Education is a communicative venture where students learn to speak and engage with the vocabulary of science. As a science educator and communicator, I am interested in building opportunities for scientists to connect with people, emphasizing the value of research. The research addresses in some way a public need. Particularly in the basic sciences, defining the importance of research and its benefits is absolutely necessary. People of all backgrounds, from K-12 students to lifelong adult learners, have the power to shape the future of research and are the primary benefactors of science, thus It is essential that they are integrated into the science community. One way to engage both students and the public in the scientific process is to humanize scientists, focusing on how the scientific method works and outlining how science impacts individuals and society. As a science educator and communicator, my role is to instruct but, more importantly, engage students of all ages by facilitating involvement in the scientific process. The goal to move beyond providing didactic information towards constructing a lifelong learning skill set. Through this process, my main teaching philosophy is focused on three main objectives applied in both in-person and online learning environments. These include having students applying skills to decipher new scientific vocabulary, to organize course material based on personal interests, and to have each student create a final learning product with value beyond the course content. If these objectives are met, students learn to speak and engage with science, which could ultimately increase the publics’ value of basic science research.
First, I focus on developing a student’s approach to approaching novel scientific vocabulary. Science is actually a straightforward and relatable discipline that, at Its core, identifies and analyzes problems and then tries to build and test adaptive solutions. However, a basic understanding of the vocabulary of science is necessary to approach most disciplines in any depth. For all scholarly endeavors, there is a need to learn a new word to communicate the complex and intricate underpinning of the research. This is particularly true for science, where undergraduate or graduate students, let alone the public, tend to lack the necessary vocabulary to engage. However, learning how to approach this sophisticated vocabulary is critical to engage in science. For instance, chemistry students use words like composition, structure, properties, behavior, reactions, bonding, and so on, which all audiences can generally follow. However, as disciplines become more specific, the terms become more intangible to non-specialists. In pharmacology and drug discovery, for instance, the vocabulary includes words like ligand, receptor, dose-response curves, affinity, potency, and so on. This doesn’t even begin to cover the overwhelming number of acronyms. My objective as a communicator and educator is to empower my students to not be discouraged by unfamiliar terms. Instead, I help them develop problem-solving strategies to decipher their meanings. As a teaching assistant in “Complexity of Biology” with John Wikswo, we fostered a problem-solving approach to deciphering terminology by having the students read current scientific papers throughout the semester-long course. When they encountered a word that they didn’t understand or thought needed further clarification, we instructed the students to develop a definition within a class-generated dictionary. Students submitted at least five different definitions for the semester but could contribute more, if interested. Not only did this provide the students with opportunities to practice developing a scientific vocabulary, but this experience also empowered them with a process for understanding future terminology. It also was an opportunity to discuss a rigorous approach to evaluating information from external sources and opened a dialogue on plagiarism when students and the instructors reviewed and augmented other student’s definitions. Since starting to teach online, I have continued to use this approach through a general discussion board typically called “Terminology” where students post and reply to other students’ terms. Overall, this allows for students to develop an applied competency to approach novel scientific vocabulary with confidence.
A second objective is to develop a personalized understanding of the conceptual elements of a course. A personalized approach to course content occurs when students are asked to organize the course content in a way that demonstrates mastery of the conceptual framework. Basic concepts like receptor theory and enzyme kinetics are the foundational elements acquired by the student. However, the students must be able to apply these frameworks in their future careers in drug discovery and beyond. For example, when teaching pharmacology, it is important to know the major classes of receptors that drugs can target. This is typically taught by going through the various types of receptors, the signaling that occurs downstream of each receptor, and the drugs that are able to modulate signaling of these receptors leading to physiological outcomes. Typically presented to the student in a didactic manner, this teaching approach in of itself is not participatory. By migrating these online lectures, the classroom can be “flipped” by encouraging students to contemplate the concepts before coming to class and using the in-person class time to dig deeper into the application. The concepts become personalized with students present on a current paper, organizing the findings within the didactic structure. For example, when discussing different types of receptors and how they couple, a student who is interested in depression or mood disorders could focus on the serotonergic system and present on how and why different serotonergic receptors can have different affinities for the same ligand (serotonin) and can also lead to opposing cellular signaling. The students can also tie this back to the physiological implications, (e.g. antidepressants and psychoactive drugs like LSD). All students would be asked to apply the course content in this manner and would be peer-evaluated. Students would work the instructor to construct a rubric developed on the first day of the class focusing on the key learning competencies and objectives. The end product could be a presentation, written document, or both. In an online learning environment, audio and visual presentation can be submitted as assignments. Blogs or discussion boards can serve as a central resource for students to present their reports. Allowing students to personalize the course content based on their personal interest and in an applied context facilitates a better understanding and equips them with applied examples.
The final learning objective that I emphasize in my teaching philosophy is to have each student produce a final product that has value beyond an educational setting. Previously, I mentioned both discussion boards and blogs. While both of these are still student-generated products, this last objective focuses on students producing a product that has value beyond the classroom. “Students as Producers” represents student not merely consumers of knowledge but producers, engaged in meaningful work alongside faculty. From my own experience, in a first-year seminar course called “Exploring Science Through Art: Artist-in-Residence,” I mentored 13 students through visits six research laboratories across campus. During the lab visits, the student/artists-in-residence would meet with laboratory members to discuss their ongoing research efforts. The student-artists selected one research lab and further engaged with active researchers, asking and expanding on questions that are currently being investigated by the laboratories. As a final project, students were asked to create a visual that represented the labs’ ongoing research efforts. The visuals and corresponding descriptions were graded based on a rubric that matched the course goals and objectives. The student-artists then shared their work with their respective laboratories and with others in the class. Students are encouraged to develop a high degree of autonomy but worked alongside both a laboratory mentor and me to develop their final projects. Their final projects were also used by the laboratories for a number of publications as cover art or within the manuscripts themselves. From this course, and from other programs that were non-credit bearing, such as ArtLab, there has been a total of four images students work published as cover art or within manuscripts and these deliverables have also been incorporated into three campus-wide ArtLab exhibits that showcased student work. These types of outcomes highlight how student work can have value beyond the classroom.
My teaching philosophy and teaching approaches have been applied beyond the classroom in both formal and informal teaching settings. Courses that I see myself teaching range from large introductory classes that allow for me to help build the foundational elements of science in the young minds of the students, to small advanced classes where I can allow for more independence and engagement. However, I have a true passion for Informal STEM education and pursing practices that are informed and supported by evidence-based practices and learning research. Regardless of the setting, my learning objectives can be adjusted based on the size of the classroom. I enjoy the continued sense of learning and exploring a new pedagogical approach to optimize my teaching practices. Both in the classroom and in informal learning settings, I find that not only are my students successfully learning new concepts but also that “we,” as a class, are directly participating in science exploration at a theoretical level in new and innovative ways. It is my hope that I not only contribute to developing critical thinking but also to create an open dialogue with ongoing research efforts that allows the public and students to engage in the scientific process and build a personal connection to the sciences.