“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
– Nelson Mandela
One experience a few decades ago forever changed how I learned, and why I teach today. By the end of my first semester at the University of Georgia, I’d lost my scholarship and earned my first D- (actually, the professor probably bumped that grade up). I botched the only path I ever considered taking. Looking for escape, I found it on a bulletin board – “STUDENT INTERNSHIP FOR SPRING.”
I spent that spring on a deserted isle, trapping and tracking bobcats, living by the tide and sun rather than the watch, catching fish for dinner, and driving an F-350 monster Ford truck with manual lock-in 4×4 wheels. I wore t-shirts and baseball caps, and never worried about make-up. In those few months, I realized that college was much more than requirements and grades. It was inspiration.
My goal in teaching is to inspire. Through authentic experience and interdisciplinary applications, I push my students to learn not for tests and scores – but for joy and real-world application. With my educational research background based in Conceptual Change Theory, I develop activities that force students to voice their views and face the reality of their understanding.
Most of my students, freshmen non-science majors, dread the idea of taking biology. The large-scale introductory course is difficult to teach – the breadth of topics is wide, as are the students’ backgrounds. I focus on issues students may encounter in the future (i.e. human development, nutrition, climate change, epigenetics, and environmental toxicants) often through unusual, shocking and entertaining stories. For example, when addressing evolution, I include strange and exciting stories from Darwin’s childhood and his journey on the H.M.S. Beagle, traipsing across South America with gauchos, hiding from bandits and describing his adventures in letters home. We approach the topic of evolution with a formative trivia-quiz lecture, allowing students to test their preconceptions… and realize that the information they thought they knew is often inaccurate. I’ve even assigned Evolution Haiku contests – grading poems on accuracy of evolution concepts (the top three “winners” receive dinosaur cookies, trilobite magnets, and evolution stickers).
Understanding biology is instrumental in making informed choices, such as what to eat or buy, which political candidate to support, and life-or-death medical decisions. The importance of biology lies not in memorizing vocabulary and getting good grades, but in the application of biological concepts to life’s challenges. Frequently, I relate lesson topics to current news events or to personal narratives of how biology changed people’s lives. Since non-science majors are most likely to learn more about biology through television, magazine and newspaper articles, I compiled an Alt-Textbook of popular science articles and video links. Stories address topics such as GMO oranges, BRCA gene testing, jellyfish swarms that cause power outages, pesticide resistance, and embryonic development.
When I created a Biological Illustration course (as a biology class), my original intention was to teach comparative anatomy and biodiversity in an active and creative way. Students were so intrinsically motivated that they produced work at a much higher level than I expected. They shared their illustrations with friends and family so, since students also explained the biology behind each drawing, I realized we could turn these projects into real exhibitions – and reach beyond the classroom. Every student became a scientific communicator. To date, their work has been on display at museums around the state and even in a Scientific American blog post.
Lastly, I view assessment as a vital student learning tool; it ought to be treated as a part of the educational experience and developed as thoughtfully as any lecture or activity. For my students, assessments serve as a way to reinforce or contradict current conceptual understanding. According to Posner’s Theory, if preconceptions and new information do not match, students must be dissatisfied with their current understanding to experience a cognitive shift. Performance on assessment can be that catalyst to change.
Assessments also help me improve my teaching. After each assessment, I code and analyze Item Statistics for each question to adjust the questions or my teaching for the future. I have built assessments in the past (Observational Skills Assessment) and have worked toward developing a departmental assessment for use in program evaluation and improvement.
By using authentic and creative approaches to teaching students about the diversity of life and how human societies exist within the biological community, I aim to impart appreciation of the environment and how choices impact all life. Thoughtful and practical assessments guide and motivate students to reach toward higher goals. These assessments also provide data to direct me to improve as a teacher and mentor. Teaching is how I change the world.