In my application for the Presidential Teaching Fellow program I noted that President Boren challenges students at New Sooner Convocation to “get outside your comfort zone.” I think the Fellow’s program does this – not just for the students, but for the faculty as well.
I definitely stepped outside my comfort zone this past year and developed three new and ambitious courses in Cultural Evolution, Sensory Manipulation, and Team-based Authentic Research. It was challenging and exhilarating all at once. I worked alongside some of OU’s brightest young minds as we wrestled with the primary literature, dug down to first principles, and generated and tested novel hypotheses.
I learned as much as my students. Students taught me about such things as Thomassons (cultural vestigial structures), Boxcar 3D (an online program where simulated cars evolve under various selective pressures), and Conway’s Game of Life (type “Conway’s Game of Life” in Google, don’t click anything, and watch it play on the right side of your screen). The Fellows program also allowed me to bring in special guests to interact with our students and give public presentations.
I think another value of the program is to tighten the weave among departments and the Honors College. In the Honors College I found welcoming and extremely talented faculty and staff who always place students first. I already knew and interacted with some of the college’s great programs– e.g., UROP, Undergraduate Research Day, Reading Groups – but I did not know the extent of the College’s commitment to nurturing the academic growth of our best students. I have already spread the word to my home Biology department and will continue to advocate for the Honors College and its mission in the future.
Let me conclude by highlighting the research-based course I taught in both the fall and spring semesters last year. The class is called Navigation in Bees, Ants, and Scorpions and it is a team-based, full immersion experience in science. Students were given several papers to read, instructed in experimental design, scientific writing and presentation, and split into small research teams of three to four students. After that it was up to them. They developed and defended research proposals, generated hypotheses, designed experiments, filled up their notebooks, gathered and analyzed their data, presented their results, and wrote up their findings in the form of a formal scientific manuscript.
Quite frankly, this was a scary venture for all of us –stepping into the unknown where precanned experiments and answers don’t exist. Of course things did not always go as expected, which is a big lesson itself. Science can be messy, frustrating, and unexpected. However, the incongruities are often the most exciting things – they are the chards that lead to new discoveries. And new discoveries happened in both semesters.
For example, in the fall, one of the teams ambitiously attempted to listen in on the neural activity of tiny structures on an organ on the belly of a scorpion. They used a technique called electrophysiology to insert microelectrodes into sensory structures that contain both chemo- and touch-sensitive neurons. My lab and others had assumed the two populations of cells were not synaptically coupled (that is, were not talking to each other). The students however, developed a new technique where they could monitor the chemo-sensitive cells while activating the touch-sensitive cells. What they found was a brief inhibition of the chemo-sensitive cells coincident with the touch-sensitive activity. I did not believe it (at first) and thought it was probably an artifact of their technique. However, the students were intransigent. They trusted their observations and produced additional examples. In the end, I think they are right and it could lead to a submitted manuscript. It will required several additional tests, but if they are correct, it opens a new path in thinking about processing of chemo-tactile information before it gets to the brain. The students are now, completely on their own, finding time to refine their results.
I think this is another big lesson and another value that emerged from the Presidential Teaching Fellow Program. Discoveries are not bound by class time or credit hours. It’s up to you, your perseverance, your willingness to learn, your attention to detail, and your commitment to doing it right. Students are trying new things, making mistakes, refining their approach, and trying to do it right. Likewise, thanks to this fellowship, I am doing the same.