Oakland University and Scientific Teaching

Oakland University (OU) Biology Professors Take Part in National Institute on Scientific Teaching

With the goal of improving student learning, a select group of faculty members in Oakland University’s Department of Biological Sciences attended a national conference dedicated to enhancing teaching methods in the STEM fields. Rasul Chaudhry, Shailesh Lal, Luis Villa-Diaz and Randal Westrick took part in this year’s Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching, which was held June 4-10 at the University of Minnesota.

From left, Shailesh Lal, Luis Villa-Diaz, Randal Westrick and Rasul Chaudhry are pictured with the certificates they received after taking part in this year's Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching

From left, Shailesh Lal, Luis Villa-Diaz, Randal Westrick and Rasul Chaudhry are pictured with the certificates they received after taking part in this year’s Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching

The event, which was by invitation only, focused on helping university instructors in the STEM fields create an inclusive environment in which students of all backgrounds and learning styles can succeed.

Chaudhry, who has taught at OU for more than 30 years, said the institute allowed STEM professors to share ideas on how to improve student engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, subjects with a reputation for being academically challenging.

“We are always looking for ways to spark students’ interest. Some students struggle early on (in STEM subjects) and are turned off,” Chaudhry said. “They may develop a mindset that ‘it’s too difficult’ or ‘it’s just not for me.’ Our challenge as educators is to reach out to all students and help them see that STEM can be fun and interesting.”

During the conference, participants engaged in interactive sessions, worked in small groups with a trained facilitator, and presented instructional materials for feedback and review. OU’s team presented a lesson on epigenetics, which is the study of biological mechanisms that control gene expression.

“It’s a topic that must be taught with sensitivity,” Villa-Diaz said, noting that epigenetics play a role in disease predisposition being passed from generation to generation. “There could be students in the class who have family history of certain diseases, such as cancer.”

Participants discussed ways to maximize student engagement, such as implementing multilingual instruction for non-native speakers and closed captioning for students with hearing impairments. The concept of a “flipped classroom” in which students watch or listen to a lecture before class, and then engage in discussion and learning exercises during class, was also cited as a way to promote active learning.

Lal noted that an inclusive approach is particularly vital for professors who are teaching students of many different skill levels.

“At most universities, professors are teaching a wide spectrum of students,” Lal explained. “So, we’re trying to keep the more advanced students interested, while also making sure that no one is left behind.”

A student’s cultural background can also be a pathway to engagement, according to Chaudhry.

“Most of the contributions to cell biology came from Caucasians,” he said. “But there are many other scientific contributions that were made by minorities.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The term “Caucasian” refers to the peoples of Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa.

At the conclusion of the institute, participants received a certificate designating them a Scientific Teaching Fellow in recognition of their demonstrated commitment to undergraduate education.

OU’s team will be organizing workshops to share what they’ve learned with colleagues across campus.

“The plan is to spread the message so that we can all use these strategies,” Westrick said. “We want to attract and retain as many students as possible in STEM. These fields are not only financially rewarding, but also rewarding in terms of their potential to improve people’s lives and make the world a better place.”

Financial support for the participants was provided by the Office of the Provost. The institute was jointly sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning.

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