Learning to think like a scientist is an empowering skill that everyone should master. In the courses I teach, the scientific process is the most important concept. I love bringing undergraduate research experiences into the classroom. Furthermore, I took a class on service-learning course design in graduate school, and I’m eager to implement a service-learning course geared toward enhancing scientific literacy in the community and/or promoting environmental education. Read on for details on courses I have taught in the past, and for my experience in and philosophy on mentoring undergraduate researchers.
Evolutionary Biology (BIOL241, Emory University)
This course is offered every semester at Emory, and I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to teach it in the Spring of 2019. As in other semesters with other instructors, the course was broken into two components: lecture (including lots of time for group problem-solving!) and primary literature discussion.
One innovation I brought to Evolutionary Biology was having students complete outdoor assignments. I required four outdoor excursions on campus throughout the semester, in which students completed photographic scavenger hunts. Then they used their photos to connect their observations with course concepts. For example, students had to photograph and catalog biodiversity, use organisms from their photos to build phylogenies, and document adaptations and sexually selected traits. Check out this cool fungus we found on a group hike!
Biology Methods and Research (BIO114, Spelman College)
In the Fall 2017 semester, I designed and taught a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) at Spelman College. In Biology Methods and Research, students mastered the scientific process and completed a hands-on research project using the Escovopsis/fungal cultivar system that I currently study at Emory University. The following list includes the major components of BIO114:
- An in-class investigation of host specificity in Escovopsis, in which students were required to
- Master the scientific process
- Keep a laboratory notebook
- Deliver an oral presentation on their research
- Write a lab report, in the style of a peer-reviewed journal article
- Create a poster for presentation at Spelman’s annual Research Day
- Practice with experimental design, by
- Reading infographics from the CDC on current public health threats
- Identifying related research questions
- Designing a hypothetical experiment that could be used to address the research question
- Reading of primary literature
- An oral presentation of an evidence-based stance on a current hot topic in biology
Co-instructor: Dr. Jennifer Kovacs
Genetics (GENE 3200, the University of Georgia Costa Rica Campus)
In the Fall 2016 semester, I served as the instructor of an introductory genetics course for the University of Georgia. As if that wasn’t enough of an honor, I got to teach it at the Costa Rica campus! My six students and I covered fundamental concepts in genetics, which required us to spend time in a classroom since GENE 3200 is a prerequisite for further coursework in the subject. Our course involved lots of problem-solving, as well as presentations and occasional games (like guava ball!). Of course, we spent plenty of “out of class” time together in nature!
Mentoring: my experience and personal philosophy
I’ve mentored high school students, undergraduates, and a high school teacher (co-mentored with Lionel Faure) in various research lab settings. For some mentees, I’ve been there since the beginning of their research experience; for others, I’ve come along later in their careers. Every lab is different, and in my experiences as a mentee and as a mentor, I’ve realized that an undergraduate researcher’s rights and responsibilities are not always clear. Therefore, I believe that communication between mentors and mentees is the most important aspect of an undergraduate research experience. At the beginning of a mentor/mentee relationship, the following should be thoroughly discussed:
- Why do you want to conduct research?
- What does it mean to conduct research? In other words, in practice, how do we follow the scientific process from initial curiosity through to scientific discovery? The mentee should be given an opportunity to answer the following:
- What is the scientific question you are addressing?
- What are your hypotheses, and why?
- How will you test your hypotheses? What controls will you use? Why is your experimental design the right one for addressing your research question?
- What results do you expect? What are the next steps if you get unexpected results?
- How will you know when your research study is complete? What will you do with the information you have gathered?
- What are the expectations of a mentor and an undergraduate mentee?
A mutually-agreed-upon contract between mentors and mentees is am important part of a successful undergraduate research experience. Regular meetings between mentors and mentees are essential, but supervision by mentors must be balanced with intellectual independence on the part of the mentee. After all, learning to use evidence to think for yourself is what science is all about!