My goal in teaching is to actively connect students with classroom material. I do this by emphasizing the personal or broader context of biological topics and by structuring classroom activities to encourage engagement and active learning.
Placing Classroom Material in a Personal or Broader Context
With each classroom activity, I emphasize the significance of the topic. For example, I link material to contemporary social issues, demonstrate the relevance of the material to the students’ lives, or show the real-world application of biological techniques. Below are sample exercises that illustrate how I connect students with classroom material.
- One of the most compelling aspects of the human microbiome is that it is intrinsically personal. As part of an honors science communication course, I helped students to explore their own microbial communities. I secured a donation of personal microbiome kits from the company μBiome valued at $890. Students sampled their oral microbes for genetic analysis and I helped them interpret their data after it was generated. Even in the absence of genetic sampling kits, students can still explore their microbiomes using mouth swabs and petri dishes with nutrient media. I have used the petri dish version of the exercise for an invited freshman seminar and numerous public outreach events.
- As genomic sequencing is becoming more common, students seeking healthcare and biotech careers should understand bioinformatics and genome assembly. To teach these concepts, I developed an activity where students compare shredded pages of a book, with truncated lines of text, to shotgun sequencing reads. By fitting lines together to make sentences, students learn the rationale underlying genomic assembly. I then connect these skills to case studies from the medical literature where sequencing was used to identify unknown pathogens in patients.
- To highlight the practical importance of phylogenetics and an evolutionary perspective, I presented on the 2010 Haiti cholera outbreak. Phylogenetic trees showed that cholera isolates from Haiti were most closely related to those from Asia, implicating aid workers in the initiation of the outbreak. This example can be updated to have students apply their understanding to contemporary disease outbreaks such as Zika or Ebola.
Encouraging Engagement and Active Learning
For my classroom activities, I engage students actively in the learning process. I incorporate these techniques in both small discussion sections and larger lecture courses. Below are some examples of how I have incorporated active learning in my classroom.
- To focus students’ attention, I often begin class with an interactive quiz, using anonymous polling technology such as Socrative or Poll Anywhere. I use questions that stimulate conversation and lead directly into the lesson, such as “How many microbes do you think are in the human body?” or “Do you think the space shuttle is sterile?”
- For complex topics, I use ungraded free writes to give students the confidence to engage with the material. For example, after a technical reading assignment on next-generation sequencing, I asked students to write about one aspect of the article they understood. By quickly skimming these, I determined that every student comprehended the importance of the technology, and I used this as a starting point to introduce the more technical aspects of the article.
- To facilitate discussion, I encourage peer-to-peer learning between students. For example, I have paired students by differing career interests and asked them to discuss a topic with their anticipated career in mind. Invariably, students with healthcare aspirations will focus on different aspects than those with research-oriented goals.