Category Archives: Teaching

My Teaching Philosophy

Before students begin taking college courses they have by necessity focused on the learning of facts and the ability to use mathematical and linguistic tools. In their experience, questions have had right and wrong answers, and instructors have been the dispensers of absolute knowledge. When students begin their college training, they are ready to begin their journey toward an intellectual milestone: they will begin to (1) doubt perceived truth, (2) question constructively, (3) come up with alternate ideas, and (4) critically evaluate those ideas [modern interpretation of The Perry Scheme (Perry 1970, Perry 1981)]. The journey is difficult and uncomfortable. My job as an educator is to guide them on that journey, because it is ultimately the most critical journey they will take in preparation for their careers, whatever their career goals may be.

To guide students toward developing an independent sense of what defines weak versus strong evidence for their own and others’ ideas, I assign critiques of primary literature including analysis of experimental design. In lab courses, students will design their own experiments and critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each design, execute the experiment, and collect, analyze and interpret the data. They will then also evaluate their peers’ interpretations of data.

A student can feel rudderless and lost in a student-driven course. Yet, he or she learns most effectively when taking ownership of his or her own intellectual path. Because my courses are largely student-driven, a concrete structure to the course is critical in order to ensure that each student feels intellectually safe, knows what is expected of him or her, and learns the material and the skills necessary to apply the information. Therefore, I provide a detailed syllabus for the course, and clear rubrics for all assignments. Students know exactly what will be expected of them in class, in lab, for homework assignments, and on exams. Learning How to Question The most successful scientists doubt everything, but having doubt is not enough – they also question each concept. Teaching students to question constructively begins with helping students to accept that not all questions have pre-established right or wrong answers, and to recognize which questions are the most fruitful to pursue.


Perry, W. G. J. 1970. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

Perry, W. G. J. 1981. Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning. Pages 76-116 in Chickering, A. W., editors. The Modern American College. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.


Lane Community College’s Successful Aging Institute

Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon area has their own Successful Aging Institute, complete with training for “encore careers,” exercise courses, crafting courses, a class on dealing with your best friend getting Alzheimer’s Disease, and many more. Whether you’re in the area or if you’re just thinking about what is needed for seniors in your area, check it out:

Academia doesn’t have a PhD problem, it has an attitude problem

Really interesting post on the “PhD Problem”

The Contemplative Mammoth

A month after last January’s  State of the Union Address, in which President Obama called for an increase in STEM graduates, The Atlantic published this piece on the “Ph.D Bust,” lamenting the decline in academic job placement rates for scientists. The latter has been making the rounds again, coincident with the latest William “Don’t get a PhD” Pannapacker’s piece in which he reiterates that a humanities PhD is an immense investment of time and money, and that the job prospects are prohibitively dismal. Meanwhile, says Pannapacker, we know very little about job placement rates for PhDs, (if you have a moment, please fill out your information at the PhD Placement Project), and– most tellingly, to me– Academia is doing a deplorable job in general of preparing students for “alternative careers.”

This, to me, is the crux of the matter. People call Academia a pyramid scheme; certainly, if one scholar produces…

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Increasing Minorities in Science

An article in Science Insider: New Answers for Increasing Minorities in Science

“For decades, the conventional wisdom was that increasing the number of minority scientists requires addressing every aspect of the pipeline—from elementary school through hiring and promoting faculty members. That’s still true, says a new report out today from the National Academies—but one approach stands out above the rest. The fastest way to train more minority scientists in scientific and technical fields, it says, is simply to improve the retention and completion rates of undergraduate students already interested in the natural sciences and engineering…”

On the Origin of Species

In 2007, a few friends and I formed a graduate student group with the goal of reading and discussing Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Throughout our readings and scientific discussions of Darwin and his work, one quality of the manuscript stood out to us: it’s humanness. Scientific ideas were communicated clearly, and with linear thought, but also through examples of human experience, and in such a conversational tone that it was difficult not to try to imagine the man behind the words. The students in our group had purchased various editions of his book, later editions having more chapters than earlier editions. Some added chapters elaborated beautifully on scientific ideas, and some were composed of entirely the conflict between the idea of evolution by natural selection and the religious ideals of his time. It was a unique and fascinating documentation of his progression of scientific thought, and of the intense inner turmoil he felt over the debate his book inspired among his religious and scientific contemporaries. The experience led me to think about the communication of evolutionary biology in the context of “human experience” instead of a purely academic one. Darwin himself demonstrated that complex evolutionary ideas can be communicated effectively using common human observation and experience. In fact, for students (and non-students) who aren’t biologists, his book is an accessible guide to evolutionary theory from the everyday person’s perspective, and is fascinating from both scientific and social perspectives.

If you are interested in a sort of “reader’s guide” here are some websites and actual, real paper books that have excerpts and commentary.

The Guardian

The Origin then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species

A Study Guide for the Evolution Dialogues, AAAS

Steve Jones and New Scientist, Summary and Update for the 21st century

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of his Theory of Evolution

Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 – Voyaging by Janet Browne