As a herpetologist and neuroscientist, I see wonder in ordinary places. While flipping rocks during one particular field survey—a means of assessing populations of reptiles and amphibians in a state park or nature reserve—I discovered two different species of snakes next to each other, both in the milky stage of their shed cycle. The rest of day was rife with questions: did shedding together provide advantages for survival? Is this synchrony governed by a chemical cue? If so, could one test for the presence of these chemicals? Shedding snakes are particularly vulnerable because their vision is highly obscured. I’ve often wondered about this sensory experience: to be temporarily blinded on a regular basis, for visually dominant human, would be quite the impediment. With neuroscience, one can translate these varied experiences into a universal language, making it a strong educational tool. For me, these learning moments happened outside the classroom, but the logical processes were taught to me by excellent educators whose rhetoric I have adopted.I have two philosophies as an educator: teach students to how discover the sublime in the ordinary, and to observe the application of STEM in their daily lives.
A study of the self, neuroscience is a topic that easily transforms anyone into a potential student. Neuroscience is the tool I use to connect myself and my educational content to my students. Beyond that, it is the product of merged fields, including chemistry, physics, electrical and computer engineering, and, often, control theory and biomechanics. To wit, my doctoral thesis work required collaborations with aerospace engineers, computer scientists, and data scientists to determine how mosquitoes make decisions while tracking airborne thermal signals. My skillset became as varied as my collaborations as I learned to record from neural tissue, while learning programming, 3D design, and thermofluid modeling.
I interweave my interdisciplinary perspective into my pedagogy by demonstrating use of technology in the exploration of the human sensory experience. When teaching about sensory perception, for example, I ask students to provide examples of how we measure things, such as loudness of sound, and the units they’re recorded in. Employing the Socratic method, I walk students through logical steps that show these measurements are on a logarithmic scale. Through this process, my students discover a wondrous feature of human sensation in something as banal as the decibel unit. Pulling from lessons in physics and math, I describe the neural functions that cause detection of change in loudness to occur in orders of magnitude. So when one measures these changes in perception with measurement devices, the resulting scale is logarithmic. A lesson like this works well as a discussion, but can easily be turned into a lab experiment for a course, where students would make such measurements themselves; using technology to explore a seemingly simple concept. I enjoy making my lessons plastic because, in doing so, I am able to teach these lessons to a diversity of students.
Each student’s path to their educational passion is as unique as the individual. The benefit of interdisciplinary sciences is that it is well-complemented by the strengths and interests of the student. Whenever I can, I connect with each student to find areas where they struggle and excel. I learn their names, and pay attention to body language, participation, and direct feedback. Thus, I cater my lectures and teaching material to my students by repeating lessons when students are lost, and pointing out areas of active research in which they may have interest. To this end, it is important to teach students that not every question has yet been answered. I often provide the name and website of the lab presently studying open questions related to the topic. Thus, I highlight the known unknowns of a given subject, while demonstrating research approaches to topics of interest. In being close to my students, I know what motivates them, and use these motivations to show how seemingly impossible feats, like mind reading, already exist in nature or with medical technology.
Interdisciplinary approaches to STEM education are unique to the student, but are also expansive; the volume of content can easily overwhelm students, especially first years. So, with every course and lecture, I stitch a seam of commonality. I recently had the privilege of creating a course of my own design: The Neuroscience of Superpowers. Here, I covered the major neural systems by highlighting common themes in groups of superhero abilities. Students were immediately engaged, comparing their abilities to those of famous comic book heroes. However, they also thought critically about information processing and neural behavior. Ultimately, the goal of each unit was to determine how we could possibly bestow super human abilities to people, given current developments in biomedical technology. This course was demanding, yet my students met every challenge with exceptional care and energy. My students have reported that they learned more in my class than previous biology courses because of the clear application of knowledge.
Indeed, teaching in STEM often relies upon abstract concepts and extensive background knowledge. Typically, it is in the higher level courses that students begin to apply their education to novel problems. Yet understanding the “why” in early years of learning can make all the difference in student retention, especially with complex, wide-ranging STEM subjects. In my educational journey, I struggled with my undergraduate lectures and excelled in my lab courses. The application of knowledge made a measurable difference in my ability to grasp, and also retain the material. My experience is similar to many others’, as the use of hands-on activities is becoming a major pedagogical strategy in both formal and informal STEM learning. I use creative avenues to find application of STEM in the classroom, relying on my technological prowess from my research experience, as well as my bond with students, to help them discover the application of STEM in their lives.
My teaching journey has been a unique one. I have endured the challenges of introductory and novel coursework. I have guest lectured and taught seminars, a deep honor and, as a black queer woman, provided students visibility of a rarely-seen science identity. I take my teaching efforts outside the classroom when editing press releases written by student interns in the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. There, I have encouraged technological use by expanding formats to include video and infographic formats. These roles culminate in my experience teaching my own course at Virginia Tech. I created a home in my classroom, where my students could safely share their interests and have it reflected in lectures, and where students saw their everyday sensory experience not only as a wonder in itself, but an intersection of multiple disciplines, and an avenue for the future.