Statement of Teaching Philosophy

June 20, 2012

The following statement of teaching philosophy was part of my application package for junior faculty searches:

As a Lewis-Sigler Fellow at Princeton, I’ve had the unique opportunity, in addition to overseeing an independent research program, to be an instructor for Princeton’s Integrated Sciences Curriculum, or ISC. While traditional postdoctoral fellows have limited if any teaching responsibilities, the ISC requires an unusually strong commitment not only from the dedicated students it attracts, but also from its instructors. Part of my learning process was to find my pedagogical voice. The teaching philosophy that informs the voice I’ve found developed and coalesced during my recent two-year stint as an instructor for ISC235/236, the yearlong sophomore introductory biology course. However, the core of my teaching philosophy dates all the way back to age 16, when I adopted a largely self-directed, rather than classroom-centered, approach to my own scientific education.

As an intern at a local Florida biotech venture, I first accessed scientific journals in the company library. Those high school years coincided with major technological leaps, such as the fledgling Internet enabling direct email contact with corresponding authors of research articles. One such early contact, with immunologist Ron Germain led me to three highly formative summer internships in his lab at the NIH in between college semesters at Columbia.

When I started teaching ISC235/236 two years ago, encouraged by ISC’s emphasis on innovation in science pedagogy, I drew upon my own early, full immersion in the primary scientific literature, and the vistas it had opened. So I embarked on a series of paper-based teaching experiments, designed to recapitulate, facilitate, and accelerate, in a classroom setting, my own autodidactic explorations. As a result, I am leaving my mark on the sophomore biology course in two innovative respects, and I openly confess to reconfiguring elements of a first-year graduate seminar for an undergraduate audience. First, I introduced my students to the custom of a post publication review, in which I present data from seminal papers in precept that goes along with weekly lecture material. I then moderate free-flowing, vigorous, largely student-sustained discussion of a paper’s methodology, data and models. Second, I initiated the practice of using papers as templates for problems that comprise weekly problem sets as well as midterm and final exams. My goals: to pave another avenue of exposure to the primary scientific literature, and to show students that general principles can be distilled from ostensibly disparate model systems or experimental approaches.

A paper-based, Socratic strategy has several practical advantages, coinciding with the emerging post-textbook, Udacity age. For example, a department over time will amass a distinct archive of pedagogically useful papers and problem sets that can ultimately be shared with other academic institutions by an open-source model. Most important, students are empowered to develop proactive critical thinking skills sooner than they otherwise might on their own, reading papers like mature scientists. Likewise, instructors are challenged to fulfill the promise of living curricula, which might otherwise lapse due to inertia or “limited bandwidth.” This modular approach can be infused into existing or new undergraduate courses, and already is a natural fit at the graduate level.

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  • Michelle Hsieh

    Kudos to you, Ethan. I cannot fully express my joy at finding a lecturer willing to step out of the comfortable box in which many academics find themselves lounging in, to engage with Undergraduate Students on a level which requires critical thinking. Thank-you, sincerely.