Curiosity encourages growth, creates opportunity, and opens minds to learning. I believe that sparking curiosity in a diverse audience is a fundamental tool for effective teaching. At any institution, students come from varied backgrounds with different motivations for pursuing their education. As an instructor, I use this diversity as a tool to help students connect with the material and, in turn, inspire curiosity. I find this diversity both exciting and challenging, and it is one of the major factors that has inspired my interest in teaching. I draw from my student’s background and interests to supplement learning objectives and encourage a more in-depth understanding of the course material. My philosophy is primarily derived from my own teaching experiences in the classroom, and through science outreach and communication.
My engagement in scientific outreach has been integral in my development as a scientist and educator, roles that I believe to be inseparable. To effectively communicate any scientific topic to a general audience, you must be able to spark the audience’s interest and maintain it through higher levels of inquiry. For three consecutive summers, I have designed and taught a lecture and laboratory-based course in plant pathology to high school seniors participating in the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University Park. Students entered this program with various backgrounds and interests in biology and microbiology. I approached these differences by developing hands-on exercises that allowed students to explore plant pathology at their own pace. Students used standard laboratory equipment, such as microscopes and hand lenses, as well as key terminology to diagnose plant diseases around campus. I evaluated my students by asking them to explain how they arrived at their diagnosis, and to provide evidence to support their claim. This problem-solving, hands on approach to teaching plant disease diagnosis encouraged students to experiment, discuss and ask questions about the disease they were looking at. This exercise dramatically increased student engagement in my class. In the future, I plan to apply this sort of exercise in the first class in order to encourage curiosity about the subject prior to jumping into lectures with more detailed information.
I also encourage student engagement by designing assignments catered towards their career interests. For example, while teaching BIOL 215 (Basic Microbiology) at Lock Haven University, Clearfield, I challenged nursing and health-science students to develop a microbial outreach project focused on producing educational materials (e.g., flyers, brochures, posters) aimed at patients. I evaluated students on their ability to conduct a thorough literature review, and then synthesize and effectively present that information for a general audience. At the conclusion of the project, I provided students with digital copies of all final submissions to be used as tools for health and microbiology education. This project encouraged students to engage with the course material beyond a simple understanding of disease agents and treatments. The students produced high quality results, but there are aspects of this assignment that I intend to improve upon for future classes. For instance, I will implement a “peer review” evaluation prior to final submission to give students an opportunity to provide and receive critical feedback, again, capitalizing on the benefits of student diversity in terms of background and interests.
I continuously adapt my classes to accommodate for a diversity of learning styles and student strengths. One way I account for this diversity is by implementing mid-semester feedback surveys. For example, I recently used a mid-semester survey in MICRB 107 (Elementary Microbiology) at Penn State Altoona, to gather student input on how their individual and collective learning experiences could be improved. This survey highlighted a student desire for lab handouts, as opposed to handwritten instructions on the chalkboard, that detail pertinent information for each lab. This simple change improved student understanding, engagement and overall performance in the lab, as evidenced by higher success rates on experiments and in-class exercises. The mid-semester feedback survey also gives me an opportunity to gauge how students are feeling about the pace of the class, their understanding of the material, and instructor availability to answer questions. The survey is anonymous, and I report back to the students with the overall results and any changes I intend to make in response. This survey has strengthened my ability accommodate the diversity of students in my classroom, and has become an important tool for implementing my core teaching philosophy.
I enjoy being on the front lines of science education and communication. I find fulfillment in helping students comprehend difficult concepts, master essential skills and navigate their own career path. Every student comes from a different background with different motivations for pursuing their degree. Accommodating this diversity creates a better learning experience for everyone in the classroom, and is a fundamental component of my teaching philosophy.