I currently am a teaching assistant in the Department of Biology at Duke University and serve as a lab instructor for courses in molecular and evolutionary biology. Teaching is a process through which students are guided to enrich their own lives. As an educator in biology, I view my work as facilitating student comprehension through which students share their own understanding of the natural world and thereby enhance personal life experiences. By acting as a guide rather than arbiter, I encourage students to be active in their learning and to develop a sense of agency in the learning process. I strive to place emphasis on helping students develop their ability to obtain and critically evaluate new pieces of information that they can then integrate into a more holistic narrative. A goal of my teaching is to foster students’ ability to educate themselves and continue learning after they leave the classroom.
My teaching experience comes from serving as a teaching assistant for several undergraduate biology courses. During my time as a master’s student in plant biology at Southern Illinois University, I taught laboratory sections for courses ranging from Introductory Biology (PLB115) for students who have not yet declared a major to Morphology of Vascular Plants (PLB415) for more advanced students. These opportunities to teach at multiple levels of the undergraduate curriculum, with class sizes ranging from 20 to 250 students, have allowed me to refine my approach to sustaining student engagement across various levels of course complexity. As a Ph.D. student at Duke University, I taught laboratory sections of Molecular Biology (BIO201) and Molecular Biology, Genetics and Evolution (BIO203). Students who take these courses are usually in their freshman or sophomore year and many hope to pursue a career in medicine. Through teaching similar material for multiple semesters, I was able to use student feedback from previous semesters to enhance my teaching in later semesters. One example of how I improved over semesters in response to student feedback is that I was able to more effectively link material from lecture to that in the lab. A full list of courses that I have taught and can teach can be found here.
In addition to my experience with serving as a teaching assistant, I have sought out other opportunities to improve my teaching. I am currently enrolled in the Certificate for College Teaching program at Duke University, where I am learning to become a more effective teacher through coursework on successful pedagogical techniques and peer feedback on my teaching. One example of coursework is Fundamentals of College Teaching (GS750) where I learned techniques to increase student participation, enhance student experience within the classroom using active learning exercises, and to communicate effectively through the development of course objectives and a course syllabus. I aim to continue pursuit of strategies to improve my teaching and broaden the level at which I teach; towards this end, I have co-developed a weekly workshop at Duke University geared towards graduate and post-doctoral students that focuses on computational techniques for the phylogenetic analysis of genome-scale data. I am currently developing a laboratory protocol for use in Molecular Biology (BIO201) in coordination the lecture instructor and other laboratory instructors to introduce undergraduate students to computer programming and how computational techniques can be applied to the analysis of DNA sequence data. Students in BIO201 lab currently use molecular cloning to produce a genomic library and the protocol that I am developing will integrate with existing protocols by having the students conduct computer simulations of genomic DNA digestion with restriction enzymes to make predictions about the content of their genomic library. By conducting these in silico experiments, students will gain skills in computational techniques that are increasingly applicable to both biology and other data-driven fields.
Within the laboratory environment, I promote engagement through hands-on activities. The structure of lab sections themselves facilitates this as the point of the labs is for students to apply concepts that they have learned in lecture. For example, students in Morphology of Vascular Plants (PLB415) had opportunities to explore nature during field excursions to see firsthand the diversity of plant structures and relate this to concepts they learned in the classroom such as how certain plant traits, such as flower color or morphology, might reflect coevolution with nearby animal pollinators. In Molecular Biology (BIO201), students learn about the concepts of DNA sequencing and molecular cloning in lecture and then work in the lab to develop their own genomic library of a model organism. I incorporate methods, such as jig-saw groups and think-pair-share, to increase student participation in discussions of current scientific literature. For example, students in Molecular Biology (BIO201) used a jig-saw style discussion to understand the novel concept of genome editing via the CRISPR-Cas9 system: students were individually assigned to read one of several articles related to the topic, worked in ‘expert groups’ with others who have read the same article to summarize the main points of the article, and then work in ‘jig-saw’ groups to teach that information to other students who have read different articles. Using active learning within the classroom has contributed to increased student comprehension of material, as evidenced in student exit interviews conducted at the end of each semester, and gives the students a greater sense of agency in the learning process.
Life Beyond Coursework
One of my goals in teaching is to help students develop the framework with which they can continue learning after the course has ended. I refer to this as ‘teaching students to be able to teach themselves’. A specific way in which this task is accomplished is through helping students understand the scientific method. From making initial observations to developing an experimental plan aimed at testing a hypothesis formulated about those observations, students develop a robust way to continue to develop their learning outside of the classroom. For example, in Molecular Biology (BIO201) the students are asked to make observations about mutant yeast strains and write post-lab assessments in which they make hypotheses about the nature of the mutations and design experiments to test those predictions. The ability of students to develop their own skills to learn additional information or assess the validity of current hypotheses will be an invaluable life-skill, whether or not the students choose to pursue a career in science. Ultimately, a student’s learning is their own and I view my work as a teacher to be a facilitator along that journey.