Cartoons, superheroes, and survival books solidified my desire to become a scientist at a young age. The Looney Tunes and Pinky and the Brain impressed me with their inventive nature and showed the key role that failure played in the scientific process. Batman showed how technology and perseverance can turn around an entire city and make you more than the sum of your parts. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George instructed me in understanding nature and using your ingenuity to survive. In addition to Wile E. Coyote, Batman, and Sam Gribley, my science teachers helped too.
I mention my young pursuits only to emphasize that a desire to learn more about science isn’t born only in the classroom. In addition to traditional lectures, we need learning in different aspects of our lives. Luckily, we live in an age where interacting with other people is absurdly easy. Your favorite scientists now have a twitter, and some PhDs even have YouTube channels. There are more ways than ever before to take the teaching and learning we do in the classroom and expand it to the world.
I have been working on alternative learning techniques since my undergraduate work at the University of Rochester. While there, I participated in a specialized science workshop program that took all students in introductory science classes and had them do hands-on workshops based on the lecture material each week. We learned about enzyme-substrate binding through a study of methanol poisoning and about the break-down of various sugars leading to glycolysis with an example of a girl that was fructose intolerant. After taking many of these workshops, I began to lead them. In addition to teaching the workshops, you also had to take a class on the science of learning. Since my junior year, I’ve had active learning and learning styles on my mind.
As I’ve progressed through my graduate career at the Rockefeller University, I’ve taken every opportunity to expand learning beyond the classroom and beyond the traditional student age. At bars around New York City, I have talked about GMOs, played a self-invented card game which teaches the players about HIV, and highlighted Maud Menten and her co-discovery of enzyme kinetics via a hands-on activity involving post-it notes. I have even created a YouTube series called SimpleBiologist to translate current research papers into animated videos for adults without science careers.
In addition to non-traditional teaching, I have also done some classic teaching. I taught classes via the web to students of all ages with as little as two days advanced notice, and I served as a scientist-in-residence for a group of ESL 4th graders for an entire school year leading them through an independent research project.
What I have learned from this great diversity of work is that we need all teaching styles to reach not only students but adults as well. Learning shouldn’t stop once we leave our high schools and universities. STEM fields keep changing the way we live our lives. Gene therapy, smartphones, and gravitational waves are all recent additions to our collective knowledge. As the technology gets more complicated and we have to make hard decisions, we need a group of informed adults in the deciding seats. That is going to take all kind of teachers in all types of settings. I plan on being one of them.