As an instructor of college level biology, I feel that it is my job to capture the curiosity of each student through active engagement, to provide them with a space to feel fearless in the face of new information, and to prepare them for opportunities within and outside academia to apply knowledge gained in my classroom. Based on this philosophy towards teaching, I have three main goals when I am developing a course: (1) to create a classroom that is an inclusive environment for students with diverse backgrounds and experiences; (2) to make course content engaging and interactive; (3) to ensure that students feel that what they are learning is relevant and relatable. I incorporate evidence-based pedagogical methods to meet these goals in all of the courses that I teach. I have applied these approaches with success among a variety of classroom settings, from high school outreach programs to introductory biology classes, and from advanced undergraduate topics courses to graduate level survey courses.
An Inclusive Classroom
I believe every student has the capacity to be successful in my courses. To make this a reality in my classroom, I teach from a place of respect: I respect students’ needs, time, goals, intelligence, and voice. To learn about each student’s needs and goals, I hold ‘student hours’ (a less intimidating play on office hours) throughout the semester. At student hours, I do my best to make students feel confident that we are a team working together towards their success in my course, demonstrating my commitment to a collaborative mentoring approach. In turn, I ask that students enter my classroom with a mutual respect for their classmates and their instructor. By adhering to this philosophy, I can do my best to foster a welcoming, productive learning environment.
I also implement concrete approaches into curriculum design and content delivery based on best practices from Universal Design for Learning to improve inclusion in my classroom. Some of these practices involve smaller behavioral shifts, such as using high-contrast, easily discernible color palettes, providing physical copies of lecture materials prior to the start of class for students who work best with visual cues, and permitting the use of recording devices in lectures for students who need extra time to process verbal content. Other practices incorporate larger foundational changes. For example, to help students develop into self-directed learners, I provide instruction on metacognition at the start of introductory level classes. I enhance active learning strategies by calling upon relatable experiences from all student populations represented in a classroom. I aim to have students feel more connected to and passionate about assignments by providing opportunities for them to choose non-traditional content delivery methods for major projects, such as podcasts, animations, or websites. I provide tools and rubrics that clearly outline expectations and grading criteria so that students can understand and embrace these opportunities to establish personal responsibility and weave creativity into the learning process.
Engaging and Interactive Content
Interventions in the classroom that promote active, rather than passive, learning lead to greater student success in coursework and increased retention of students in STEM majors. In working towards a more interactive classroom, I have embraced the model of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). CUREs have the power to make research more inclusive by mitigating barriers to student participation in research experiences. I applied this approach while teaching an upper-level course on Model Systems for Genetic Disorders at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the fall of 2019. Over the course of the semester, students were brought into my lab to perform experiments with unknown outcomes and produce data directly relevant to my research. By participating in these activities, the students were able to connect concepts they learned about in lectures to real applications in the lab. Perhaps even more important, the students got a powerful firsthand look at how the information they read about in academic literature is generated by individuals just like themselves through scientific research every day.
Learning with Relevance
Adult learners are most successful in a classroom when we as teachers acknowledge their motivations for learning and the experiences that they bring to the table. Therefore, I think it is critical for instructors of any STEM courses to embrace teaching strategies that continuously connect concepts and make material relevant to student experiences. Towards this goal, I use case studies as a problem-based learning tool that can connect basic scientific concepts to medical applications. As a graduate student, I volunteered with the Biology Inquiry & Outreach with Boston University Graduate Students (BIOBUGS) program. This program is designed to expose Boston public high school biology students to 3-hour lab modules containing materials and experiments that are inaccessible to most high school classrooms. I led a team of graduate and undergraduate students to develop a module entitled “Clinical Genetics with C. elegans” where we introduced students to human genetic diseases using case studies and then showed the students how they could perform experiments in C. elegans to model those human diseases. I presented on the transferability of the module in a major workshop at the Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE) conference in June of 2018, the proceedings of which were published in 2019 (LaBonty et al, 2019).
More recently, when teaching Cell Biology at the University of Montevallo, I have designed interactive case studies to compliment the lectures taught on concepts including membrane transport and cytoskeleton components. These are topics universally covered in Cell Biology courses across the country, and can be difficult core concepts for students to understand and apply. By drawing direct connections between microtubule dynamics and the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, or nuclear transport and the development of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, students develop an understanding of not just how processes work, but why they are important in a larger context. Students learn that they are responsible for establishing a strong foundational knowledge in order to participate in these activities that require higher order thinking skills.
Creating Knowledge Ambassadors
By setting these goals for myself in designing curricula, I am confident that I have built a foundation ensuring that each student leaves my classroom more aware of how science weaves its way into daily life and better prepared to serve as a knowledge ambassador for their family and friends. I also aim to help as many students as possible see a future life/career for themselves that in some way incorporates the knowledge that they have gained in my classroom, whether that be directly through scientific research or pursing training in health professions, or indirectly as they pursue careers outside of STEM fields, as they raise families, and as they act as contributing members of their communities.