“Biology should not be taught as a body of knowledge to be memorized, but more as a way of thinking about and understanding the world.”

My Teaching Philosophy

Although I teach both majors and nonmajors introductory biology, my course objectives are quite similar. Introductory biology should aim to give students back that genuine sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world and how it works. Student apathy is widespread and often stems from a fear of science for non-majors and a tedious sense of being overwhelmed by mind-numbing, rote fact memorization for majors. Ideally, introductory biology should be useful, entertaining and engaging rather than a monotonous chore or struggle.

Biology should not be taught as a body of knowledge to be memorized, but more as a way of thinking about and understanding the world. Biology is inherently a creative and exploratory process and lends itself well to applied exercises that are focused on critical thinking once the basics have been implemented. No matter what field a student ultimately winds up in, good collaboration and problem solving skills will be imperative for their success.

Introductory biology should enable students to critically evaluate science in their day to day lives and in the media. In order to do so, students need to recognize what science is, what it isn’t and how it is done. Implementing a fundamental grasp of natural science concepts is also important as students will undoubtedly encounter decisions involving biology, whether as professionals, consumers, patients, parents, voters, or homeowners. Introductory biology will likely be the last time non-major students take a science class for the rest of their lives. What they take away from the course may have an enormous impact on their life-long views of science. Students who take my classes are compelled to reflect on their personal views of science and technology, environmentalism, social responsibility and health so that they will be more apt to make decisions based on sound science rather than myths, rumors or misunderstandings.

I believe the best way to get people interested in biology is to take them into the field to have them interact with living organisms. Let them see, touch, hear, smell, and observe them. Many students learn more by doing than by any other means. For example, nothing will get a student to understand the water vascular system of an echinoderm faster or more effectively than holding a sea star upside down underwater and closely observing the tube feet. In a large lecture class like introductory biology a strong hands-on component is unrealistic. However, the smaller laboratory sections should strive to accomplish this as much as possible.

Though hands-on work may be limited, it is still important to bring that sense of science-as-exploration into a large lecture.  Enthusiastic teaching is paramount. Outstanding lecturing is an excellent way to pass on large volumes of information and PowerPoint is an especially powerful tool.  I have removed as many words as possible from my slides in favor of images that are used as examples. It is important that classes are interesting and, above all, relevant. Using current events, stories and controversial issues in lectures and for discussion and reflection in class helps students see why the material matters. It is difficult to understand and remember biology if it isn’t applicable. When presented in a relevant way with real world examples, biology becomes inherently interesting for majors and non-majors alike. However, it is common for students to get lost in the details of biology and try to memorize instead of understand. I feel one of my strengths as an Instructor is my ability to sum things up using simple analogies to help students stay focused on the main points. Although my classes are large (I have 183 students this semester) I challenge myself to learn my student’s names. Students feel more accountable, class attendance is encouraged and classroom dynamics improve.

In order to examine students on their conceptual understanding, essay exams are ideal. However, standardized exams (true-false, multiple choice, matching) are necessary in large classes to ensure that grading can be accomplished in a timely fashion. Nevertheless, a good objective exam should still focus much less on factual recall than on conceptual understanding and application.

In addition to exams, students need other opportunities to apply the concepts that they learn in class. It is absolutely crucial to foster critical thinking. Group discussions, group quizzes, group activities and, especially, out of class individual assignments compel students to evaluate material thoroughly and on a personal level. Obliging students to speak and write about biology forces them to actively think instead of passively listen as the lecturer thinks for them. Many students would prefer to memorize and regurgitate without ever processing information or relating it to the real world. I encourage them to work as members of a group so that they can collaborate to solve problems, teach each other, communicate their ideas verbally and express themselves in ways that are constructive rather than destructive. When students gain ownership of their learning, it really sticks.

Socialization in college is often based on dormitory life rather than academic life. Freshmen and sophomores are rarely granted opportunities to develop relationships with their classmates as colleagues. I encourage my students to form relationships based on learning, giving them the opportunity to get to know each other through group class work in which individuals are held accountable through peer evaluation. Discussing biological issues or doing class activities can assist students in forming a learning community in which friendships are fostered through scholarship. This is especially useful for incoming biology majors so that they can relate to each other as a cohort. For majors and non-majors alike, teaching to and learning from one another is an excellent way to foster community learning in the classroom. I understand from experience that teaching is one of the most effective ways to learn.

I enjoy exploring new teaching techniques and technology. When challenged to teach biology to a blind student last year I had to come up with nontraditional ways to pass knowledge along. I developed ways for him to feel examples since he couldn’t see them. For instance, I designed an activity to physically arrange cell chromosomes (bass fishing worm lures) during mitosis and meiosis rather than drawing out the stages. It worked so well that I now use this as an activity with all my students. Currently I am working with interactive PowerPoint software, TurningPoint, that allows me to pose questions during my lectures to which all students must respond, not just the handful that are on task and willing to volunteer an answer. Each student has a “clicker” device and the software records their individual responses as well as summarizing group data. This encourages class attendance, helps keep students attentive, and provides them with a chance to give me feedback in a safe and anonymous learning environment. I have been implementing some problem-based learning strategies into my non-majors introductory biology class this semester and look forward to working with colleagues to continually update and improve my teaching.

Why do I want to teach? What makes it worthwhile for me? Teaching biology enthusiastically just comes naturally to me. I like to read and talk about new scientific developments. I enjoy spending time outdoors familiarizing myself with local flora and fauna. I like to share what I’ve learned and get others excited about it as well. As an educator I am student-focused. I take my job seriously and have high expectations of both my students and myself.

I want our society to value the environment, better understand our role in it and to have a greater understanding of the merits and limits of science. Well educated people need a background in biology to understand the social and political issues that are facing us today. I feel like I am having a positive influence on achieving these goals by teaching at the university level.