- Biol 121–Principles of Biology 2
- Biol 211–Nonvascular Plants
- Biol 221–Vascular Plants
- Biol 324–Flowering Plant Systematics
- Biol 343–Plants and People
- Biol 426–Plant Ecology
- Biol 409–Field Methods in Terrestrial Ecology
- Biol 449–Field Botany: see Plant Collection Notes
- Biol 449–The Biology of Sex
- Biol 449–The Ecology and Evolution of Plant Mating Systems
Students participating in Biol 449 during Winter 2008, from left to right (Laura May, Natalie Jones, Annika Trimble, Sophie Vernier, and Anita Purcell)
Science by doing–a statement of teaching philosophy
Science, at its core, is an investigation of the physical world through observation, reflection, and hypothesis testing and requires the same creative synthesis that any art requires. Thus, a university education in biology should consist of much more than the accumulation of facts. My goal as a science educator is to facilitate students’ faith in themselves as active practitioners of science, as a process, rather than as passive recipients of scientific knowledge. The transformation from student to scientist happens most effectively through experiential education in a respectful environment that supports and rewards the inherent risks associated with synthesis and creativity rather than the omnipotence of scientists and scientific knowledge. I suggest that, if successful, educating students as scientists instills a life-long habit of living and working with curiosity.
Obviously, the most immediate way to teach students the art of science is through experience, and student-directed research forms the core of my field methods course. The field methods courses that I teach revolve not directly around various sampling techniques (although these become important as students’ projects require them) but around the process of developing rigorous and testable hypotheses. I begin by challenging students to make observations in the field that are undiluted by any preconceived notions. My primary tool for teaching this process is the field notebook. Depending upon the discipline, there are various rules for keeping field notes and many of them are valuable. But the rule I emphasize is clarity of observation. Are you seeing what is really there or what you think is there? “Record what YOU see, smell, taste, hear, feel—worry about what the experts have to say later. Do it again and again. Write it in words, scrawl it in images—but make sure you’re recording ONLY observations—that no interpretation has crept in unless you identify it as such. Then while it is fresh, analyze your observations. Is there a pattern—a rhythm or a discernible incongruity—to what you are seeing? Can you pose possible explanations? Now distill those explanations into multiple working hypotheses.” Is this exercise demanding? Yes. Do students succeed? Yes. Because we always reflect on our activities in my courses, even those who develop tangled explanations of their observations learn valuable lessons about how to do science. Most importantly, students learn that the essence of science resides not in “what” they know but in how to ask and answer good questions.
Synthesis, whether it occurs in the field or in the classroom, can be an intimidating task, partly because few students have been asked to do much of it before. Therefore, my role as an educator is to create a learning environment that best facilitates this process. First and foremost, I want to instill a spirit of collaboration, both between students and between students and myself. Not only does peer instruction highlight the importance of inter-personal dynamics in science and promote communication skills, it also creates an opportunity for the social interactions that are so critical in the development of students’ ultimate understanding. Moreover, if “authority is an enemy to professional science,” then I must be willing to acknowledge my own ignorance, as well as my quest for understanding. In my experience, collaboration with other educators, especially faculty from different disciplines, creates a synergistic effect that percolates throughout the entire course. Such collaboration, however, requires a firm foundation in respect of the faculty for one another, for each other’s disciplines, and for students.
As a science educator, I face a constant tension between teaching scientific content and teaching scientific process. For no matter how much I value student-directed inquiry, I must acknowledge that it can take a long time for students to construct scientific ideas and that a pure “discovery” approach may be inappropriate for all coursework. Even within the confines of a typical lecture, however, my goal should be to facilitate “true” understanding in students rather than just a transfer of information. Understanding occurs when students can assimilate information in one context and then use the principles presented to problem solve in completely different situations. For example, I can start with principles of relative velocity on the surface of Earth with its spherical shape to describe the Coriolis effect, but what weather patterns would develop on an hour-glass shaped planet (regardless of its inherent physical improbability)? Ensuring that the higher-order processes required in answering such a question are present in a lecture or an exam requires careful thought on my part. Yet the rewards are worth the effort. The passion that drives us as scholars is the excitement of the chase—those startling moments of clarity when the confusion becomes clear. I believe that I am negligent if I do not provide an opportunity for those moments in my students’ education.
In a similar fashion, I have learned, and will continue to learn, the art of “not telling all.” During a recent field course I had the relatively simple goal of teaching the students the understorey shrubs present in the coastal forests of British Columbia. I made the conscious decision to emphasize the tools of identification rather than the names. We talked about leaf characteristics and branching patterns using the three most common species as examples. I then asked the students to make sure they could identify those species and walked back to camp. In my absence, the students, few of whom were botany majors, quickly internalized the identifying characteristics of the three species and recognized multiple specimens that failed to fit any of the templates. The success of this approach became apparent when the students arrived back in camp laden with shrub twigs and questions. By curbing my own natural instinct to provide a complete list of species, I created an opportunity for the students to develop their own curiosity.
Learning to teach is a life-long process. I must consider not only how students learn the information I present, but I must also strive to continually question my own assumptions as a scientist. I look to my own scientific research to foster both the sense of humility and excitement that I believe is essential to effective education. As a plant ecologist, I know that I view the world with a filter based on my own personal experience and the work of others. However, if I am honest and objective in my research then I must acknowledge the times when the data refuse to fit my latest model or theory. I have learned that it is these moments of “dissonance” that force me to evaluate my mechanistic explanations and facilitate greater understanding. The relationship between research and teaching is a dynamic exchange—one fostering the other without allowing either to fall into complacency.
Finally I must admit that in both my teaching and research, I am an unabashed advocate of organismal-level biology. My own research is motivated by the diversity of organisms, which as Darwin said, excite our imagination. I believe that as a community of biologists, we have a responsibility not just our students and our institutions, but to the organisms that we study and we must contribute what we can to the preservation of the biological diversity that is our subject. I wish to teach students to be scientists, not just for the joy and excitement of discovery, but because the students of today will become the advocates of tomorrow. Advocates, well versed in both the process of scientific inquiry and in the excitement of organismal diversity, may well be our single greatest defense in preserving the diversity of British Columbia’s natural ecosystems.
 Benbasat, J. and C.L. Gass. 2002. Reflections on integration, interaction, and community: the Science One Program and Beyond. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 26. [online] WRL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art26