As I’ve became more and more serious about pursuing teaching as a career, one of the people I’ve regularly turned to for advice is Dr.Lisa Auchincloss, who graduated from my graduate group at UC Davis last year. While at Davis, Dr. Auchincloss did her doctoral research on stress ecophysiology of cottonwood with professor Jim Richards. She also did a wide variety of teaching and science communication-related activities, including TAing for an innovative online course on global climate change. After graduating, she worked briefly as an adjunct professor at American River College and then accepted a position as a biology education postdoc with Dr. Erin Dolan at the University of Georgia. I had heard about “teaching postdocs” before, but didn’t know much about them, so I asked Dr. Auchincloss if I could interview her to find out more. Here’s the result:
GB: Can you summarize what you do as a bio education postdoc?
LA: As a biology education postdoc, I investigate questions about how students learn biology. Those sorts of questions can involve identifying specific misconceptions in specific areas of biology, for example identifying and characterizing student misconceptions about natural selection and then discussing how those misconceptions might arise.
You might look at a program – or an intervention, as they’re often called – where you’re changing something about how you’re teaching in the classroom, and asking “Is this effective? Is this working?” That’s an evaluation question and the research question might be, “How is this working? How can we apply learning theories to this new technique or this new way of teaching biology? Does it result in specific student outcomes that we want to see?”
GB: What do you do on a daily basis as a bio-education postdoc?
My work on a daily basis involves designing surveys to look at what students are doing in a classroom experience called a CURE, which is a Classroom-based Undergraduate Research Experience. That is, instead of doing research in a one-on-one mentoring setting, students do research in a classroom with a couple of teachers and many students. So, I am designing a survey right now that will characterize what happens in lab learning experiences – from research based experiences to traditional laboratory class experiences. Eventually we hope to tie the activities that the students do to specific learning outcomes, for example increased content knowledge, increased technical skills, or increased self-confidence (or self-efficacy).
The kind of pie-in-the-sky thing that a lot of people are looking at now is student persistence in science. By persistence, they often mean matriculation into a graduate degree or going into a science field. The goal is to retain good students in science – that’s one of the big goals of the program I’m looking at now.
GB: Do you do any teaching?
LA: Yes, teaching is part of my particular postdoc, but it is not a defining characteristic of a biology education postdoc. The primary goal is to design the research, but I taught as well. This past semester I taught introductory biology for non-majors at the University of Georgia. That was a 200 person class in which we implemented active learning.
I think that what’s great about having the teaching experience is that it really enriches your perspective on your research. The research is usually very separate – you don’t usually do research on the courses that you’re teaching. The benefit of teaching is that while you’re in the classroom and seeing the benefits of using active learning, or other interventions, you’re also seeing the challenges of teaching a 200 person class and doing active learning without much TA support. I had a great experience teaching the class – it was very different from any of my previous teaching experiences.
GB: What sort of careers do people typically pursue after completing a biology education postdoc?
LA: I think that a lot of the biology education careers that are out there are basically science faculty with education specialties. That is really what you’re being trained for in a biology education postdoc. A lot of people hope to get hired into a science department and become the education specialist, do education research on their discipline, and do faculty training in education.
At UGA there’s a group of bio educators that’s actually a very large group – there’s 12 of them – I think that’s the largest group in the nation right now. What they often do is co-teach with other faculty who do not have education specialties and help them develop their curriculum, model active learning in the classroom, and model different techniques, such as teaching with case studies. In that way, they effect change at an individual level. If there’s enough of that co-teaching going on, that can really grow and affect a department or division.
Other careers stemming from a bio-education postdoc might include a position evaluating programs. Evaluation is a little different from research in that it is primary focused on, “Does this intervention, or does this program or new technique work?” It’s not as focused on applying or developing theory, but more “At these different stages of development of a program, are we seeing the outcomes that we expect?” An evaluator might work at one particular institution, but work with a number of different institutions or funding agencies to see if programs are indeed doing what they say they are going to do.
GB: What sort of people typically do bio-education postdocs – are they primary people that have science Ph.D.s or do many have education Ph.D.s?
LA: Typically it’s people with science Ph.D.s. This is the second round of training for people who want to be biology or chemistry education researchers. In physics there are specific Ph.D. programs for physics education research. At the moment biology doesn’t have an equivalent – there are people who are doing joint Ph.D.s in biology education and a science field, like ecology or evolution, at the same time, but those are far and few between at this point. I’m finding that I’m really glad that I have the Ph.D. in science – I think that gives me more credibility with scientists. It gives me the perspective to think about where these students are possibly heading and what research skills they need to develop in the classroom.
GB: How receptive are traditional faculty to bio-educators coming in and suggesting changes to courses?
LA: It varies by individual. I think it’s really difficult for some professors who have been teaching a particular way for a large number of years to adapt or adopt new techniques. That’s completely understandable. It also really varies by institution – some places have a climate of that supports innovations in teaching. There are other institutions that are not going to emphasize that. I think that the overall attitude is changing for the better. I think that one of the things that really helps is being able to say, “I’ve done scientific research. I know where you’re coming from. I understand the pressures of your job”.
GB: I certainly see a lot of faculty here that are really swamped. It would be a tall order to ask them to redo a course that they’ve already put together.
LA: That actually brings up another area of bio-education research – it’s not just about students – it’s also about faculty adoption of new techniques.
GB: I like the co-teaching idea. Then the bio educator can bring in the new technologies and methods. That way there’s less pressure on traditional faculty.
LA: Personally I think it works really well. Seeing it in action, I think it can really do a lot to affect change.
GB: Let’s say I’m a grad student that’s interested in doing a bio education postdoc. What sort of things should I be doing to make myself more competitive for those sorts of positions?
LA: First of all, when I entered graduate school, I didn’t know that these positions existed, but I was extremely interested in teaching. Demonstrating that genuine interest in teaching and pursuing things beyond your scientific research that are teaching-related is really important. What those are can be variable, as there are so many opportunities on a campus to do things that are related to teaching.
When I was in graduate school I really enjoyed TAing and knew that I wanted to do something related to education when I left. So, I joined something called the graduate teaching community and I eventually became the co-facilitator. The GTC is a community of graduate students that are interested in questions about teaching, largely focused on improving their own teaching, but also focused on teaching research. I pursued creating a workshop series around helping scientists communicate with people outside of science. Doing those sorts of things I think helped put me on my boss’s radar. It also helped me create a network, which is one of the important resources that you can develop as a graduate student. Also, if you are TAing as a graduate student, there are things that you can ask the person you’re TAing for to let you do – like develop a little bit of the curriculum or come up with a new way to teach a topic. Things like that can be helpful and can be really great learning experiences.
GB: Are there are any particular programs or institutions, besides UGA, that you would recommend looking at for biology education postdoc positions?
LA: Well, the University of Washington at Seattle has great bio-education research. There are also individuals around the country – at Purdue, at Arizona, and at UCSF – that are pursuing this kind of research. Certainly the institutions like University of Washington and University of Georgia are great places to look, but I would really consider looking at bio-education papers and then contacting those people.
GB: Speaking of the literature, what are some key concepts in the field that you should be familiar with before applying for a bio-education postdoc?
LA: I think that it depends on what you’re interested in. If you’re interested in the student side of things – student outcomes and achievement – then there’s a lot of focus right now on active learning. That’s involving the students actively in class – asking them questions and having them discuss in small groups. There’s also a lot of research out there about undergraduate research experiences, whether those are internship based or classroom-based and their effects on student learning and student persistence. That’s a big topic now. I would look at the large topics in CBE-LSE, which was Cell Biology Education, but is now Life Science Education.
GB: Now that you’ve had exposure to both teaching and teaching research, what is one practice that you would like to see implemented more widely in college biology teaching?
LA: I think that doing active learning is really great – letting the students discuss and teach each other the material before you do. I also think that it would be really great if professors gave the students more opportunity to struggle a bit more with real data. Teach them more about the real nature of science – you’re not always going to find a correct answer.
What I’ve been trying to do in my own teaching, which is challenging, is to let the students do the thinking. So instead of a lecture where you give them the answers, you set up experiences for the students where they’re going to come to the conclusion that you want them to come to. There’s a lot of research out there on what student misconceptions are for some of our really big topics. So, you say, “Okay, I know that these are the misconceptions my students are likely to have, then I’m going to set up a case study, or set up 5 or 6 questions during my lecture where I’m going to specifically get at each of these misconceptions. I’m going to make a multiple choice question that gets at students who think that an individual can evolve over its lifetime.” Inevitably, some of them are going to get it wrong, so you create an environment where the students are discussing why they think the answer is the way that it is, and you have students reinforcing what you’re about to teach them. That sort of environment promotes learning and retention. There’s some really great research on gains in active learning classrooms versus gains in traditional lecture classrooms. The gains in the active learning classrooms are typically much greater.
Thanks to Dr. Auchincloss for agreeing to participate in this interview. If you’re interested in learning more about biology education research, I recommend checking out a video on the subject by Dr. Auchincloss’s current PI, Dr. Erin Dolan.