– Helen Hampikian
I love microbiology. Like really, REALLY love it. There are few things more exciting to me than learning about some hideous new infectious disease that’s going to take over the world or some quirky little virus that may hold the key to the origins of life. It is this kind of excitement that I endeavor to bring to every one of my classes. I believe being excited and passionate about your subject area is a highly effective way of teaching – if I’m not excited, why should my students be? This may be particularly true in the sciences, where students often face a lot of anxiety and fear over technically-challenging, highly detailed, alien concepts.
Being passionate, enthusiastic, and at times humorous serves several purposes in my teaching. First, my enthusiasm rubs off on my students, heightening their interest in what I will freely admit is sometimes fairly dry material. Second, bringing positive energy to my classroom really helps lower my students’ anxiety and creates a more relaxed atmosphere. This in turn creates a learning environment where students feel comfortable talking with me and each other – be it to ask questions, express their own ideas and opinions, or simply share something “really cool” they saw on the news the previous night.
I also like to bring in snippets of information regarding relevant current events. I think it’s very important that what I present in class has meaning and context. I’m not just regurgitating some chapter from a boring old textbook – I’m actually bringing color, life, and meaning to complex material in a way that my students can understand and relate to. For example, talking about Ebola and showing a documentary about its devastating effects – economically, socially, and physically – serves to highlight the impacts of infectious disease, but also highlight the immense challenges faced by people living in less developed countries. I conclude this class by posing an ethical dilemma question regarding the use of patients as human guinea pigs for untested drug treatments, creating a classroom discussion that is often exciting and insightful.
One thing I pride myself on is my open, friendly, down-to-earth demeanor. It’s incredibly important to me that students feel comfortable communicating with me and that my classes facilitate open dialogue and discussion. If a student does not feel comfortable in this way, they are less likely to seek help or admit they’re struggling; such students slip through the cracks, resulting in a grade that does not reflect their true capabilities.
As I teach and present material, I ask my students a lot of questions, making my classes very interactive. My overarching aim is to make us feel like a team working together to acquire knowledge, as opposed to me just standing at the front, spouting scientific facts like some kind of superior, all-knowing gatekeeper to knowledge. For example, I challenged my freshmen inquiry students to synthesize questions relating to bacteria. They could investigate the bacteria using agar plates and sterile swabs. Once they had decided on a question, they had to come up with a hypothesis, design the experimental procedure with which to test the hypothesis (including appropriate controls), perform that experiment, interpret the results, and write a short lab report. My freshmen did this entirely on their own, while I acted only as a facilitator. This exercise was not only a lot of fun for the students – I laughed when a group of our football players excitedly swabbed beards for bacteria – but really served to bring science to life for them.
When I was an undergraduate, many of my professors stood at the front of a lecture theatre reading off PowerPoint slides with a copious amount of text. As a consequence, I suffered frequently from bouts of hand-cramp, severe daydreaming, and a lack of understanding. To me, teaching is a lot more than simply standing there and telling. I firmly believe that to facilitate actual learning (rather than regurgitation), students need to be involved in the material; they need to share ideas and discuss material, they need to actively do something with the information that they are given.
While I do use PowerPoint, I use it creatively to maximize student involvement and engagement. For example, at the beginning of every microbiology class, a “cat-scientist” presents a question based on the material covered in the previous lecture. See Figure 1. Students then have a few minutes to write their answers on index cards, which I collect at the end of class. Before beginning a discussion of new material, we have a short discussion where we may relate the cat-scientist question to other material or raise additional questions. This not only helps students review the material, but also allows me to quickly identify, and rectify, gaps in knowledge. The cat-scientists also help to lighten the mood and create a relaxed and comfortable classroom environment.
Teaching difficult, sometimes dry, material can be challenging on a number of levels. But, if you love what you teach, if you’re passionate and enthusiastic about the material, and you create an open and nurturing learning environment, you can bet that your students will love it too!
Helen J. Hampikian is an assistant professor of biology at Clarion University. She has a great passion for all aspects of microbiology and loves to talk and teach about microbes. She has also has a strong interest in active-learning strategies and ways in which students can apply taught material. Her laboratory work focuses on how bacteria cause disease in humans and animals. In her spare time she is an avid runner, horse enthusiast, and cat lover. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.