Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*

Improving scientific literacy and communication skills

In all of my curricula development, I put particular emphasis on designing assignments which build technical and communication skills. The technical skills are developed through walkthroughs for learning to use online databases such as NCBI’s Nucleotide (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nucleotide/) and MG-RAST (https://www.mg-rast.org/), learning to read scientific articles, and learning to analyze data as needed.  AVS 454/554 is primarily skills-based, and specific skills are listed in the Developing curricula section.

The communication skills are primarily practiced through written assignments. Scientific writing is particularly important in microbial ecology and host-microbe interactions, fields in which strict memorization might not prove useful, as the body of knowledge changes rapidly. Rather, the material lends itself to critical thinking and debating theory, to presenting a scientific argument, to problem solving, or to composing technical/scientific writing, which is different than much of the written assignments students have accomplished in other coursework. In allowing students the word count to work through their thoughts, instead of providing short answers, they are able to find the words to express their opinion on, for example, the Hygiene Hypothesis when only weeks before they didn’t know that some microbes can turn the immune system on or off. 

Written assignments allow me to provide students with more substantial feedback, including suggestions on grammatical corrections, sentence structure or placement, or leaps-of-logic where they left readers behind, and of course, on the strength of the scientific argument. This is particularly helpful when learning to write technical science.  These written assignments are narrowed to a specific topic but are otherwise open-scope, and while I provide a recommended reading list, multiple options are available for most of the lectures, which allows students to select the journal articles and scientific information used as the reference material for their assignments. In giving students the agency to choose a topic to write about from the curricula tasting menu I’ve provided in my lectures, I receive back more diverse topics than just what I provided, which keeps things interesting for me. Students are more engaged when they can connect to material of their own choosing and select something relevant to their life. And, in giving them assignments which practice their writing voice, I witness their progression towards mature scientific writing.  

For most of the students I have taught, my class is their first formal introduction to the subject, whether it be research, host-microbe interactions, or DNA data analysis. To give students more time to practice the material, and to improve retention, I give topic-related readings, have a guided discussion at the end of lectures, and ‘stack’ assignments. For example, in AVS 254, Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, students write a non-technical summary of a scientific article: 1-2 paragraph summary in which they have to introduce the paper and its purpose, the methods used, and a major result or two. Trying to explain a complex experiment in simple terms is more challenging than it seems, because students need to understand the material in order to recreate it into their own words. By restricting the length in these assignments, it forces students to be more direct in their explanation. When it comes time to write an essay for a take-home exam, I allow the students to build off those summaries, if they choose, having received my feedback.

I also promote more creative information presentation in assignments, including “concept maps”. The assignment is to create a visual outline (diagram) around the specified topic. Starting with a main idea or topic in the center, branches are created out to secondary ideas, and so on, like a spider web, to create a concept map/diagram of important related topics and information. The goal of this is to create a study guide based on what students felt are the important concepts, centered around the material we have covered in that section of the course material.  Creating a visual map in this way helps students create order out of the information, by setting up a hierarchy of importance to better understand the relationships between ideas. An example is provided below, with permission from the student.

Concept Map on ‘Microbes and Technology’, by Kiera O., student in AVS254 Fall 2020.  Used with permission.

Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility

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