PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
What works: Observations from the field
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?
A good friend of mine describes my teaching laboratory as “organized chaos”, and I guess this sums it up pretty well. To the passerby, it might appear as though I have a bunch of students “goofing off”, talking a lot rather than sitting quietly at their lab benches doing their assigned task. But if that passerby stayed for fifteen or twenty minutes, they would come to realize that the students were actively engaged in the scientific enterprise – formulating hypotheses, designing and conducting controlled experiments to seek answers to scientific questions based in a real-world context. For example, in my Biochemistry class, metabolic pathways are discussed in the context what the students ate in the morning and what energy drinks they use to help them through finals week. The visitor would find my classroom filled with active and engaged learners discussing concepts rather than “being lectured to”. They would probably mumble to themselves “This class is having too much fun to be learning anything”. (Actually I’ve had a few faculty colleagues peek in to see what was happening).
What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?
I first became interested in science education during my postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH. I mentored several undergraduates in summer research internships and found that I really had a passion for active learning strategies, when learning scientific concepts was tied to concrete hands-on experiences. At the time, I also connected with the Hands On Science Outreach program in Montgomery County, MD. As I mentored elementary school students in this extra-curricular program, I became further interested in how this “hands-on inquiry-based approach” could motivate young children to learn science and eventually pursue careers in science.
For personal and professional reasons, I “left the research lab bench” in 1977 and brought that passion for teaching and learning with me to Marygrove College, a small liberal arts college in metropolitan Detroit. This was my first real experience in witnessing the spectrum of diverse learners, as well as the disparity in K-12 education systems. Since I no longer had the lab bench to seek answers, I directed my questions toward “how students learn science” and transferred those research skills to my classroom.
I also have a personal stake in this: I am the mother of four young children who are stepping into the K-12 pipeline.
Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?
I don’t know if I would call them crises or not, perhaps hurdles for a “vertically challenged” (short) individual might be more appropriate.
My first hurdles occurred during my first two years of teaching, when student evaluations were low, with complaints to the department chair about my unconventional teaching format: asking them questions rather than telling them answers; challenging them to think for themselves, and to process information at higher cognitive learning levels than they were accustomed to. Two things allowed me persevere: 1) Having come from a highly competitive research setting, I knew what was “expected” of a science graduate in the real-world; 2) I really believed in what I was doing.
More hurdles came during promotion and tenure. During my pre-tenure review process, it became apparent that a few vocal curmudgeons voiced their opinions regarding a “young maverick” who was beginning to transform the educational setting. Fortunately, I had built a network of allies (students and colleagues) that helped me through during this difficult time.
I now have alumnae coming back to me, thanking me for preparing them in the manner I did. Knowing that I have accomplished this important aspect of being an educator validates my teaching philosophy and has allowed me to continue to persevere and jump over those highest hurdles.
What connections have been of most value in doing this?
I’ve been blessed to have a few great mentors and “pseudo-scientists” at the college with whom I have been able to bounce ideas off and engage in philosophical conversations about education. I’ve been fortunate to have a Dean who supported interdisciplinary courses. Our former President, Dr. Glenda Price, was instrumental in helping a group of us secure a Title III grant to strengthen the capacity of the Science and Mathematics programs on campus. My research colleagues that have kept me grounded in reality; providing me with opportunities to bring “real-world” science into the classroom. Perhaps the most important connection that I have grown to love and cherish is the PKAL network that has nourished me over the past several years.
What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?
I think that an institution that is compassionate and committed to education and scholarship fosters a culture of educational entrepreneurialship among its faculty. Certainly support from the administration (both moral and financial) also helps nurture young faculty seeking novel ways to pilot a “praxis” curriculum, in which a learning community of faculty and students shape the curriculum in a social context. Finally, I think that institutions will need to re-examine the concept of tenure and promotion in such a way that the process does not damper any efforts to advance the frontiers of undergraduate STEM education.