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How I teach science

What is science?

The word "science" means a lot of things to a lot of people; there is a diversity of viewpoints even among professional scientists! To me, science is, above all, a process of developing and refining ideas about how the world works by seeking, collecting, analyzing, and reporting evidence. (Physicist Chad Orzel encapsulates this process as look-think-test-tell.) My students learn the facts and vocabulary of science, of course, but they also practice scientific reasoning and scientific methods. I give them many opportunities to hone these skills, from performing somewhat open-ended laboratory experiments to analyzing primary literature excerpts and data. (My work with the website ScienceInTheClassroom.org, which annotates Science papers to make them accessible to high school students and undergraduates, is one example of the latter.) Likewise, my tests include many open-ended short-answer questions where students demonstrate their development of these skills.

Who can and should learn science?

Everyone! Irrespective of their professional and personal trajectories, ALL of my students will benefit from an appreciation of science and an ability to apply its tools, whether that means checking the source of a controversial claim or organizing data into a clear graph. Moreover, ALL of them are capable of scientific thinking (as Orzel points out). Thus, I strive to help ALL students on their respective journeys. I foster an inclusive, supportive environment with strategies like the following: I express and explain my own enthusiasm for the material, thus inspiring students' interest; I sensitively address biological differences among individuals (e.g., skin color or male/female pelvis structure); I solicit input from quiet students to ensure their voices are heard; I make reasonable accommodations for students with scheduling challenges beyond their control; and I serve as an ally for students who may face discrimination. As an example of the latter, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, some of my UW-Bothell students were worried about their futures, so I took a bit of class time to make two main points: (1) we must all continue to work together respectfully and productively, despite having diverse views on the election, and (2) everyone here belongs here and has the full support of the faculty and staff, regardless of what any politician might say. Finally, I acknowledge that I am not an expert on diversity, and continue to educate myself on this important issue.

How should instructors like me facilitate the learning of science?

Clearly, the "sage on a stage" model of teaching -- in which a wise professor dispenses knowledge to a rapt audience of students who remain silent except to chuckle appreciatively at the prof's jokes -- is an outdated one. These days, I think of myself as part coach, part cheerleader, and part referee. The students are the athletes; they are the ones who have to play the game. My job is to give them the ball, show them how to practice, encourage them to accept formidable challenges, and ultimately judge the success of their performance. Furthermore, the most fruitful practices generally involve teamwork, in which players combine their complementary strengths. I therefore promote teamwork via simple "think-pair-share" exercises as well as more involved "jigsaw" exercises in which each team member possesses unique information needed by the rest of the team. And, like any good coach, I ask my students to think metacognitively about why they're doing what they're doing and what their current weaknesses are.

How do I differ from most other instructors?

One distinction is that I communicate extra-clearly, especially in writing. I take pride in making my assignments and tests transparent, so that students can focus on the content rather than having to decode my intentions. I avoid vague pronouncements such as "anything we've covered could be on the test"; instead, I provide detailed study guides with simulated test questions, so that the students know which challenges are most important and can prepare accordingly. And I return graded work faster than most faculty do -- generally within 2 to 4 days -- because students deserve timely feedback on how they are doing and what they are missing.

Another point of pride is that I incentivize good study habits by rewarding steady, consistent work. I generally give a quiz every week so that students are motivated to keep up with the material rather than falling behind. Likewise, my exams are cumulative so that students will strive to remember early-term material all term long. Others may say that they can't give cumulative exams because there is too much material; I prefer to beckon students repeatedly to the islands of critical content, rather than letting them swim endlessly through seas of details.

A final possibly unusual aspect of my teaching is that I am rarely content to rest on my laurels. Once a course has been taught once, it is tempting to declare it "good enough," rather than sinking tons of additional work into it. But that is not how scientific progress works, and that is not how I work either. I cannot help seeking a better textbook, a more intriguing case study, a more elegant experiment. My article "Integration of Math Jingles into Physiology Courses" (Journal of Mathematics Education 8(2): 56-73, 2015) explains how I have adjusted my use of content-rich biology music in response to student feedback, for example. Just as my students learn from iterative cycles of testing, feedback, and revision, so too do I.