Rob Feissner

CCTEFacultyFellow2013_RobFeissner_MCE0889

 

Teaching Philosophy 

Science is not, as it might appear from high school and introductory biology courses, a discipline of simply memorizing facts and doing “experiments” for which an outcome is already known.  As a teacher, I help students discover and appreciate that science is a discipline of inquiry that is practiced at the boundary of what is known and what we don’t yet understand.  Biology, more than any other field, provides a platform for teaching how to think critically and how to solve problems without obvious answers. My goals as a teacher are to guide students in learning how to think like a scientist, to become skeptical when presented with new information, to use the scientific method to investigate questions, and to apply their prior experiences to develop an understanding of the unknown.  These are the skills that define a successful scientist and carry over to life outside of the classroom.

In biology, there should be broader goals for every class than simply teaching the facts of the subject at hand.  While an understanding of plant anatomy may not be crucial for a physical therapist, learning the process of questioning, investigating, and redefining questions are valuable skills that transcend particular topics.  This is important at a college like Geneseo with a biology program that represents many diverse biological and clinical disciplines.  For every laboratory investigation I lead, I will introduce students to the fundamentals of the subject, be it microbiology, phylogeny, biochemistry, or even biotechnology, and then encourage students to explore those ideas further on their own through guided and independent inquiry.

In most biology courses there is a considerable amount of technical knowledge that needs to be learned in order to understand scientific principles.  I believe that multiple teaching strategies are central to a successful classroom.  I vary my instructional approaches to meet the diverse learning abilities of my students.  A balanced mix of lecturing and presentation, class discussion, in class exercises, and multimedia supplementation is beneficial to students who learn with different strategies.  I also think that it is important to visit or to have experts in the field come to discuss pertinent topics with students and to bring state-of-the-art science into the classroom, as well as to let the students know that what we are learning in class is really practiced in the real world.  I learned during a plant biology class field trip to the New York State Agriculture Experiment Station that the excitement of an outside speaker can stimulate interest in a subject.  A hands-on demonstration of broccoli development by Dr. Thomas Bjorkman led to student amazement that broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are all the same species of plant, albeit with different flowering patterns.  Harnessing that excitement, I was able to discuss artificial selection and plant breeding in class more rigorously than I had planned, and the class was correspondingly more receptive.

The opportunity to connect both the lecture and lab components of the course is important as it facilitates a smooth transition between the facts and theory taught in lecture, and the hands-on, experimental facets of biology explored in lab.  For lab, I strive to prepare investigations that are not scripted “lab-on-rails” demonstrations, but rely on student investigation to complete; labs in which students ask their own questions for which there is no predetermined outcome. I use technology as much as possible.  For example, I have had great success exploring difficult-to-conceptualize elements of phothsynthesis and respiration using computer-driven probeware.

College can be a stressful experience for students learning to become independent thinkers, striving to excel in their studies, as well as determining what their career goals are.  This is an even bigger issue for students making the transition from a high-school to environment to independent college life.  It is becoming increasingly important for teachers to serve as mentors both in the classroom and out.  I believe that as a teacher, my job is to motivate and encourage my students to excel.  The best way to do this is to lead by example.  I make an effort to continue learning myself and keep up-to-date with recent advances and discoveries in biology.  Overall, I strive to be enthusiastic, approachable, innovative, resourceful, flexible, caring, and knowledgeable.  I value the personal interaction facilitated by the typically small class sizes found in science labs.  Treating students as colleagues has helped me to establish trust, which has in turn facilitated meaningful and productive interactions.  I value the discussions I have had with students outside of class and have been able to improve my teaching simply by listening to my student’s comments and concerns in casual conversation.

Getting to know my students goes a long way in helping them to identify how the information you are teaching is relevant and important to their long term goals.  Since I was a student, advances in internet communication have opened up an avenue for teaching, as it facilitates more interaction and communication between students and the teacher outside of the confines of the classroom and the lab.  This past semester alone, I had many experiences with e-mail conversations that helped students understand difficult concepts or clarify points that were discussed in lecture.  Liberal use of MyCourses has allowed me to address additional questions with my students outside of class and address points that I may have glossed over or covered inadequately in class.  Digital communication, however, does not supplant traditional office hours, but serves as a way to provide more flexible opportunities for discussion in a changing and increasingly digital world.

My teaching career is young and my philosophy of teaching is continually under development.  I do not view failures as deficiencies in my ability, but as learning opportunities that help to define and strengthen my teaching goals.  I have high expectation for myself as a teacher to keep abreast of new developments and I am eager to help my students develop a personal understanding of biology.

For additional information about my work in the Fellows Program, please see my action research report on Statistics Using R.