Maybe this will also help with this week’s “Ask a Sciencebloggers question.” Most institutions will likely ask for a teaching philosophy, especially when an academic is up for tenure promotion. Although mine was written in 2003, and my interests have expanded significantly, here it is below:
To Whom It May Concern:
My teaching philosophy is largely grounded in the belief that effective education is a major cornerstone in the development of individuals within a society. Whether this pertains specifically to junior/senior scientists about to embark on new research initiatives or generally to members of the public grappling with the effects of technology, I take my role as an educator with vigor, excitement and conviction.
In this context, I have been extremely fortunate to have compiled a diverse range of teaching experiences during my time as a sessional lecturer (for the Department of Microbiology and Immunology) and as an Instructor I (for the Michael Smith Laboratories). Furthermore, I am incredibly indebted to countless individuals (teachers and students alike) who have influenced and contributed to my teaching style.
Specifically, my teaching philosophy is shaped by both a personal ideology as well as my role as the Director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory (AMBL), an educational facility conceived by the late Nobel Laureate, Dr. Michael Smith. In this respect, this statement of my teaching philosophy will highlight my key educational goals and the personal traits, teaching skills, and attitudes that I feel are crucial to realizing these goals.
Within the context of my general role as an educator in the life sciences, who has access to a wide range of audiences (including high school students, university students, members of the business community, and the scientific community at large), my personal goal is to simply provide an excellent learning environment that would promote the understanding, the enthusiasm, the utility and the respect for the many scientific disciplines that fall in my educational palette.
Within the context of my specific role as the Director of the AMBL facility, there are two clear and important objectives that govern my activities.
(i) Research excellence is clearly determined in part by the skills and abilities of the research staff. This includes faculty, staff, post-doctorates, and most importantly the graduate and undergraduate students who choose to venture into this arena. I feel that I am in the position of being able to provide an excellent focal point for scientific training, complete with access to state of the art equipment.
(ii) As issues related to the biological sciences in general, and biotechnology in particular, are continually evident in the societal, political, economical, scientific, environmental and cultural aspects of public life, I feel that it is imperative to take an active and objective role in educating both the general public and the scientific community on these topics.
Traits, Skills, and Attitudes (in no particular order):
Ask any student, and you will find that a common criteria for a “good” vs “bad” teacher, is determined by the level of boredom felt. This, in turn, is usually a reflection of how much effort it took for the student to come away with knowledge relating to the lesson plan. Although, at times, this observation is related to the material itself, I am a great believer on not depending on the student’s personal level of interest. After all, you want the entire class to benefit, not just those who are naturally attracted to the topic. I feel that going that extra mile to be creative has been one of my fortes, and I have strongly embraced this in all of my classes past, present, large, or small. In particular, the bulk of my current university classes afford me the luxury of working with a small group of high caliber students, often for a full day. In other words, these particular classes have been an especially good opportunity to create and develop interesting, entertaining, unconventional, and interactive ways of teaching. Whether it is as simple as producing/finding an amusing graphic for a lecture; as complicated as assigning the production of a fake, surreal, but totally convincing journal article to learn about article structure; as fundamental as discussing interesting bioethics in the context of the subject; or as trivial as playing “The Price is Right” to help give students gain a notion of the cost of equipment and reagents, I know that these measures work. In fact, I find that they are very effective at strengthening the understanding of a subject, promoting enthusiasm, allowing a student to gain needed perspective as the topic relates to other disciplines, and simply providing that ‘lift’ that keeps the student engaged longer – quite frankly, it also makes the overall experience more enjoyable for both myself and the student.
Although courses or presentations are designed with a set syllabus to meet, I find that I try to be respectful of the prime motive behind the material. For instance, in several of my laboratory courses, the motive might be to help the graduate student succeed in their research goals within the required time frame. Using this as a framework, I find that my lesson plans become more meaningful to the graduate student. Here, I would focus less on things like repeated hands-on practice (on the assumption that the student will eventually become technically sound if he/she performs the procedure enough times), or things like the ability to script beautiful lab reports (on the assumption that a clear, up to date lab book holds more value in a laboratory). Rather, my lab courses would focus more on things like the biochemistry of the technique (to foster good troubleshooting skills and to empower a researcher to understand where corners can or cannot be cut or modified) or things like the importance of good networking skills (to more efficiently promote technical ability – i.e. the value behind asking an expert). Similarly, most of my dealings with the general public are driven by a clear goal of letting the audience realize the importance of being informed. It is simply not possible to discuss in any rational matter all the idiosyncrasies of subjects such as “genetically modified organisms,” or “biological intellectual property.” These types of topics (which occur frequently in my circles) simply have too many connotations – positive and negative – to be addressed within a short timeframe. Consequently, material that I present regarding these matters are inherently designed to make the audience question their opinion, such that they understand the need to find out more information to settle on their personal stance. Essentially, I think it’s important for any educator to step back from their material, understand and accept the bottom line, and settle on what to emphasize in their lessons.
Educators, regardless of title and affiliation, are essentially communicators. Therefore, I believe that a person in my position should be comfortable, if not exceptional in handling the dynamics of a teacher and student relationship. This is more than just being able to lecture in an interesting and engaging manner and also more than just making oneself as accessible as possible. This should also include steps to promote interaction within the classroom in an attempt to foster the more subtle yet just as important skills of networking or project management. Teachers should also be receptive to criticism and feedback, since it is ultimately these comments that challenge an instructor to become better. I am lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to receive feedback from a wide variety of different subjects (exciting and not-so-exciting), levels of expertise, class sizes, and class lengths such that I feel I have developed a very good sense of what works and what doesn’t.
I believe that the teacher’s personal perspective will play a huge role in how they address the subject and the student. As such, I feel that it is crucial for the instructor to gain the appropriate perspective such that they accept their role in a credible and responsible manner. This would include the need to stay abreast and involved in research if I am to be responsible for teaching a generation of new researchers. In this respect, I feel that I have met this criteria, by participating in research, attending scientific conferences, interacting constantly with researchers, and by attending training sessions. In terms of my role in the public arena, it is imperative that I do not approach the many controversial topics in biotechnology solely within the context of my skills as a scientist. Responsible representation of these issues should involve the understanding and acceptance of many different viewpoints. To this end, I have taken every opportunity to interact with audiences as diverse as those who are scientifically minded (UBC faculty), those who are not so scientifically minded (elementary and high school students), those who belong to certain value systems (through collaborations with the Vancouver School of Theology for instance), those who take environmental issues to heart (Greenpeace Canada), those under a corporate or commercial agenda (DFAIT, BC Biotech), and those belonging to underprivileged communities (participants in the Science 101 program, or the Western Africa Biotechnology Workshops). In every circumstance, the experience that I have gained from the interaction has further enhanced my ability to educate effectively.
To put it simply, being a good educator takes hard work. This diligence should be reflected in the build-up of a strong knowledge base such that one can speak comfortably on a wide range of topics. It should be reflected by a desire to stay current in the topics under an instructors charge. This diligence should be reflected regardless of times of fiscal constraint or abundance. It should be reflected by a desire to undertake new challenges that broaden one’s teaching experience. It should be reflected by efforts to collaborate with individuals or initiatives that can positively influence your abilities or goals. It should be reflected by efforts to interact with the audience. It should be reflected by a continued search for that perfect way of delivering an educational experience.
What can I say? I thoroughly enjoy my role as an educator. And I can think of no better place to do this than in a teaching facility created by Dr. Michael Smith, a man whose very life espoused the traits and attributes that influence my teaching philosophy.
November 5, 2003