Teaching science for life
Written by Diana Mazzella
Photo by Brian Persinger
Michelle Withers teaches her 250 undergraduates as if there’s a camera crew right outside the auditorium door waiting to quiz them on scientific knowledge.
It’s not a stretch to think that way.
In 1987, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics created “A Private Universe,” a documentary that began by asking recent Harvard graduates, faculty, and alumni what causes the earth’s seasons. Most of those polled got it wrong.
We have spring, summer, fall, and winter not because of a change in the earth’s distance from the sun (as those polled at Harvard said) but because the angle of the earth’s axis relative to the sun causes the northern and southern hemispheres to receive differing amounts of direct sunlight throughout the year.
“I think about those interviewers being outside of my class asking questions like that in biology,” she said. “What would I be embarrassed to find my students didn’t know?”
Those are the things she teaches them.
The West Virginia University professor has had epiphanies that led her to teach biology fundamentals in a way that is not only effective but can be replicated by future faculty.
As a new professor, she taught her students the way she was taught. She talked to her classes, or at them. She told them all the things she thought they should know. Studies show that they likely then forgot most of it.
She had a feeling that there was something wrong. After attending a National Academies Summer Institute, she knew what it was.
“It was sort of like someone flipped the light switch for me and I went, ‘Oh, OK, this is what it’s like to teach in the light, and I’ve been teaching in the dark and didn’t realize it,’” she said.
From that institute and her research, she learned to teach directly from her goals for the class, not every biology fact in the textbook. She asks questions and allows students to immediately answer with electronic clickers. She relates the subject matter to something they care about.
When teaching how chromosomes separate during cellular reproduction, she asks her students if they’ve known someone with cancer, giving them a reason to learn the steps of cellular division that can grow healthy cells or devolve into cancer.
From the outside, this technique looks like normal conversation. But it’s pure strategy from the time she brings up the topic until the quiz that ends the class.
Withers hears from faculty just learning the method and some other educators that this model-based learning is too difficult for students. She knows that students will have an adjustment period as they learn in a way they’ve never learned before.
But one class did so well their first go around that she told them they should be proud of how well they did.
“Dr. Withers,” one student said, “it wasn’t even that hard.”
But one of the clearest indicators of success is the course evaluations and exit exams that show students for the most part enjoy learning this way and have made great learning gains.
Withers’ tests have also become harder since she began teaching this way, so her students are learning more than those in her earliest classes.
“There are questions that I ask my students now that if I asked them this back in 2003-05 when I was at LSU, the moaning and gnashing of teeth would have been heard around the country. They would have face-planted on those questions,” she said.
“There’s no way they could have done that level of problem-solving when I was just talking at them.”
It helps that Withers also enjoys teaching this way.
“When my students are working, I get to walk around and listen to what they’re saying,” Withers said. “I get to see them struggle with something and I get to be part of that as opposed to boring myself when I’m standing in front of the classroom.”
An education revolution
Withers’ work hasn’t affected only her students. A few years after her first faculty job, she was running a regional version of the National Academies Summer Institute, the first one in a system of summer seminars for college professors to learn effective ways of teaching science.
Withers began the institute for the WVU Department of Biology. Since 2008, about 150 professors from across the country have learned better ways to get across the scientific concepts that we know will create a more informed public and spur innovation.
“They get the experience of a student,” she said. “You can just see them have these moments. That’s a huge thing for me—to see other people have that same sort of epiphany moment of ‘I don’t have to be the talking head. I don’t have to figure this out from scratch.’”
Because of the success of the institute at WVU, the National Academy formed other regional institutes, something that Withers finds gratifying.
While existing educators benefit from Withers’ science education research, she is also targeting those who will go on to teach. Her graduate course teaches future college professors the best methods to use on their students.
She said faculty will spend about half of their professional time teaching and most rely on the way they were taught and their experience teaching as graduate assistants. One positive development is that WVU offers teaching certificates that prepare graduate students for faculty jobs, which is on the rise though the number of universities that offer it is in the minority.
Bringing science home
Withers was researching the nervous system of lobsters in her postdoctoral work when she took her first teaching position.
Her office still has a definite crustacean imprint. A garland of paper lobsters adorns her ceiling. And on her desk, she has a figurine of Sebastian the crab from “The Little Mermaid.” Her office is full of books and is bright with posters of Darwin, Einstein and one that says, “Teachers bring dreams to life.”
It was logic puzzles and a curiosity to know why things happened that pulled her into science as a child. And it was a fascination with the nervous system in college that led her toward a PhD.
She always had an interest in science, but until her undergraduate years, she didn’t know what she would do with a biology degree.
Her laboratory is now the classroom and she’s happiest there. She says she could have gone on to contribute to the body of neuroscience knowledge, which would have been worthwhile but isn’t where she feels most needed.
“I don’t think anything I could have done there would have had the same impact as what I’m doing now,” she said.
She’s having a direct impact on her home state, too.
Withers grew up in Marlinton, a town of about 1,000 people that hugs the Monongahela National Forest in southern West Virginia. The first-generation college student went on to become the only scientist of the five children in her family.
Though her research can help all college students and faculty, it is particularly useful in West Virginia. Rural areas may not be able to offer the same variety of classes as schools in more urban or wealthy areas. But learning with the kinds of methods Withers uses doesn’t favor those who took extra biology classes in high school. She teaches concepts that require critical thinking and not memorization.
“I think this type of teaching not only makes everybody better but it also helps equalize the playing field a little bit,” she said.