By Alonzo J. Whyte
The Science of Teaching Science
There is a science to teaching science. As postdoctoral research fellows, it can be a real struggle to find time to teach undergraduates all while keeping up with modern science teaching techniques (also known as science pedagogy). We are expected to be engrossed in research which leaves very little thought about learning the latest teaching methods. Postdocs, who eventually become Assistant Professors, often enter this new role untrained in effective pedagogical methods. Perhaps a consequence of lack of training in science pedagogy is that the US remains out of the top 20 among developed nations in the number of undergraduates earning STEM degrees (National Academy of Sciences, 2010). Further, a recent study showed that only 50% of undergraduate students who began as biology majors actually completed their degree in biology (US Department of Education, 2013).
To improve STEM retention among undergraduates many major federal and private organizations that fund biological research have developed programs to support faculty training specifically for undergraduate education. These programs are focused on enhancing the teaching skills of STEM faculty by conducting high-quality pedological research and recruiting a diverse faculty to enhance the overall STEM faculty pipeline. At Emory the NIH-IRACDA sponsored postdoctoral Fellowship in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) is among the nation’s leading programs which provide support in scientific research and training in advanced teaching methods aimed at increasing undergraduate retention in STEM.
The Science Teaching Conference
Since my undergraduate training, I have attended ~20 scientific conferences/workshops, averaging 2 per year. As best as I can recall, not one of those conferences focused on teaching science. When the FIRST fellows at Emory were tasked with organizing this year’s annual IRACDA conference, I quickly jumped on board, eager to get a behind the scenes pass to a conference dedicated to science pedagogy. Conference planning began about 10 months before the conference date. We divided up into committees and initiated the process of arranging the entirety of the conference including venues, dining, and website. I joined the registration and sessions committee. As a member of the sessions committee, I was able to directly influence the content that the attendees learned about and from whom.
On the first day of the conference, attendees had to choose between learning about what it is like as a faculty member at a research intensive (R1) institution OR about being faculty at a primarily undergraduate institution, thus reflecting the very real A or B career decisions we will face all too soon. Within each track the speakers addressed issues appropriate to each institution such as grant writing at a primarily undergraduate institution, or how to give a chalk talk at an R1. The second day of the conference was devoted to skills on teaching science, classroom management sessions, and other teaching-related sessions. Participants had to choose between learning how to write a teaching philosophy and incorporating active learning in the classroom, or between publishing pedagogy research papers and addressing mental health in academic trainees. All-important topics for future leaders in classroom and the lab.
In addition to conference sessions planning, each day I moderated the morning session. This meant thinking and preparing stimulating questions to either get the discussion sections started or to keep the discussion going. I had to think critically on topics with the perspective of what do “I” want to know and what do I think “they” want to know. Often, I found that in preparing these questions before hand I become more knowledgeable on the topic than if I had simply asked the question as a regular member of the audience.
The Joy and the Pain
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the slight pain of being unable to fully engage as the hosts for the conference. We were the go-to people for our guests, and constantly maintained a watchful eye to ensure that our hard work would be appreciated by others, which undoubtedly turned out to be a source of immense joy. Both during the conference and after in the post-conference survey, the attendees resoundingly expressed their enjoyment of the speakers, sessions, and social activities. While organizing and hosting a conference is not something I would recommend as a regular activity, I would certainly advocate getting involved with a scientific conference important to you, whether it is science-related or otherwise. Stepping onto the other side of the registration table and designing the conference program rather than passively selecting from it has forever changed how I view conferences. When I attend my next conference, I will effortlessly smile extra wide at the organizers and offer them my sincerest thank you for their hard work ensuring that I was enriched through their event.
Alonzo J. Whyte (LinkedIn profile) is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University and an Emory FIRST fellow.