1 The Best Teachers are Tinkerers | Pam Kittelson


“It is not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
Author unknown, commonly misattributed to Charles Darwin

As a first generation graduate, college opened doors that were not only closed, but also opened ones I never knew existed.  College changed my life.  Correction, a liberal arts college changed my life.  As such, I firmly believe in the transformative power of place like Gustavus where students not only gain understanding of a major subject, but develop an interdisciplinary understanding of how and why the world may work, nurture curiosity and become intellectually resilient in the face of change.  At Gustavus, I also have found opportunities to develop skills as a teacher, mentor and researcher while contributing to a mission of a student-centered, interdisciplinary education.

Current Practices. Biology is the study of all life on this planet, of continuity and change, of intricate process conserved or newly invented, of the wild, diverse and mysterious. I have always found the subject intriguing.  I enjoy sharing and exploring life with students.  Teaching provides an opportunity to discover fascinating phenomena, revisit old ideas and to see how new experimental data are integrated. My objectives with students are to increase fluency and interest in the natural sciences, build practical skills applicable to work or advanced studies, and to help students become well-rounded citizens, capable of making informed decisions for their families and the community.

I love biology, but without students my excitement would wane.  Students are collaborators in the experience. The quality (i.e. excellence) of my work is highlighted when students reach a higher level of competence, when they are proud in what they have learned, when they realize that their potential and interest can be nurtured through independent means, or when they appreciate the subject, even if initially reluctant. I recently overheard a conversation that impressed me; a student said “as I was listening to everyone’s presentations yesterday, I got tears in my eyes.  We were researching so many interesting subjects about plants’ unique adaptations and yet plants are so underappreciated.”  I couldn’t ask for a better outcome; she expressed enthusiasm for biology, for the learning process, and showed an overall appreciation for other forms of life.  Thus, enthusiasm, interest in my work, and quality of my work are interconnected with students’ experiences exploring the material.

To fulfill class objectives, I use the scientific method because it is a profoundly effective way to know and understand the world. During labs and field trips my students test hypotheses, collect data, analyze information and present conclusions.  They must be capable of reading, constructing and interpreting a variety of data sets and graphs.  On exams or homework, they must understand and manipulate equations that describe biological phenomena.  A good science education should furnish students with the ability to ask important questions, design appropriate experiments to test hypotheses, and draw conclusions from statistical summaries or other data.  These approaches help students develop logic and critical understanding.

I am a broadly trained biologist who can teach across a wide range of subdisciplines.  As a ‘big picture’ ecologist, complex interactions, context and contingency matter more than reductionism.  That said, students in my classes still must synthesize a tremendous amount of material. I encourage students to become self-directed without dictating a single way to answer the question, but I also emphasize that some answers are more accurate than others.  I encourage them to build a synthetic understanding, and critically evaluate rather than simply memorizing and reciting. My goals are to prepare students for complexity, and to encourage them to contribute to the process of building explanations. I enjoy my role as a guide, not simply a purveyor of information.

Students possess a range of learning styles, so I use a variety of teaching methods and tools (e.g. student presentations, discussions, simulations, hands-on work, case studies and models). I challenge students to take control of their own learning. For example, I post lectures on Moodle and students work through the material outside of class; the next day we process the information.  In lecture students also are forced to apply or evaluate material. A student states in an evaluation, “She pushed us to figure out things using available resources and think creatively and deductively rather than just give us all the answers.”  I set up labs employing a variety of specimens from herbaria, museums or surrounding habitats.  I take students into the field to ask questions, illustrate ideas or patterns. By incorporating more active learning into class, my students have the opportunity to excel in their strengths and develop new methods for integrating the material.  Students lead discussions and must contribute to the group by both understanding and actively discussing issues. I build case studies to demonstrate the dynamic nature of biological discovery and its relevance to their lives. I teach across the curriculum by incorporating mathematics, statistics, geography, physical science, philosophy, literature and history.  These subjects easily fit with biology courses, piquing student interest.

Writing, computational and verbal skills are incorporated into my courses at all levels.  I want students to refine skills as communicators. In advanced courses I assign short reports based on data they collect; the limited page length makes the students focus on clarity and brevity. Larger writing projects are also required and include literature reviews, grant proposals or research papers broken into steps so they can build a cogent product. On longer papers (~12 pages) students interpret and synthesize a large amount of research.  I require that they exchange and critique drafts, and discuss strategies for improvement.  Students learn how to modify their papers while realizing that writing is a process that benefits from time, editing and perspective.  Students report significant improvement in writing abilities. Like writing, effective public speaking extends across the curricula and is a major requirement in each class I teach.  Students give informative presentations or present independent research results in symposia.  I also use different approaches when students discuss primary research articles. For example, after a brief period in small groups, students explain graphs or statistical analyses, they read opposing sides of issues and debate, or they choose a paper and lead the discussion.  Students also must be able to express themselves using quantitative data. Usually these data are in the form of tables, models, graphs or statistical summaries.  I expect students to develop quantitative reasoning skills and many assignments reinforce this expectation.  I allow students to work together to analyze data, but they must be able to do it independently on other assignments or exams.  They also must effectively use visual and quantitative expressions when developing oral or written arguments.  As we progress, students become more fluent reading and discussing cutting-edge research, comfortable questioning one another and critiquing material, and comfortable developing evidence-based arguments.

Many of my students say that I am tough, but fair, which is a high compliment.  One student commented, “She was flexible, but still pushed us. You learn an incredible amount without it seeming like it’s too much to handle.  She’s challenging in a way that makes you determined to measure up to her standards, but not in a frustrating way.” I do have high standards for my students as well as myself; I challenge students with higher order assignments and exams, and in discussions, laboratories or lecture activities.  I ask them to integrate information and experiences; I expect them to engage with diverse ideas and with one another.  I have spent time trying to figure out what they mean by fair and how my teaching may embody it. I think that they mean that I am very clear with objectives and what basic knowledge they are expected to demonstrate.  I provide guides to assist acquisition of knowledge; I give them ample opportunities to apply and synthesize in low stakes situations so that when they encounter similar harder questions on the exam they tackle it with confidence.  I also am available to help them in the journey.  I try to understand where they are coming from when answering questions. I always get papers, exams and assignments back to them no later than a week after they turned it in.  I tell them what they did right, compliment improvement and excellence, as well as suggest ways to modify approaches that are off-base.  I acknowledge when I get something wrong or am unclear.  Most of all I respect them as individuals and let them know that their grades are only a small part of their intellect.  My methods help students at all levels succeed and raise their performance so that they can be well prepared for future endeavors.

The Wabash Study on the Liberal Arts reports characterizes good teachers as those that express clarity and organization, enthusiasm in material and pedagogy, and promptly provide feedback.  These teaching practices coupled with challenging courses had the greatest effects on promoting academic and personal well-being, leadership, openness to ideas and ‘otherness’ and enhancing life goals. I’ve tried to take these results into consideration and I spend a lot of time thinking about course organization, clarity in communication and how I can foster their development via timely and constructive feedback.

Course development                                                  

“Evolution is a tinkerer.” Francois Jacob

Many experts in education suggest that the best teachers are those that tinker; their classes are constantly in the process of modification. I evaluate and modify approaches in my classes based in part on student feedback and my own perspectives.  I may be teaching the  course for the eleventh time, but I commit to changing several aspects of the course each time.  I formulate objectives and work backward to develop assignments and experiences that lead to these outcomes.  Labs are updated, added or deleted each year. I alter post-lab assignments, discussion articles, case studies, simulations, tutorials or in-class activities.  What follows are a few select examples of changes:

Bio202 (Evolution, Ecology and Behavior)  A series of research seminars at UMT inspired me to develop a Hawaiian Island adaptive radiation assignment where students do research on one of the many groups (over 12 groups) that have undergone speciation events after arrival onto the archipelago. The activity provides students with a sense of how evolutionary processes on islands work. Ultimately they investigate, critically examine and reconcile loads of data that exist regarding evolution of species, and leave with a better understanding of how evolutionary processes can generate diversity.

In terms of teaching, Bio202 is a challenge as well as a reward.  It is a large team-taught course (80 students) that comes at a crucial transitional time in their intellectual development (sophomore year shift to critical analysis and synthetic thinking), and it is a required class comprised of students with diverse interests.  Recent evaluations suggest that I need to enhance organization, especially of class notes. Last year I overhauled my approach to lecture notes.  In previous years, I used overheads and slides to pose questions or post data that we worked through in class. Previous classes could readily organize their lecture notes accordingly, but in recent years fewer students accommodate this multi-‘media’ approach. I now provide them with an outline, graphs and diagrams and leave space for them to work through the activities sprinkled through lecture.  However many supporting visuals print too small and do not have enough space to work out the activities.  I refuse to supply them with all the notes and answers because I think it leads to too much passivity, so this component of the course is still a work in progress.

Horticulture (IEX) – I developed a portfolio project where students complete 18 assignments related to horticulture during the January term. The portfolio documents their progress in learning and doing horticulture while visually displaying the evolution of their aesthetic and design sense. It also was intended to be a resource guide for their future landscapes. This project was received very positively by students the first year that I assigned it, but in 2009 students expressed that some of the assignments were ‘busy work’ or that I was too demanding.  I am in the process of modifying the assignments to ensure that the objectives are sound and a meaningful learning experience, but it is unlikely that I will completely pull back from the time I require they devote to January term.

Plant Physiology (Bio377) is a writing course (WD).  I assign lay and professional writing assignments each year.  In 2008 they wrote popular press essays as well as lab reports and a literature review.  This year I added Wikipedia entries and deleted the essays.  The Wikipedia entry generated a lot of excitement after they realized the paucity of plant-related entries. Using a multi-staged process they uploaded excellent contributions on subjects such as: abscission, plant circadian rhythms, cytoplasmic male sterility, and plant nutritional deficiencies such as magnesium, boron and sodium.

I also like to consider my courses holistically and how they complement other experiences in the curriculum. I read articles about teaching, I keep my eye open for how others teach similar courses (via the web and professional societies) and I attend conferences where we talk about teaching.

Experiential components. Field experiences are powerful opportunities to learn and retain material.  In addition to getting my classes outside for labs I have facilitated wilderness experiences.  I was a co-leader for a Everglades canoe trip where we designed a curriculum to build leadership skills and I for first-year orientation in the Boundary Waters.  I taught a field-based class in California for several January terms.  Time in wilderness is precious to me and I love sharing the beauty of it with others.  I also was faculty director for the Social Justice, Peace and Development semester in India.  I still struggle to succinctly articulate all that I learned in India regarding teaching and learning.  It was a subtle but profound and meaningful shift in my attitude and approach to teaching.  I better understand students, I better understand their motivations and I better understand the power of an experiential education that includes components of social and environmental justice.

Program development. I have been part of conversations and meetings that have resulted in two Environmental Studies curriculum overhauls.  In 2002 we developed the Introduction to ES course and the Senior Seminar.  This year, we proposed a new core of ES classes: geochemistry, social science, conservation biology, humanities, and senior seminar.  The first two are brand new classes.  We also changed the requirements associated with the ES tracks; I was involved in discussions and decisions about course requirements for the life science track.

In the Biology Department I researched and promoted options that led to two major changes to Bio101.  We developed a new non-majors course (Bio100) so that non-majors had options beyond Bio101.  We also broke up the large ‘feedlot-style’ courses where we crammed 170 students each into two lecture sections. We now teach six smaller Bio101 courses (n=45-55).  The students and many instructors prefer smaller classes for a variety of good pedagogical reasons. Across campus negativity about Bio101 has attenuated. These positive outcomes led to smaller courses in Bio102 and 201.  I also have led conversations that review our core curriculum and collaboratively we have built quantitative, literacy and writing skills in our core in a step-wise manner.  Since I teach in two core classes (the first and last) I take seriously my role at developing these skills.

This year I am Director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Peer Mentoring Program.  Brenda Kelly shaped and directed the program in its first year.  The program has four objectives for students in introductory biology and chemistry courses (Bio101, 102, Che107, 141): to increase engagement in the subjects, promote development of learning skills and knowledge, to better understand the ethos of scientific inquiry, and create a supportive community of student-scholars.  During the semester, students are required to go to 80% of the one hour sessions, which are led by peer mentors.  I hire and train 13-17 Chemistry, Biology and Biochemistry majors as peer mentors. I help develop a semester long curriculum of supplemental activities in collaboration with the faculty teaching these courses. I also run weekly meetings that preview and assess the weekly activities; these meetings also give participating faculty the opportunity to better understand what students might understand or struggle with in their classes.  For the peer mentors I conduct a one day orientation on peer teaching and facilitated a second experiential event intended to build leadership skills. We have begun to analyze outcomes.  Relative to non-peer mentoring groups, we have observed that students possess increased independence and confidence in problem solving, a sense that science is collaborative, better critical thinking skills, increased interest and preparedness for independent research and interdisciplinary endeavors.  Peer mentors deepened their understanding of the subjects, learned more about group dynamics and learning styles, improved interpersonal communication and problem solving strategies, and gained better leadership skills.  Peer mentors reported high levels of confidence personally and academically, a better understanding of what faculty face in teaching as well as pride in their peer mentoring role.

Mentoring. Good teaching practices extend beyond the classroom and include quality non-classroom interactions.  An important aspect of my job is to be available to students, to serve as an advisor and/or as a mentor.  I currently have 42 advisees and write loads of recommendations for these and other students each year.  Students find me approachable and accessible.  In office hours I encourage effective study habits and show them different methods to enhance in- or post-class analysis and synthesis. My door is also open for conversations about vocation and life paths.  I try to meet each student where they are at, but I also try to push them onto those less familiar trails.  I am very interested in subjects outside the sciences (once a liberal arts student, always a liberal arts student) and encourage well-rounded growth.  This year I am serving as an advisor for an interdisciplinary individualized major related to Social Justice, and I recently sponsored two independent projects on alternative physical therapies (yoga) and the ethnobotany of turmeric.

Participation in workshops and seminars. Good teaching practices often are inspired by others.  I stay abreast of teaching pedagogy and enjoy talking about teaching.  After a Collaboration Conference I presented a summary about supplemental education programs that I thought would serve our students well; these ideas ultimately led to the development of our HHMI Peer Mentoring Program.  A workshop for professors at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (Kenan Fellowship) led to the development of three new activities for Bio101, Bio202 and Plant Physiology.  David Fienen invited me to participate in Teagle II discussions regarding high impact pedagogy at liberal arts colleges and it renewed my interest in how our peer mentoring program is a form of high impact pedagogy that can be more widely promoted and shared with other colleges.  I also was invited by Dean Maguire to attend a NSF Project Kaleidoscope conference that discussed ways to transform science education and its facilities.  This conference led to several physical changes in classrooms and labs with the goal of promoting interactive learning.  This summer I participated in an ELCA World Hunger Workshop where I helped develop an active learning curriculum that addressed issues related to hunger and water. On campus I attend and present at Faculty Development sponsored events.  I enjoy learning from talented colleagues and I have acquired new tools as a direct result of Kendall Center activities.  Opportunities to present at Faculty development also allows me to reflect and share strategies or activities that have worked well for me.