Teaching Statement development series: science and society

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.*

Tying science course content to other aspects of society

I have two goals in my attempt to connect my science curricula to other aspects of society: to provide a broader educational perspective on science, and to stimulate imagination regarding the application of scientific knowledge to community building and civic engagement. Students need to understand that science is ongoing, and that there are yet many questions in the field for them to answer.

One technique to connect science and society in my coursework is to encourage students to self-identify as scientists, and to understand that they are able to participate in it. For example, on the first day of AVS 401 (Capstone), the students made a word-cloud of adjectives to describe their idea of a scientist, shown below.  At the end of the academic year, after participating in research and learning about the process, students will make another collaborative world-cloud.  As a class, students will reflect on whether their understanding of science and scientists has changed, and whether they are more (or less) likely to perceive science as a field that they are able to engage with.  Hopefully, this participation in research and reflective exercise will accentuate their use of effort-based descriptors, such as “patient” or “methodical”, rather than ability-based descriptors, such as “gifted”, when thinking about scientists, and thereby when thinking about themselves.  It is important for students to learn that science is a process to participate in, not a gift that you are born with.  In fact, a large-scale research study found that student achievement gaps were more dramatically narrowed when the instructor held the personal view that ability could be taught, rather than ability was fixed, i.e. you are born with it  (Canning et al. 2019, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau4734).

Word-cloud of adjectives to describe a scientist, AVS 401, Sept 1, 2020.

Another technique is to highlight the importance of the principles of research (i.e. finding and testing information for accuracy) and how those principles can be integrated into daily life or future careers, regardless of what those are. This includes teaching the AVS 401 students about why we need research, for example, in order to be more objective and remove our personal biases.  I explain how search engines work, and how the design of algorithms can contribute to the popularity of search results outweighing the quality and correctness of the information.  I talk about the importance of unbiased data in training sets, highlighting examples of artificial intelligence programs which were trained on social media interactions espousing violent rhetoric because human users thought it was fun to tell the AI that all humans held such views. 

In addition to providing information about the process of research and how to design an experiment, I give AVS 401 students information on the administrative aspects of research, including personnel and project management.  For example, I teach students about how researchers find funding and the goals of writing research proposals, and highlight the importance of including descriptions of project management in research proposals to prove you have the capacity to perform the experiment  I also give examples of demonstrated implicit bias in proposal reviewing that creates inequality in funding availability to different demographics of scientists, and how this artificially makes them look less competent when it comes time for internal review.  While this may seem immaterial to the class, reminding students that science cannot be divorced from the views of society, and that in order to overcome our bias as scientists we need to overcome our bias as people, too.

Thus, I provide background information of science and society to my classes, where pertinent.  For AVS 254, Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, the first section of the course (8 lectures) are devoted to the development of microbial ecology theory and technology over time, from the discovery of “wee animalcules” to the use of metagenomics. During these lectures, I provide annotations on historic scientists who have been lauded for their work, but who used that science for discrimination.  For example, James Watson, one of the researchers credited with determining the structure of DNA and the process of replication, was famously racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic, to the point where some of his awards were later revoked by institutions.  In one of his biographies, he devoted an entire paragraph to denigrating the appearance of Rosalind Franklin, whose originally-uncredited work was integral to Watson’s own success (https://www.vox.com/2019/1/15/18182530/james-watson-racist).  By telling this story in lecture, and following up with a discussion on “Elitism and Credit for Intellectual Contribution”, I place what is clearly a monumental scientific discovery in the context of society and human interactions.  It is critically important for students to understand that the journal articles they read about animal microbes in the rest of the class is the result of hundreds of years of effort and thousands of contributors, because it starts a discussion about power dynamics in science and in workplaces, in general.  It is important for them to understand how implicit bias, stereotypes, elitism, or even poor interpersonal relationships can affect science, as well as for them to learn that they have rights to their intellectual property and that they can actively make their future workplaces more equitable such that we do not continue to make the mistakes of the past.

Another technique is getting students to appreciate the hundreds of years-and-counting worth of history which led us to our current understanding of the microbes that interact with us. Without that history, and a discussion of how that technological journey shaped our current scientific understanding, I cannot do justice to the majority of the coursework. By and large, DNA sequencing is the technology behind much of the subject material in my AVS 254, Intro to Animal Microbiomes class. Sequencing is often portrayed as a panacea for all scientific questions, yet I teach students that as this technology improved we realized our experimental procedures were biased.  Being able to see this change over time requires perspective and time spent in a field, something that most undergraduates do not yet possess for microbial ecology.  And without the historical perspective, how can we understand that the most prevalent DNA sequencing technology today owes its success, in partm to the acquisition of a patent the company bought in a ‘fire sale’ because no one wanted to buy the patent outright from an African American with no higher education degree. In science courses, we only have so much time to disseminate information, and for that reason we often skip to the results, the end point, the cutting edge. Yet in telling only one story, or only the ending of the story, we rob students of the opportunity to see that science is a living process over time.  To see that scientists may be fallible, or that technology has both limited and informed our understanding of the natural world, or to understand why “some scientists” may disagree about the effects or scope of climate change.  Students need to understand that science is ongoing, and that just because knowledge is not fixed does not mean that is unreliable.

Towards the second goal, I use assignments and in-class discussions to stimulate imagination towards applying scientific knowledge to life outside of the classroom for the purpose of community building and active citizenship. In fact, the AVS 254 discussion on “Elitism and Credit for Intellectual Contribution” is a great example. Students engage with this topic because it is a situation that they can identify with. An in-class discussion on “Are your microbes really yours?” similarly stimulates student engagement. I think this topic succeeds because it is a novel concept and it sparks curiosity, and because it is a neutral topic in that there is no wrong stance, and asking questions about the topic is not associated with a moral judgement.

However, not all topic discussions are successful with all student groups.  For example, “Do we have a right to tell people how to conduct agricultural practices?”, after a lecture about agricultural practices which affect gut microbes and may trigger disease in livestock  This topic is one that I had devised at the University of Oregon for non-science-majors, who were interested in human connection to animal-microbe interactions.  Asking them questions which deliberately set up a pro/con side appealed to them because they were used to being asked to debate stances they did not espouse and they found it an interesting thought experiment.  However, at UMaine, teaching to animal- and life science students, the same question failed to engage them because the topics were not hypothetical as they had direct experience in it and they had already formed conclusions about the topic.  UMaine students also felt that the phrasing of this question was insensitive, which had been my point – I wanted them to practice arguing a stance for agricultural sustainability in the face of opposition.  Because UMaine students had already come to the same conclusion about this topic – that agricultural sustainability was important and could be used to improve economic security of food systems, they felt there was no question for them to answer.  

As my first semester teaching AVS 254 has been fall 2020, in a remote format during a pandemic, the conversational interaction that I typically have with my students is lacking, which is usually the basis for how I develop the topic and phrasing of discussions. Instead, to improve my curricula and my strategy for using discussions to improve student critical thinking skills over the course of the semester, I workshopped my approach to discussions in an ad hoc Pedagogy in STEM working group on campus.  The working group meets semi-weekly to discuss curriculum development, and in particular, weaving social issues into science courses. I led a one-hour meeting on re-thinking tense classroom conversations, as well as making student contributions equitable and productive during discussions. My re-devised strategy (a direct result of that working-group meeting) for discussion topics which do not elicit student engagement is to ignore the topic discussion and jump to resolution planning in the short and long-term using starting scenarios which include cost/benefit analyses, if applicable.  Instead of “Do we have a right to tell people how to conduct agricultural practices?”, the set-up will be “How do we plan for more sustainable ruminant agriculture?”  Students will be given a scenario of a farmer in Florida that wants to switch their cattle herd to a heat tolerate breed.  A brief economic analysis will be provided, such as cost to buy new cattle, as well as management concerns such as availability of markets to sell off current stock or sourcing new animals from less-common breeds.  Students will then have to decide how they will “get there from here”: what will they do today? Tomorrow? In one year? In ten years?  Changing industries and human societies is a slow path, and many people get discouraged by their lack of progress and move away from active citizenship.  Having students plan out short and long-term goals for change will ideally help them to learn to apply knowledge to planning actions today, and in the future.

Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: research mentorship.

Teaching Statement development series: research and education.

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility.

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