Notes from the North: Review of Online Course “Scientists Teaching Science”

Scientific graduate programs all over the country do a wonderful job training their students to become critical thinkers able to design experiments, write fellowship grants, write peer reviewed papers, and grasp complex scientific systems. Nearly all programs, however, struggle to provide career training. Traditionally, skills such as mentoring, teaching, and leadership have been learned by observing others. This has generated many excellent scientists, mentors, teachers, and leaders, but how many more could we have developed had students received directed training? And how much better would our current scientific leaders be had they not had to reinvent the wheel for themselves?

One of the dangers of requiring students to learn through osmosis is that we tend to recapitulate what we see, even if it is not the most effective method. Partly this is because many of us do find this an effective way of gaining skills and knowledge, but there is also a mentality of initiation: we had to struggle, the next generation should experience this too. There are many answers to this paucity of career development training, however, in the form of business clubs, student and postdoc association lead career workshops, and online extracurricular courses.

Some of us at Sackler interested in a teaching career have taken advantage of a short course entitled “Scientists Teaching Science” which teaches best practices in science education, based on the latest research on teaching and STEM ed sol logolearning by STEM Education Solutions (http://stem-k20.com/). This is a completely online course that runs about nine weeks with a different module every week. Depending on the week, the time commitment is about 3 hours per week for light weeks and as much as 8 hours per week on heavy weeks (depending on how assiduous a note taker you are when doing readings and how detailed you are in written assignments).

I found the intro to the course very illustrative and memorable. We were asked to read several articles on how science has traditionally been taught and how active learning has repeatedly been shown to improve learning outcomes, then Barbara Houtz started her own narrated lecture in the traditional “Sage on the Stage” style. My heart immediately sank as I envisioned the next nine weeks writing dense, jargon filled notes on topics that seemed esoteric and non-practical. This was not what I thought I was signing up for! Then she paused and asked the question, “what are you thinking?”

That’s when the real lecture began. The narrated lectures were fantastic! Available 24/7 and provided as both narration and transcript. Methods that make participants stop to think about what they are being told were used liberally to retain participant attention. This meant that we were being shown how to effectively employ all the skills we were being taught as they were being taught to us. The modules covered learning/teaching styles, generating effective assessments, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, writing your teaching philosophy (a part of faculty application materials that I only learned about last year despite years of aspiration to teach), cultural awareness, active learning and inquiry based teaching, writing course objectives, teaching online, course development, and syllabus compilation. Each module was comprised of a narrated lecture, readings, and a written assignment or discussion board post requirement. Additional resources were also provided on the Virtual Learning Environment and Barbara Houtz frequently sent out class announcements about recent articles on STEM education and careers for PhDs.STEM

I embarked on this online only course with a great deal of trepidation. Would I have the self-discipline to keep up with the material? Would I feel comfortable reaching out to the instructor with questions and comments? The answer is that with the help of an instructor devoted to keeping her participants involved and getting the most out of her course I was able to gain practical teaching skills in a remarkably short time.

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