As a student, one of the greatest challenges in learning is the expectation of absorbing and recalling vast amounts of highly specific information with no clear connection between these facets. In my field of molecular biology, this is exceptionally notable as it is possible to require a student to memorize the intricate details of countless pathways as individual units. A more active, engaging, and generalizable way of teaching, which I have adopted in all of my instructional experiences is a more reductionist philosophy of learning. Through the specific emphasis on first principles and underlying causes, students can grow to understand how and why biological processes might occur and then apply that new framework to specific cases to interpret and critique the existing literature while also developing novel hypotheses of their own. Through my experiences in the liberal arts and in the context of a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary lab environment, this has come to comprise my core value of teaching – to provide students with a basic framework in which to evaluate more nuanced specifics. This is also an extremely valuable skill for the aspiring young scientist as it enables higher orders of dissection of the knowledge we think we have about the world around us.
Through a more deductive approach to teaching, it becomes easier for students to understand the logic of the various pieces that have been discovered in any field of biology. This methodology strongly emphasizes the role of the liberal arts in constructing knowledge and to emphasize the interconnectedness of disciplines. Central to this interconnectedness is the incorporation of diversity in all its forms in the classroom – because we focus on drawing connections and using metaphor and comparison to learn, all students have the resources to contribute from the very first day of class. This is true even on topics that can be as overwhelming with detail as DNA replication, where foundational awareness of “what does DNA look like,” with no knowledge of what it does or how it works, can immediately spark intuitive and correct assumptions about what might be required to duplicate a tightly wound, templated double helix.
My career in academia has been shaped around a student-centric experience where I seek to serve as a sounding board for other students in hopes of helping them succeed in the classroom, laboratory, and beyond. During my time in undergraduate at Transylvania University, I served as a co-instructor for a first-year introduction to the liberal arts course (First Engagements), in which I helped to develop a syllabus, readings, and assignments for first-year students as they were first beginning their undergraduate careers. This was one of the key experiences that not only allowed me to benefit the lives of my students by arming them with the critical reading and writing skills they would need to succeed in a liberal art environment, but to learn more about my capacity to succeed as an instructor and further enrich my passion for education.
More recently, as the teaching assistant for the graduate-level Microbial Pathogenesis course, I served as the anchor of an otherwise inchoate experience for the students. As the course is structured around a series of largely passive lectures by a rotating cast of highly specialized faculty, it was my role to distill and condense these very complex concepts into something tangible and practical for their experiences in the lab. I also helped to write and curate exam questions and assigned reading responses for my discussion sections to help stimulate participation and reflection. I sought to abstract the specifics of microbiome complexity into something readily understandable and applicable. I did this through the selection of high-interest papers broken down into the highest impact figures and then discussed among the students first in small groups and then among the entire class. This was a much more active and engaging experience within the confines of what was possible in this class and served as a valuable learning experience for me as the TA as it demonstrated some of the challenges and limitations of working within a course designed by someone else and how to make the most of that experience, a fact eagerly recognized by the students in their end-of-course survey.
As an instructor of biology, my goals are to enable students to comprehend and apply the fundamental knowledge and techniques in molecular and microbiology as preparation for their varied vocational callings; to magnify the critical thinking skills of my students; to facilitate the drawing of connections between disparate disciplines and the study of microbial biology; and to provide them both the motivation and the skills to continue to learn in the subject of microbiology beyond the classroom, beyond this course, and beyond their collegiate careers. These goals are central to giving students agency in constructing a personal relationship with the material relevant to their own goals and backgrounds. In pursuit of these highly interconnected goals, I seek to dynamically develop and apply the latest and most effective teaching and assessment strategies to not only enable me to both successfully teach the material but also to evaluate, in real time, the success of these techniques.
Education is a field truly in its infancy and there is a great deal that we still do not understand about how and why students learn, but the application of some form of assessment allows the instructor to calibrate their teaching to student needs. In order to offer students the broadest range of methods for demonstrating their abilities, I will use a combination of traditional exams (with the opportunity to revise after completion), take-home exams, essays, ongoing low-stakes quizzes, in-class discussions in both smaller and defined groups as well as among the entire class, and daily end-of-class prompts for points of confusion or summaries of the key point of the day; all of this will be amended according to the objectives of the course. This high-frequency, lower-stakes, and modular approach to assessment that, cumulatively, determines a course grade allows an appropriate correction for both different learning styles and assessment skillsets. These assessments can also be rearranged or refocused to respond to student needs and interests as the semester progresses. This also provides an ability to compensate and adjust for the development of the learner through the semester so as not to penalize those students with varying backgrounds in the subject. These also reflect my core value to reflect and enrich the diversity of the classroom by providing ways for students of all backgrounds to contribute to the collective learning enterprise. Additionally, it is key to realign the classwork and the lab to logically flow from what we learn about microorganisms in theory to how those things can be learned in practice. This makes the lab component of the course an additional and ongoing formative assessment, by, for instance, incorporating exercises in PCR and DNA sequencing into units on DNA replication.
It is my hope that through a more dynamic and diverse approach to the teaching of molecular biology, I can inspire a new generation of scientists to learn and apply the principles of these courses regardless of their ultimate career, be it in science, medicine, or entirely outside of the natural sciences by focusing on the teaching of first principles and encouraging a critical, dialectical, constructivist approach to the development of knowledge. In focusing on themes, systems, and patterns, the learning and study skills learned in my courses are very much applicable to any discipline through an understanding of the philosophical building blocks underlying the content. The metacognitive aspects of my teaching will aid in the derivation of these same principles in other courses, which ultimately enhance learning by emphasizing the logical developments that underpin almost any field of study.
200-level Course: Sample syllabus for a Cellular and Molecular Biology course (sophomores)
200-level Course: Sample syllabus for a Bioethics in Cell Biology short course (general audience, all years, ideally structured as a team-taught course during a single-month May, J, or A term)
300-level Course: Sample syllabus for a Molecular Genetics of Bacteria course (sophomores and above)
400-level Course: Sample syllabus for a Cell Signaling course (generally juniors and seniors)