weekly TA meeting. Here we would share ideas, experiences, failures and successes. I would often pitch potential slides to them and alter the content based on their feedback. Finally, my students helped craft this idea. During my early days of teaching I got anonymous reviews from students that said “sometimes I feel like I'm going through the motions especially if I don't understand a concept fully yet” or that they didn't think I used “additional examples during teaching to aid in comprehension of difficult subject matter.” Taking these comments into consideration I began to broaden the context of my slides to include lecture material and fascinating scientific discoveries. Soon students began to report that I “present the material in an engaging way.”
Connecting course material to student passions is also a core piece of my proposed class Advanced Genetic Methods and Experimental Design. The objective of this class is to provide students with practical and theoretical knowledge of genetic methods while ultimately having students craft a scientific question and short research proposal based on their specific interests. Crafting a research question is an important skill for many careers and is critical for students interested in a scientific career. I have found that early in a student’s college experience, they find scientific questions without an answer irritating and confusing. They wonder how they can be tested on a subject where all the answers aren’t know. I point out that the lack of an answer only makes these questions “Nobel Prize winning questions.” This course asks students to come up with one of these unanswered questions and choose one or more genetic methods from the class that could be used to address the question. In addition to creating their own research proposal, students will learn to evaluate and critique each other’s work. Each semester of this course will be a learning experience for both the students and instructor as we explore the genetic that could reveal the answers to complex scientific questions.
There is no formula for great professors or great courses. Great courses often take advantage of the latest and most innovative teaching philosophies and techniques. Other great courses do not. Dr. Richard Feynman’s physics lectures are still watched, read and beloved decades later even though his classroom wasn’t flipped, he didn’t use clickers and there weren’t any think-pair-shares. Dr. Feynman saw each of his students as a unique person and tried to connect with them in a different way: “My theory is that the best way to teach is to have no philosophy, is to be chaotic and confusing; to catch this guy or that guy on different hooks.” My teaching is designed so that students tell me what their hooks are and then for me to reel them into the amazing world of biology.