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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 clinically relevant data. 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 try to do my part to reduce discrimination. The latter is very much a work in progress, but, as an example, 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.

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 professor'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?

If you ask students what sets me apart from other instructors, many will cite my tendency to burst into song. This is absolutely true, but constitutes only a small portion of class time. More fundamentally, I run my classes in a way that emphasizes good, thorough note-taking. I use PowerPoint as a high-tech overhead projector; my slides are full of empty space for annotating figures and answering questions, and I write right along with the students to keep the pacing reasonable. This focus on note-taking is not the most glamorous or attention-getting strategy, but it works.

Somewhat related to the above, I also generate - relative to my peers -- a prodigious volume of original study questions and test questions. Too often, questions from textbooks and test banks are poorly written, obsessed with obscure details, or undesirable in other ways - so I create ones that reflect my pedagogical priorities. To make sure students can use old tests for practice, I write totally new tests each term. All of this question-writing represents a substantial amount of work for me, but my students seem to appreciate the tailoring of the questions.

A final possibly unusual aspect of my teaching is that I am rarely content to rest on my laurels. Once a course is taught two or three times, it is tempting to declare it "good enough," but I cannot help seeking a better textbook, a more elegant experiment, a more intriguing analogy. For example, my article Which way do the ions go? traces the evolution of my mediocre treatment of electrochemical gradients into a better one, and my article Integration of Math Jingles into Physiology Courses explains how I have adjusted my use of content-rich biology music in response to student feedback. Just as my students learn from iterative cycles of testing, feedback, and revision, so too do I.