I was first introduced to biology in tenth grade by Dr. Dolores Kingston. I remember being intrigued by the excitement, somewhat akin to religious fervor, that she felt for biological systems. I remember her standing at the front of the classroom, her short, unkempt hair protruding out in all directions. She was a being sprung from the earth itself, come to passionately describe the thrill she felt on discovering an earthworm orgy on the sidewalk in front of her house on a wet summer’s night. And I remember learning from her the awe, which I still feel today, for life and its sometimes obscene processes. I went into Dr. Kingston’s class fully committed to becoming an astronomer, with an intense dislike for the life sciences: I hated putting pins through the abdomens of insects and growing up slime molds. I left her class a convert, with a passion for biology so strong that it motivated me to pursue graduate research in the field of bioinformatics.

Carl Sagan captured the essence of scientific curiosity when he said he believed that “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Dr. Kingston clearly believed this to be true. Like Dr. Kingston, students are innately curious and it will be my job as a teacher to cultivate that curiosity by being an example as to the excitement and wonder that they should bring to the natural world. It is also my obligation to not stifle their curiosity by over-emphasizing rote memorization and unimaginative assessment. Instead I plan to stimulate curiosity by taking a constructivist approach. For example, on the first day of class in a seventh grade life science course, rather than simply reading the syllabus to the students, I would engage the students in a constructivist activity where the students construct the syllabus themselves. During this activity, I would give the students a set of objects designed to represent the topics we would be studying and the activities we would be doing throughout the year. For example, I could give them a picture of a phylogenetic tree to represent evolution, a magnifying glass to represent observation, a beaker containing a snail, a guppy and an elodea to represent ecology, a graph to represent data, etc. I would then ask them to figure out what each object has to do with a life science course, and why it’s important to study or learn how to use. I would then have a discussion with the students about their predictions and conclusions. It is during this type of activity that students construct a sense of meaning with respect to the natural world that is the foundation for lifelong curiosity.

According to Carl Sagan, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” While not all of the students in my classes will become scientists, all of them will be served by the ability to think scientifically. First, I will teach them to become keen observers. For example, during the plant unit, I would ask a seventh grade life science class to carefully observe a plant for ten weeks, directly observing leaf growth and fruit formation. Second, I will teach them to have a reverence for data. For example, during an AP biology class on genetics, I would ask them to infer whether a genetic sequence is a gene based on its nucleotide composition. Third, I will teach them to be inquisitive by having them generate their own hypotheses for every experiment. Finally, I will teach them to think critically and assess whether data and arguments support the drawing of a particular conclusion. For example, during a tenth grade biology course I would ask the students to read the arguments of the famous quack, Hulda Clark, who claims that parasites cause cancer, and then hold a discussion during which they’d apply critical thinking skills to debunk her claims. Using these approaches I will train the students to be effective thinkers equipped to handle the multitude of environmental and medical issues facing the next generation.

In addition to engaging the students to become great thinkers and scientists, I will establish a classroom environment and teaching methodology that will help the students grow as individuals. To that end, I will handle discipline problems within my own classroom, working with students one-on-one to help them construct their own values, rather than imposing them externally. In addition, I will engage in scientific lessons that help students cultivate their ethical reasoning. For example, in an advanced biology class I would do a group work activity on the race to solve the double helix that is designed to help students understand gender bias, the ethics of professional competition/cooperation and the assignment of credit. During the activity, three groups would compete to solve the structure of DNA. No single research team would be given enough information to decipher the entire message. Each team would be given instructions on how to interact with the other teams in an effort to win the bonus. Some of the teams would be instructed to behave in a collaborative manner, sharing their information. A second set of teams would be told to act in a highly competitive manner, keeping their own results to themselves while aggressively attempting to obtain data from the others. One team would be instructed to work independently and methodically in an effort to solve the problem on its own. After the activity, I would lead a discussion asking the students reflective questions, such as, “Which of the groups was instructed to behave in a manner that you think resembles the way real-world scientists behave?” and “What is your opinion about the roles of competition, collaboration and independent work in scientific research?”

I also place a very large premium one helping students learn how to communicate their ideas, as well as comprehend the ideas communicated by others. Many students struggle to read scientific textbooks, because they don’t know how to go back and forth between looking at figure and tables and reading the text. In addition, they don’t often read the entire text or look at the figures and tables, instead they read the minimal amount necessary to answer assigned questions. To help the students develop their literacy skills, I will assign graphic organizers, like concept maps, designed to help students comprehend texts, in addition to asking higher order thinking questions that cannot be answered by copying verbatim from the textbook. I will also help the students learn how to communicate their ideas. At the end of a laboratory or web quest, I will ask them to formally and informally report their findings to the rest of the class. I will have the students verbally critique each other’s work. For example, after an activity in which the students have worked in groups to draw the circulatory system on their human body silhouettes, I will have the groups critique each other’s work, rather than giving them feedback myself.

Finally, I believe in the value of authentic experience both as a great motivator of students and because students learn more easily that which they can connect to real-world experience. Scientists do research over extended periods of time. They explore areas of interest, developing hypotheses to test, testing them and reporting their results over the course of months and years. I plan to have my students do a long-term project or a science fair project, in which they pursue a scientific question deeply for an extended period of time. This will give them an opportunity to practice retaining the level of focus necessary to answer a scientific question. I will also provide other authentic experiences for them in the form of authentic scenarios or procedures. For example, I plan to do a forensics-based lab, in which students learn how to do DNA fingerprinting to solve a staged murder mystery. This laboratory should appeal to the students, because of the popularity of forensics-based television shows, like CSI. During the activity, I will give the students the opportunity to engage in authentic procedures carried out by forensics scientists. Another authentic activity that I plan to do is one in which the students use an authentic bioinformatics tool to identify the disease associated with a genetic sequence using a database of human genetic sequence. This lab will give the students the opportunity to engage in a procedure used by biomedical researchers to analyze diseased tissues. It will also help them to understand the importance of the Human Genome Project, which has provided a huge database of biological sequences for researchers to use in identifications.

Carl Sagan once said, “I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.” I hope that the students who I am privileged to teach leave my classroom both more capable and more enthusiastic about science. Moreover, I hope they leave with a more developed sense of themselves and their values.