PhD programs in science rarely include training in how to teach, much less teach effectively or write exams. Mine was no exception. Aside from a couple of workshops I sought out, my teaching “training” came from having great teachers myself. Thankfully, I’ve had a number to learn from. I also get bored easily and love to think up creative ways to get challenging ideas across to people. Finding ways to teach my 3 and 8-year-old girls about science also helps! At the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE) 2016 meeting I found similar minds – educators who are creative, innovative, and passionate about discovering and sharing effective ways to teach. Even better, attendees were excited, and some perhaps even obsessed, about microscopic organisms. Totally and completely – my people. It’s amazing how much I learned from ASMCUE that will improve my science communication and teaching. Here are some favorites.

Teach the students you have, not the ones you want to have.

– Dr. Shirley Malcom, AAAS member and native of my home state, Alabama.

Some students will enter a classroom academically prepared; their classmates, not so much. Some students are excited to learn the subject matter; others are checking a box towards graduation. Your mission as an educator, should you choose to accept it, is to find out what kind of students you have and have an inclusive classroom where all voices are heard.

There’s not a STEM pipeline, under-represented students aren’t entering and graduating from one school. They often start at community colleges and transfer. Helping these students through 1st-year seminars, internships, writing intensive classes, case studies, service learning, and other inclusive practices may retain more under-represented students – Loretta Brancaccio-Taras.

Meet the students where they are and bring the material to them.

While teaching a spring microbiology course, one professor kept hearing the students talk about their “brackets” for March Madness, the annual NCAA basketball tournament. His solution? Have the bacterial strains they were working with “compete” and do class brackets for which microbe would outgrow the others. Awesome! Other people suggested using current events and pop culture – Pokemon Go anyone? – to increase student engagement.

SHUT UP in the classroom!

Get rid of the “Sage on the Stage”. Let the students have a voice and take ownership of their learning.

Students bring their own experiences into the classroom. Those experiences inform their learning and are the foundation for future learning. This is especially important for underrepresented, first generation, and non-traditional students. Using examples and covering material that is familiar to the students makes for a more inclusive classroom where more voices are heard and valued.

Active learning activities create buy-in and interest in learning.

Authentic research experiences” give students a sense of ownership and buy-in. During these research experiences, students are given the background information about a system and asked to develop their own hypotheses, design experiments, collect and analyze data gives students a sense of ownership. What is interesting to them about the microbes they may contact in the city? What hypotheses do they have? How would they investigate these ideas? After they collect their data, what are their findings? What is the next step? Such experiences are a form of citizen science that can extend outside of the classroom.

Case studies, real-world problems that teams of students solve together creates an active-learning opportunity. Limit or remove lecturing time. To solve the case studies, students need to determine what they don’t understand and seek out that knowledge before they can solve the problem. Here is where real life experiences can be helpful and create an inclusive classroom. One example presented by Ally Hunter asked students to determine if a horse or donkey was the father to a baby that a female mule had. Students with experience with mules from their farms or villages brought the knowledge to the group that mules are sterile and shouldn’t be able to have babies in the first place. Then the team worked out mitosis and meiosis to determine how this may have happened and who the father was.

Make information relevant to student’s lives.

Use current topics and public resources to teach students why microbiology is relevant – Michelle Swanson, author of Microbe and podcaster for ASM’s “This Week in Microbiology”. Dr. Swanson give her students a variety of different resources including ASM informational booklets and FAQs, podcasts, and the primary literature to teach students how to read and discuss the importance of microbes to health and the environment. She doesn’t feed the students for a day but teaches them “how to fish” and think through relevant information about a scientific topic. Below are resources she gives her students for the class on influenza.

American Academy of Microbiology FAQ: Influenza

1/21/16  TWiV #230 podcast and discussion of Nature 497: 392, 2013: “Receptor binding by a ferret-transmissible H5 avian influenza virus”

ASMCUE was an amazing meeting for me. I learned several new tips for improving my teaching and science communication, while meeting talented microbiology educators.

For other blog posts about the meeting see: mBiosphere – Julie Wolf and my feature on painting with glowing bacteria.

The American Society for Microbiology takes its role in educating students as well as the public on the importance of microbes very seriously. Do see the society’s restructured website for a variety of educational materials.

ASM FAQ series:

 The Threat of MRSA                 Microbiology of the Built Environment    Interactions between Climate Change and Microbial Ecosystems    Microbes and Oil Spills

Microbes Make the Cheese           Human Microbiome             West Nile Virus              Microbiology of Beer               Adult Vaccines     E.coli:Good, Bad, and Deadly

This Week in Microbiology Podcast – A few podcasts related to the human microbiome:

TWiM #122: Mayonii, microRNAs and the microbiome

TWiM #71: Colon cancer’s little shop of horrors

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