Teaching Experience

My primary goals as an educator are to help students learn to think critically and to teach them key concepts in a real world context. I accomplish these goals by focusing on student-centered learning which allows students to explore concepts, grapple with misconceptions, and build new knowledge. I much prefer to be a “guide by the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.”

As an undergraduate student, I was taught using the “empty vessel” approach whereby my professors would transfer their knowledge through lectures and textbook readings. However, in graduate school, my professors asked me to interpret scientific data. I had to generate multiple hypotheses to explain the results that other scientists had published, and then propose new experiments. Reflecting on my previous educational experiences, I began to wonder if undergraduates would benefit from graduate-style coursework while still learning the basics of biology.

Learning How to Educate at Duke
Through the Duke Certificate in College Teaching and the Preparing Future Faculty program, I learned modern perspectives on course alignment, formative assessment, and pedagogy. My first opportunity to utilize my new knowledge was as a teaching assistant in Bio 102L – Genetics & Evolution (for more information on this course, please see the learning objectives and course schedule). The Duke Biology department had just finished restructuring their introductory courses, and this was the first semester that Bio 102L was offered. The instructors’ goal was to incorporate more active learning and in that they definitely succeeded. We often had in-class discussions about the material, especially with regards to the often controversial topic of evolution. The class was required to read Why Evolution Is True in which Jerry Coyne provides a wealth of evidence for evolution. The students even had the opportunity to ask Coyne questions live via Skype.

One of my roles in the class was to lead a section of the accompanying laboratory course. Instead of completing classic experiments in genetics to arrive at known answers, our students performed new labs to apply the principles they had learned. I gave mini-lectures at the beginning of each class, after which I acted more as a facilitator. I posed questions to individual students to make sure they were actively thinking about the material. Students learned many common techniques including fly husbandry and polymerase chain reaction, but the primary focus was always on interpreting and contextualizing the experimental results.

My experiences at Duke taught me that teaching should be a key part of my career goals. Throughout the rest of my time in graduate school, I sought out opportunities to learn further teaching techniques and give guest lectures. I realized that if I wanted teaching to be part of my profession, I would need as much knowledge and practice as possible.

Putting Knowledge into Practice at Duke TIP
During the summer after I graduated from Duke, I taught a course in the Duke Talent Identification Program. The seventh and eighth grade students at TIP are exceptional learners who are dedicating three weeks of their summer to studying a particular subject. I created and taught my own course on DNA to these students, incorporating content from genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, infectious disease, human history, archaeology, and public policy.

TIP was an excellent opportunity to try many of the teaching techniques I learned at Duke. I would design a lesson and I could assess how well the students learned the material within minutes. There was not time or a need for examinations, so I relied on formative assessment methods to inform my teaching. The collaborative nature of TIP made our class more interdisciplinary by relating our work to other classes on law, medicine, and creative writing. Plus, since these were younger students and there were no bounds on what or how to teach, I was able to experiment with novel lesson plans, such as the overwhelmingly successful DNA translation scavenger hunt. Like a good scientist, I made sure to send each student home with a tube of their own DNA.

Contributing to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at NCCU
I chose a postdoctoral position at North Carolina Central University in order to broaden my teaching experience while I still conducted biology research. I joined a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded project to improve the undergraduate biology labs. We created new introductory laboratory courses in which students engage in hypothesis-driven experimentation. Each lab had two purposes: to teach students basics of biology while undertaking experiments in fermentation and yeast metabolism that had never been done. While at NCCU, I gained valuable experience in curriculum design and creating assessments to measure the effectiveness of our reforms.