Dr. Panasik received the Hunter award in 2011.
Teaching, especially in the sciences, has often taught from a “top-down” approach, with knowledge generally passed through lecture and applied in predictable laboratory experiences. This “Sage on the Stage” approach, while often employed due to the large amount of information that must be conveyed, turns out to be less innovative and productive for both professors and students and less effective at engaging students in crucial science careers. The collaborative, interdisciplinary, and exploratory nature of the sciences demands that we instill a critical and creative thought process in our students and this happens best when students are internally motivated to critically think about problems and creatively apply scientific concepts to solve them.
At the heart of my style of teaching is incorporation of real research questions in the classroom and use of student-centered active-learning projects that explore real research-based answers. This is coupled with a pedagogical approach that uses a wide array of mediums (from teaching advanced video editing techniques to turning the students themselves into peer teachers) to present concepts in the course to the largest variety of learning styles. The added interest that is engendered in students when they find out they are working on authentic, cutting edge questions in the field, and begin to see how the knowledge they are learning is applied and used creates an indispensably powerful tool to motivate students not only to succeed academically but to consider research as a possible career goal. By making content available in a variety of learning formats it ensures that no matter who the student is, they find an approach to learning that works best for them.
The same disciplinary research that keeps me up to date and fully engaged with developments in bioinformatics, protein folding, and protein structure determination also plays an important role in course development and content. I believe exposure to recent research benefits students by including them in the most exciting, rigorous, and vibrant activities of the academic community. More specifically, my research, in structure-function relationships and design of novel enzyme functions, serves as a fantastic medium to engage students at both graduate and undergraduate levels.
In one example, as implemented in the education plan in my NSF Early CAREER Award, I teach an undergraduate biochemistry lab course. While students learn all of the traditional concepts and methods of a typical biochemistry course – protein purification, PCR, enzyme kinetics etc, they do this entirely in the context of a semester long project in the Directed Evolution of thermostable bio-fuel enzymes. The course begins with brainstorming how one might go about changing the function of an enzyme where exact structure-function relationships are not known and proceeds through the development (by the students) of the steps and protocols of a directed evolution project. This becomes a powerful context in which to discuss issues of evolution, selection, and common heritage as well as protein structure-function relationships and experimental design. Students are encouraged to come up with alternate approaches to these scientific approaches and we debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of both. By couching student contributions to discussion in the context of disciplinary methods and critical thinking strategies, I help students realize how the work in this specific class intersects with and illuminates other fields and scientific questions. This strategy has been particularly important with my freshmen and sophomore students who are thirsty for a big picture understanding of how their chosen career paths might intersect with this and other fields.
Commensurately, in order for such a student-centered approach to work, a ‘teacher’ has to become acutely aware of the starting knowledge, academic preparation, interests and learning styles of the students he or she is prepared to teach. Only by mastering the learner’s point of view may the teacher become a true facilitator of learning. A key feature of my approach is to first learn about the students and then present materials in a fashion that can apply to the wide variety of their learning styles and interests. Beginning with a variety of interactive assessment approaches including first day questionnaires, learning style surveys, brainstorming sessions, and email discussions, I learn information necessary to tailor my lecture examples and lab classes to those that fit the students’ stated objectives in the course, compliment what they are learning in other courses, and finally, present course materials in multiple ways – each accessible to a different learning style. Several of these pedagogical methods for reaching different learning styles are currently submitted for publication in teaching and learning journals.
One of the pedagogical tools that I have developed that I am most proud of, “Lecture Expertise”, has each student, once in a semester, film a course lecture. They have one week to use video editing software which I teach them to use, to edit appropriate PowerPoint slides into the video, accompanied by notes of the “Class Scribe” (another pedagogical tool). The students have full editorial control over the aesthetics and such projects typically elicit a great deal of excitement both at the scientific content of the lecture and in learning video editing skills. The editing in this assignment necessitates watching and re-watching the lecture for “splice points” and is a particularly powerful learning medium for visual learners. This method has been shown to increase performance on relevant test questions by over 12% and has led to a repository of over 80 lecture videos for students to use as additional study materials.
Underlying these teaching strategies is my fundamental belief that teaching should be approached with the same academic rigor as other scholarly activities. I strive to remain engaged with the scholarship of teaching and learning and to use research-based principles to guide my classroom strategies. In this way I hope to provide the best possible environment for my students.
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