PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Janna McLean

What works: Observations from the field

Janna McLean is Associate Professor and Chair of Biology at Colorado State University – Pueblo.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab—the environment in which you work with students—what impression would s/he leave with?

Hopefully the visitor would see that we are a group of colleagues working together to learn, a collaborative effort. In the classroom I might know more of the content than my students, but I would still be learning from them as they ask interesting questions, questions I had never considered. In the lab she would see us working together, sharing ideas. I spend as much time listening to my research students as advising them about ways to proceed.

What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?

I will never forget teaching first-year students as they were doing some experiments in lab. They would come to me and say “Dr. McLean, my experiment failed because my hypothesis was wrong, what will I do?” I was rather mortified that they understood so little of how science was actually being done. Another statement made by students early in my teaching career was in response to the news that biologists were rearranging how to classify organisms in response to discoveries about the archaebacteria. I remember a student saying with disgust “I thought scientists KNEW things! But if they’re changing the number of kingdoms, then they really didn’t!” These statements showed me again that students had no idea what the nature of science really was. They saw science as a static collection of facts, and they saw that being wrong was, well, wrong! But as a scientist I knew this was not the case. These experiences propelled me to explore ways to teach biology so that students truly understood the nature of science and of scientific exploration.

Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?

One of the problems with working to teach in this way is that I was not taught that way, in large measure. So, I had to explore ways to teach. Happily, there were many people who were interested in teaching students more about the process of science, and I met many of them at PKAL meetings, where I could go to learn more about what others were doing, and to commiserate with those struggling with how to do this. Of course I persevered because I saw my students learning about the power of science and opening their minds to a different way of thinking about the world. I probably wouldn’t have persevered, even given the successes with my students, if I hadn’t had a support group of faculty both at my institution and at other institutions.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?

I’ve read numerous comments by faculty about doing research with undergraduates, and whether they can publish well or not, and I know there are many opinions on this issue. It is my opinion that, at least in my sub-area, the project that may be wonderful for the student may not lead to a publication in a timely fashion. I find that funding agencies seem to be moving to models that require more publications and that support large research universities rather than colleges committed to teaching undergraduates. Given this move, institutions committed to teaching undergraduates must support faculty (time and money) to do this work. Faculty need to be mentored by other successful faculty, but they also need to have internal funding to develop their research programs, support undergraduate students, and pay them to do research in the summers. They need teaching loads that recognize the work faculty do with students in their research and in their teaching labs. Institutions need to realize that credit hour loads that don’t recognize contact hours with students negatively affect science faculty. We don’t teach labs like they were taught twenty years ago, and so the work-load is much greater for those teaching labs than it was; recognizing only credit hours motivates faculty to give students “cookbook” labs rather than having them explore real questions and write up those explorations into papers. I have involved students in my teaching labs in questions that are being asked in my research lab. I believe the students benefit a great deal from these experiences, but they take a great deal of planning time and grading time on my part, and antiquated methods of “counting” loads do not take these new methods of teaching into account.