My aspiration as a professor is to promote rigorous thinking and a life-long passion for learning in my students. At its most basic level materializing this aspiration requires educating students about the process of knowing, rather than imparting them knowledge passively: How do we know that we know? What differentiates facts and beliefs? What are the heuristics through which a belief becomes a fact, a theory, and a law of nature?
By teaching students to learn by analysis, rather than by memorizing details, we can teach them how to learn, a type of knowledge that is long-lasting. In class I do this by treating students as scholars on a path of discovery, asking questions to help them uncover knowledge from data, ideas, and facts, rather than textbook dogma. In particular, exposing students to the historical context at the time of discovery is crucial to help them realize that facts are first born in the form of sparks of wonder, picking and prodding, and often mistakes, not grand theories. Teaching students “science,” rather than scientific knowledge, educates and prepares them for the future. In fact, critical thinking, inquiry, and open-mindedness are transferable and valuable skills in all careers, as the world today requires us to be synthesizers and not just experts.
I believe that for this to be successful, professors must be willing to take up the learning journey alongside students to inspire and support them along the way. This is something I do in my classroom by showing students my love for science, by being passionate and personal about my teaching, including my experiences as a young scientist and how my own thoughts, research, and ideas fit into the process of scientific discovery (or failure). By behaving as an authentic person, rather than “the scientist,” I can create a safe and compassionate environment where students feel free to share thoughts, ideas, laughs and even their own scientific breakthroughs and heartbreaks. In other words,
the students and I create a teaching alliance made of common values, where we are the scholars recreating the journey of discovery,
rather than accepting the words of allegorical scientific figures. Clearly, this “human” way of approaching science has to be paralleled by high scientific rigor and expectations to help students become scholars. To achieve this, I teach cutting-edge topics that are not yet in textbooks, and set a high, but fair bar for their learning. I also strive to clarify, rather than simplify. By creating a highly structured course, I organize the scientific journey into small milestones that feel like weekly achievements that build on themselves. This, together with compassion, helps soothe students’ anxiety about their ability to grasp complicated concepts and receive a fair grade in the class.
Finally, in the effort to inspire them to be life-long lovers of learning and out-of-the-box thinkers, I challenge myself to think about creative pedagogies in specific class settings. For example, the final project for MCDB 458 is a podcast series about Neuroepigenetics for the public. I believe that by matching intellectual rigor with creativity and passion in the classroom, and by being open to feedback, I am taking step forwards in achieving my aspiration of promoting critical thinking and a love for learning in my students.
MCDB 421/458 Neuroepigenetics: Environment, Brains & Behavior
This class explores the emerging field of Neuroepigenetics, which studies how the environment and life experiences shape brain function and behavior. The class is entirely based on active learning: the students are assigned a primary literature article and tested on these fundamentals with a quiz before class. For the first 20’ of class, students work in groups to answer challenging questions about the article (and are graded on this); the class then comes together to discuss the figures in detail, panel by panel. I steer the discussion and fill in any gaps in background knowledge or techniques.
The final project for this class revolves around science communication, something I am really passionate about. I wanted to design an assessment that reflected the active learning style of the class, and allowed students to practice their new role as “scholars” and communicators, while also extending the new analysis skills learnt. The opportunities for science outreach are sparse in the undergraduate classroom, and thus, this seemed a great opportunity to train and encourage students, who are mostly seniors, to take up these roles in society. The final project is a podcast series on Neuroepigenetics. Students work in pairs to select 4-5 articles a topic not covered in class and write a ~1500 words essay on it. They use the essay to then create a transcript and record a ~15’ podcast. I prepare students for the final project by giving assigning them lay articles and podcasts covering the science we discuss in class (The Atlantic, Science Times, RadioLab, etc.) and asking RELATE to give a lecture on science communication. The essays and the podcasts turned out great, check the out at https://neuroepic.mcdb.lsa.umich.edu/wp/.
“I really enjoyed having the content of the course be the latest and greatest findings from the field of neuro-epigenetics, it made it really special to become almost specialized on a new emerging topic. I also loved creating the podcast, it was inspiring to be working towards something that would not just be submitted for a grade but would be available for my family, friends and public to listen to and learn.”
BIO 305 Introduction to Genetics
Genetics is one of the core course for several Biology majors, including Neuroscience and CMB; in addition, it is a strongly recommended, and often required, course for medical school applications. As such, BIO 305 is a large-enrollment course taught every term at the University of Michigan. The goals of this course are to: 1) Learn principles of genetic analysis from classical Mendelian to molecular genetics and genomics; 2) Analyze and apply these principles in new settings to develop critical thinking and synthesis skills.
I start the semester by first teaching students the fundamentals of molecular genetics- from DNA, to RNA to protein, (5 lectures)- and then covering how each of these steps is regulated to ensure proper cell function (5 lectures). We finish the class (3 lectures) with the study of non-Mendelian inheritance, or epigenetics, and the introduction of modern findings and techniques (CRISPR, Genomics, IPSCs). Compared to Intro Bio the fundamentals are taught with more depth and sophistication in BIO 305, and students are tested at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, particularly at the Application and Analysis levels.
“I learned a lot about gene regulation in the last quarter of the class, and I liked how Dr. Dus often related what we were learning to its practical applications (medicine, cancer, etc.)”