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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

TeachWeek 2017: Day 1

Olivia Wilkins

Today marks the beginning of TeachWeek at Caltech, a "celebration of teaching and learning" open to all of Caltech. During the week, members of the Caltech community are invited to listen to guest speakers and panelists and sit in on open classes to engage in different ways to approach teaching in the context of a theme, which is Empowering Learning this time around.

TeachWeek 2017 opened with a reception and a panel discussion with Caltech faculty and alumni: Empowering Learning through Teaching at Caltech and Beyond. After filling up on some fresh fruit and (too many) cookies, I tuned into the panel made up of Dr. Pamela Björkman (Caltech Biology), Dr. Richard Flagan (Caltech Chemical Engineering), Dr. Antonio Rangel (Caltech Neuroscience, Behavioral Biology and Economics), and Dr. Gregg Wright (University of Nebraska; Caltech B.S. '69). Below is an overview of what each panelist discussed.

Pamela Björkman

The Dalai Lama is extremely interested in Tibetan monks learning western science, especially physics, cosmology, neuroscience, and biology. Morever, he looks to embrace science, insisting that when Buddhism clashes with science, Buddhism should change rather than science be rejected. Dr. Björkman described her experiences teaching a group of monks in exile at a monastery in India introductory biology.

Her experiences are fascinating because her students were enthusiastic, much more so than Bi 1 (introductory bio) students at Caltech. Yet the monks she taught had little to no background in science and mathematics at all, leaving her to teach topics such as DNA replication to students who may have never seen a chemical reaction before. Similarly, plants have been historically considered to not be alive in Buddhist texts, which allows Buddhists to eat plants without conflict with the belief of reincarnation. In biology, however, plants are very much alive. On top of all this, Dr. Björkman had to teach through a translator.

How do you teach things like base pairs in DNA to students who have no chemistry or biology background? Through interactive learning and demonstrations where the students take on the roles of the parts of the human body about which they are trying to learn. By forming lines to represent strands of RNA, students acted out events such as transcription and translation, successfully forming "DNA" as well as mutations when their interactions with each other weren't quite right. It was amazing to hear how Dr. Björkman was able to teach through a language barrier as well as through an education barrier.

Richard Flagan

Dr. Flagan described a disconnect with what chemical engineering students were expected to know and what they actually knew in the way of software, specifically MatLab, at the second-year level. He discussed the evolution of a tutorial course that brought students up to the level expected by Caltech professors. Initially, students were taught in a large lecture hall with stadium-seating where they were shown examples of code and told what strings of code could do. Without learning by doing, however, students were unable to produce promising results in their problem sets. Slowly, this style evolved into what it is now (which Dr. Flagan insists is an experiment): students now work in small groups on problems in class with the professor and teaching assistants available to answer questions while circling the room to check on students. Instead of a lecture hall, students are in a cozier environment, working together at tables rather than across rows of seats on different levels.

Throughout the progression of the course, Dr. Flagan has noted remarkable changes. Students learn much more quickly by actively solving problems with their peers. Before, had students been asked to complete problem sets on their own, many would not know where to start. However, by interacting with their peers after "all barriers to collaboration" have been removed, students are not only learning faster but they are better able to tackle problem sets on their own. Dr. Flagan's experiment is a testament to the value of active learning.

Antonio Rangel

With a background in economics, Dr. Rangel has been working on neuroeconomics, one of his projects being personalized learning and "Learning Engineering." His interests range from MOOCs to flipped classrooms, encouraging interactions among students and even tailoring classes such that lecture time takes place outside of course meeting times. This allows students to learn at their own pace and eliminates the majority of class conflict. Overall, he sees "teaching as an individualized process." Included in his vision is speeding up degrees by offering many courses 100% online. Noting that there is value in meeting in class and that there are skeptics to online learning absent real-time, in-person interactions, Dr. Rangel asks (referencing degrees that can run in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars after four years), education is wonderful, "but is it a quarter-of-a-million dollars wonderful?" Like a true economist, he pulls some cost-benefit analysis into his teaching philosophy.

Gregg Wright

A Caltech alum, Dr. Wright discussed recognizing teachers rather than methods they may employ. Specifically, he initiated the Christa McAuliffe Prize for Courage and Excellence in Education to honor courageous teachers in Nebraska. Named for America's "teacher-in-space" who died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the prize aims to encourage teachers to do what is right for their students, despite any risk of being scrutinized by school administrators or the public. By doing this, Dr. Wright hopes to spread courage and inspire others, including other teachers, to pursue what is right by example.

In his presentation, Dr. Wright identified several recipients of the prize, including teachers who stood up for what was right even though others didn't and teachers who persistently did what was right even when it was difficult. The first group included Mike Tolfa, a science teacher in a small town who protested plans for a nuclear waste facility nearby; Doris Martin, a journalism teacher who protested her principal's censorship of the school paper and hence lobbied for a bill to protect students first amendment rights (the bill failed to pass but still gained attention); and Brian Corkle a science teacher and wrestling coach who walked with a student 151 miles to Lincoln to show support for a child of Mexican migrant workers in an area calling the housing of illegal immigrants an act of treason. The second group included KrisAnn Sullivan, an art teacher in Nebraska's state juvenile detention facility; Calvin Rife, the first male andthe first black kindergarten teacher in Lincoln; and Jill Ramsey, a lifelong advocate for hearing-impaired children.

My biggest takeaway

While listening to the speakers, I was wondering about their experiences regarding introverts versus extroverts, especially the speakers who discussed active learning through collaborations in the classroom. Someone else asked the question before I could (alas, the woes of an introvert... spending more time thinking about how to ask a question than actually following through with it). Dr. Rangel noted that while teachers tend to mix up groups with the intent of encouraging students to work with new people (or to guide students toward groups that they think will be most fruitful to individual members), students generally hate this practice. Ultimately, he decided to let students form their own groups. When he implemented this, he noticed students seemed more enthusiastic about material in a flipped classroom setting and that attendance increased overall by about 20%. Whether this had a positive impact on the understanding of the material could not be seen, but it definitely seemed to have a positive impact on student engagement. This makes sense seeing as students will gravitate toward group settings in which they feel most comfortable.

I recall a randomized lab partner set-up during undergrad in which I was paired with someone who refused to consider my input, even sometimes ignoring my insistance that their answers were wrong. They also moved terribly quickly through the problem sets, hogging it such that by the time I was able to read through the problem, they were about to flip to the next page. Partway through the class, partners were assigned randomly again and, to my dismay, I was partnered with this same person. I was so frustrated by being cast aside by my "partner" on our joint lab problems that, in the middle of lab one day, I couldn't help but cry. (Luckily, my professor made up some excuse for why I had to come with her to her office while she comforted me and promised I wouldn't be partnered with this person again.) While my example is (hopefully) an extreme case, and I should have stood up for myself and asserted that I would contribute to the problem sets, it is an example of how forced groupings can be not only uncomfortable but detrimental in a learning environment. Yes, students should branch out and interact with different people with different ideas, but they should also feel comfortable in these challenges rather than petrified.

Dr. Wright described a method he developed when working with third graders while doing outreach in his undergrad days at Caltech. At the beginning of class, he would solicit questions from the students, which he answered as they came in. Dr. Wright noticed that some students did not have any questions to ask, but they clearly had gaps in what they understood from class material. So he revised his question-solicitation style. Instead of answering questions one-by-one, he began his classes by listing all questions on the board before answering any of them. This alleviated the pressure from the introverted students who where caught up in thinking of questions that were good enough for the class. It also allotted ownership of the questions to the entire class rather than to individual students, making the environment more comfortable and inclusive by not singling out students. Dr. Wright's annecdote resonates with me so much in that I felt myself imagining how different my classes would be if my own instructors did this. I also recalled taking a course on modern Iran in undergrad in which my professor said that he didn't want to punish students for being introverted or too shy to say something in class and that he would count emailed comments toward participation in class discussion. His accommodation alone made me feel comfortable enough to speak up in class such that I never had to take him up on the email offer. Because he made the environment more comfortable and took off the pressure of needing to speak in class, I felt more relaxed about speaking in class anyway.

These types of practices are something I hope to incorporate into my own teaching, making students feel more comfortable to push their own limits rather than forcing them into anxiety over my class.