13 Taking the Responsibility for Education Seriously | Colleen Jacks

I think of my work at Gustavus in the sense of evolution – the changing nature of my discipline and my teaching and scholarship.  Since my initial training experiences in genetics and molecular genetics at the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago, my discipline as been altered radically by the genomics revolution in which entire genomes are sequenced and partially analyzed in a matter of weeks.  The changing nature of my discipline affects not only what scientific questions I ask and how I address them experimentally, but also the topics I include in my courses and how I approach them.

I came to Gustavus because of my desire to impart my enthusiasm and knowledge of biology, specifically in genetics, to undergraduates at a liberal arts college.  Liberal arts students are encouraged to investigate different viewpoints and find cross-disciplinary connections in their studies, and I believe that this perspective is invaluable in the development of scientists and an educated citizenry.  At Gustavus I have taught courses at all three levels; currently my major teaching responsibilities include Cell and Molecular Biology, Genetics,  and Molecular Genetics.  In the recent past I have also taught Developmental Biology.  Although offered through the biology department, the subjects of these courses are interdisciplinary in nature as the line that separates the fields of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology become more and more blurred.  All of these courses are either required or electives in both the biology and biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) majors.  The development of our BMB program and my ability to participate in its evolution has provided me a great deal of personal and professional satisfaction.

I take my responsibility for the education of my students very seriously.  I strive to maintain both a high level of scientific integrity in the content of my courses and a relaxed and interactive classroom atmosphere, encouraging student questions and discussion.  My presentations are designed to provide students with a logical framework to think about the often complicated topics we cover in biology.  I utilize outlines, slides in PowerPoint, overhead figures and occasional videos to guide students through the topics and illustrate the points I want to make.  In my upper level courses I assign papers from the primary literature with accompanying discussions or assignments.  I make available the outlines and PowerPoint presentations, along with other relevant material, most recently through the use of Moodle.  I pose questions and problems to my classes as we move through material to help them see the connections between concepts and to provide an opportunity for self-testing and additional questions on the topics we have covered.  In my lower level courses in particular I endeavor to be sensitive to the students’ differing levels of interest and ability in the natural sciences.  Because true learning does not only take place in the classroom, but also afterwards when students work to assimilate information independently, I try to be available for students throughout the day, having a mostly open-door policy for discussions.  I also build problem-solving and review sessions into my courses prior to exams.  Besides exams, I use a variety of assessment tools in my courses.  These include short response papers, group projects, journals, and written assignments on primary research papers. Depending on the course, I have assessed lab work through weekly assignments, quizzes, report writing, lab notebooks, and poster presentations.

My classroom “formula” has been one of the aspects of my teaching that has evolved through the years, moving from a completely lecture format, the traditional “delivery system” used in my years as an undergraduate science student, to one that incorporates more active learning elements.  I have participated in a number of workshops addressing issues in science education.  Most recently I was part of a two-person team from Gustavus that participated in New York University’s Faculty Resource Network workshop entitled “Bio 2010: How Genes Act in Populations.”  Bio 2010 is a 2003 report from the National Research Council addressing the undergraduate science education needs of future research biologists; one of the conclusions of this report was that quantitative aspects of biology should be emphasized and that necessary mathematics concepts should be more integrated into the life science curriculum.  Tom LoFaro of MCS and I represented Gustavus, and based on this workshop we designed two activities for my genetics course that reemphasized concepts in population genetics through the use of simple programming in the computer language Python.

I believe that effective learning in the sciences comes from connections between the theoretical and experimental bases of the discipline.  In class I discuss the knowledge base of biology and the design and results of experiments that led to our acceptance of this knowledge.  My laboratories are designed to allow students the opportunity to perform these experiments themselves – allowing them to discover the pitfalls of working with biological systems, the excitement of discovery when an experiment works, and the personal satisfaction of wrestling with a question or technique and overcoming the associated problems.  Students work collaboratively within groups and between groups in lab and a remarkable “esprit de corps” generally develops in the class.  The Cell and Molecular Biology and Molecular Genetics courses have large laboratory components, and I have developed significant laboratory materials for these courses that are found in my file.  Development of the lab for Molecular Genetics in particular is part of my ongoing professional work allowing students to be involved with a functional genomics project funded at the University of Minnesota as I describe in the next section.  The experimental techniques students use in lab are central to current investigations in cell and molecular biology and are valuable for employment or graduate school upon graduation.

As my course assignments within the department expand and my discipline evolves, I become a student myself, learning through attendance at meetings and workshops.  As noted in my vitae, I have attended several workshops and courses focused in one way or another on bioinformatics, a field that includes the analysis of the large data sets generated in genomics projects.  These experiences have helped me both in my teaching of genetics and in my research.  Although not trained as a developmental biologist, I taught our course in this area over an eleven year period, drawing on my participation in a laboratory workshop at the Darling Marine Center as well as my frequent attendance at the annual Developmental Biology Symposium at the University of Minnesota.

Research plays a critical role in both my teaching and professional development.  As a teacher-researcher I desire to encourage and assist biology students with preparations for graduate and professional school by offering them the opportunity to discover the sense of accomplishment that can come from extending the body of knowledge in science.  Every year I work as a faculty mentor with a handful of students interested in pursuing research projects.  My interactions with these students are personally very satisfying, and I believe, exciting and satisfying for the students.  We struggle together with biological questions and experimental design, and with the technical problems inherent in doing an experiment.  Many of these students have gone on to graduate programs in areas of genetics or molecular biology.  Those students that complete significant pieces of work present their results at regional or national conferences and on campus in the annual Sigma Xi symposium.  Three students (Kari Beth Krieger, Deanna Koepp and Brian North) used their projects to partially fulfill the department’s requirements for graduation with honors in biology and went on to obtain Ph.D.s in genetics-related areas.   I have also taught a January term research course for first year students on five occasions in which students work on small projects that are offshoots of my ongoing studies, such as cloning genes in a certain manner. This course was very successful at encouraging students to participate in research early in their academic careers as many went on to do research (for credit or not) with me or other members of the chemistry and biology faculty.  I also had the opportunity to teach our Directed Research course one of the several years it was offered.  This course gave me the opportunity to direct a small group of upper-level students on research projects and on the necessary writing and presentation skills associated with such projects.

Advising has been an important aspect of my teaching – students need to be encouraged to think about their education more broadly than simply the set of courses needed for application to graduate or professional school.  They also need to be realistic about their abilities and understand the options that are open to them.  A number of students sell themselves short and are reluctant to attempt courses or shoot for career goals that they often believe are too high.  I have formally advised numerous students (first year students, pre-health professional students and biology majors), as well as students who seek advice on a one-time or informal basis. I have worked to provide external professional opportunities for students and, with my Biology department colleagues, improve the curriculum for our majors.  I encourage students to participate in January and summer research programs at other institutions; my students have participated in programs at Case Western Reserve, University of Minnesota, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, University of Nebraska Eppley Institute and the Mayo Clinic.  Gustavus is one of six select colleges chosen by the University of Arizona to participate in a January research experience in plant molecular biology led by Dr. Martha Hawes of the Department of Plant Pathology since 1991; one or more Gustavus students have participated in this program in each of the years it has been offered.