“I used to think only environmental microbiology is interesting, but now I think there is a lot more to explore.”
The above sentence was something that came out during the reflection session we had in the last day of the first Master’s level course I’ve ever facilitated, Selected Topics in Biotechnology.
To be honest, I initially turned it down when the department asked me to be the coordinator of this class. I already had four co-teaching assignments on my plate, all of which I had to prepare from scratch. However, after several back and forth discussion, they finally talked me into it. I came up with the course design within three days by combining some of my learning experience at UC Davis with some ideas I thought would be cool.
It turned out to be my favorite teaching experience of the semester, if not of all time.
In this course, we highlighted the microbial world, a subject that to me is fascinating due to its vast diversity. We examined examples of how these tiny organisms, mostly unseen by the naked eye, play specific roles in their interactions with other living beings. We also discussed some of the practical applications that derive from the wealth of metabolic diversity that microorganisms possess.
Do you know that there are two different species of bacteria that can cooperate to produce biodegradable plastics? Do you know that palm oil waste can be transformed into a valuable energy source, diesel? Do you know that bacteria also play a part in determining how living beings behave? Do you know that there is a possibility to genetically engineer mosquitoes to prevent the spread of malaria? Well, we learned all this stuff in my class.
Inspired by the graduate seminar courses I’ve taken in the past, each student was given an opportunity to choose a paper they think would be interesting to highlight, as long as it’s related to microbiology. They took turns presenting the paper and leading a discussion about it. I feel that this is thus far the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had in embracing the awkward silence.
Many might think that an interactive discussion should flow with no pauses. However, I think you can still have a lively conversation and allow time for those who might need extra time to gather their thoughts. This is especially true when you are dealing with a topic that not everyone might be very familiar with. I learn that the whole point was to challenge students’ thinking (and mine), so it wouldn’t hurt to have a few seconds where nobody said anything as long as it gave everyone some time to really create a perspective, would it?
Taking control over an entire semester on my own had its own benefit. Yes, it is a lot of work. Yes, I have to teach the class 14 times. Yes, I had to drag myself when I was sick because I didn’t have the luxury of switching schedule with anyone else. However, I like the ability of being flexible with how I run the class and monitor students’ progress. For example, we utilized mind mapping to organize ideas and concepts. We started off by brainstorming things that came up to students’ mind when they hear the term “microbial diversity”, which is our main theme. These were all written down on colorful post-its and grouped into several categories. Each week, more and more post-its were added on the mind map based on the paper we discussed. The mind-map was reorganized at the last day of class to allow students to see how their knowledge has expanded from the beginning to the end of the course. To my surprise, they still remembered a lot of the papers we discussed even a few months back!
Mind map on the wonder of microbes in the beginning and at the end of the class.
I wasn’t able to do this in the other classes because I had only a couple of sessions, a few of which were intermittent. I was lacking that satisfaction of witnessing the evolution of thoughts in my other classes, but I got it here. That was my definition of a good day.
My favorite moment is the reflection session, in which we answered a set of questions that have been asked and answered at the beginning of the semester. One person held a ball of yarn and gave their response. Another person who could relate to that response then took a turn to talk and so on, all the while a ball of yarn was passed around among participants. It never occurred to me that to people who come from medical or pharmacy background, when they hear the word “bacteria” or “microbes”, their mind will most likely be automatically directed towards negative things. However, after various paper discussions, they have now realized that there are other ways to look at microbes beyond disease or health hazard. All in all, it’s great to see a different point of view and realize how our way of thinking might be different, but in the end there is a connection among everyone no matter how small.
Finding common grounds with a ball of yarn.
Our discussion was concluded with an activity where everyone wrote down the sentence “I used to____ but now I think ____,” as quoted in the beginning of this post. This sentence is used a starting point for their final reflection essay, which counts as the final exam. So in case you’re wondering, yes, this posting is written for the completion of that reflection assignment on my part. When I completed my Ph.D. training, I thought after years focusing on one thing I would only be interested in topics that are related to my field of expertise, but after discussing various papers in the class, I realized that I could still get excited about a lot of different things too. That’ll do pig, that’ll do.
My initial self-reflection.
In the future, I’d like to learn how to boost participation in the class. With our small size of ten students, it is easy to create the illusion of thorough participation when in fact the majority of the discussions involve perhaps 60-70% of the class. It is not necessarily a bad thing, though. I can understand why some people chose not to talk. Maybe they’re worried that everyone else will think their comments are stupid. Maybe they do not understand the material that well. Maybe they’re the type of person who prefers to listen to other people’s thoughts and culminate what it means and how it relates to their opinion before making further remarks, like yours truly. The question is, how do I ensure that everyone gets equal opportunity to leave with something new by the end of the class?
Chances are I won’t be facilitating this class anymore next year, as it is generally intended to highlight the specific field of expertise of our faculty members, especially those who have just returned or joined the club (i.e.: me this year). Even so, I do think I have managed to try out a lot of ideas and it will definitely be incorporated in my future classes!