Making it Personal
by Amy Cheng Vollmer
Here we are looking at the beginning of another academic year! Like many faculty members, my teaching load includes courses in my area of expertise (microbiology) and also some outside of my true comfort zone (introductory biology). Over the years, my attitude toward teaching introductory biology has shifted from dread to resignation to acceptance and finally, nowadays, to excitement.
At Swarthmore, we offer only one tier of introductory biology—not one geared for majors and another for people satisfying their science ‘general education’ requirement. In fact, students here are required to take two courses in the Division of Natural Sciences and Engineering, one of which must have a lab (or ‘practicum’ to distinguish it from language labs, for example.) Hence our Biology 001 (Cellular and Molecular Biology) and 002 (Organismal and Population Biology) courses are popular choices. The enrollment is between 90 and 120 each term. Seated in the lecture hall is an audience with great diversity: ethnic, high school experience, interest, motivation, aptitude, and attitude. Many times we end up with ‘converts’ to Biology, while also discouraging a few students who simply want to memorize.
Four faculty members lecture in the course (and each of us also leads one 3-hour lab section per week for the entire term). We have been kicking off the first day of class with a Biology in the News ensemble lecture. I have been grateful to be a microbiologist because many of the lessons we teach are only one layer away from real life experiences of our students. This is my 26th year of teaching at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution), and one thing I have learned is that the most memorable lessons are ones with which the students establish a personal connection.
With that backdrop, then, I seek opportunities to use microbiology as a vehicle to promote science literacy. My primary audience is adults who would like to believe that they are well educated. In my view, they must demonstrate a reasonable level of science literacy before I consider them ‘well’ educated! My venues have included Biology 001, where easily half of the students will never take another science lab course. I have also spoken at alumni and parent/family weekend events on campus, civic groups like Rotary clubs, and to various PTA/high school groups. (Click here to listen in to several talks.) Additionally, I have hosted four faculty members from outside the laboratory sciences in my research lab for a few weeks in the summer, and now I have extended the invitation to Swarthmore Admission and Dean of Students staff as well. Each year I have my fingers crossed for a few takers!
Giving others a chance to experience the wonders of microbiology enables us to share meaningful conversations about bacteria, viruses, antibiotics, vaccines, and the nature of research. I have found these interactions stimulating and exceedingly educational for me! I have learned how science and scientists are perceived from the outside, how we have formed misconceptions about the public's understanding of science, and how to be a better teacher and communicator. One change I made (thanks to an economist and a previously lab-phobic mathematician in the first cohort of faculty in my lab) was to take an antibiotic lab exercise out of Microbiology and put it into the Biology 001 lab curriculum. It is a good fit there. The targets of many antibiotics are the cell's replication, transcription, and translation machinery—topics addressed in Biology001. Learning how to use, not abuse, antibiotics added relevance for many students. (For the economist's view, click here.)
I realize that hosting other faculty in one’s research lab is not something everyone can pull off, but helping to build a scientifically literate electorate is definitely something we all can do. Microbiology gives us ‘teachable moments’ every day. There are opportunities in many areas: environment (oil spill), medicine (whooping cough vaccine), energy (biofuels), food safety (tainted eggs), astrobiology (new solar systems with earth-sized planets), to name some of my current favorites. As Frank McCourt wrote: If you’re not learning while you are teaching, you’re not teaching. So, happy learning!
Amy is Professor of Biology, Swarthmore College, and President of the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology. Using microbiology as a vehicle, Amy "communicates the process of research and discovery—the content and application of science—to many audiences beyond her Swarthmore classroom."