When I was a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins, a particular highlight of my experience was being given the opportunity to TA an undergraduate Animal Behaviour course. The idea of communicating a research concept in a field that interested me was very exciting, and the experience got me thinking long-term about doing something similar within the Indian education system. Soon after, when preparing to move back to India, I made up my mind. Whatever my professional life held in store for me, it would involve teaching, and I was going to figure out if there was a way for my research philosophy to inform how I approached the organismal biological disciplines in the classroom.
As the son of a school teacher, I had grown up aware of the importance of engaging students to think independently. Could I, then, distil complicated concepts in my field of research down to their first-principles (the fundamental concepts on which a field is based), and then use this as a framework to construct research ideas with my students? If this was true, could I then approach any subject with the idea that all of the biological sciences could be similarly distilled using the perspective of “curious naturalists”, to borrow a phrase from Niko Tinbergen?
This, while not a novel approach, is quite a lofty ideal, but I have set it as a personal benchmark to strive towards in my teaching, and in tandem, also my research. I will, over the course of this article, attempt to illustrate how this approach has informed both aspects of my life as a scientist and my thought process on the role of a scientist as a teacher.
Soon after starting in my current position at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune, I was given the opportunity to team-teach our own undergraduate Animal Behaviour Course. Naturally, I was very excited at the prospect, as I was keen to implement the concept-oriented and comparative approach to the subject that I had learnt in the US.
As an undergraduate in India, I had been privileged in having some exposure to organismal biology from some of the best teachers, but had found myself hungry for more. I had also been made acutely aware through graduate school how few of my compatriots had actually studied organismal biology. Many biology undergraduate programmes overemphasize cell and molecular biology, genetics and biochemistry to the detriment of the diverse, and often first-principles driven organismal disciplines.
Without taking away from the crucial importance of these other biological disciplines, I felt that the vibrant, diverse community of scientists and students at IISER Pune offered a laboratory of sorts for me to develop my abilities in communicating these disciplines. Here, I cannot be grateful enough for the opportunity and freedom accorded to me by my department and course co-instructors, who were very supportive of, and receptive to my teaching plan and lecture content.
At the outset, I tried to turn my still rather free-form thought process into a set of rules that I would use to govern my approach henceforth. I now go by this “rule-of-four” in all my teaching: (1) always distil lesson material into its first principles so students can see a narrative in the subject, (2) always use chalkboard lectures (in the way that I myself was taught), (3) never hand out reading material (I do send out papers I find interesting, but I leave it up to the students to decide how much depth they want to incorporate), and (4) always test students on concepts and problem-solving as a researcher might encounter them.
Adopting this approach certainly had potential downsides: for example, I am not the best at drawing anything, and so had to figure out how to communicate effectively within this limitation. Leaving the reading material open-ended is not likely to endear one to students, particularly around exam-time. I tried to get around that by making my lectures as dynamic as I could, so that students paid attention and took down notes. Ideally, that should make their extra reading much easier to approach as well. Finally, preparing a chalkboard lecture is a lot of work. I spent a week before semester reading up my entire syllabus, would do a second reading the night before, and would wake up extra early the morning of a class to write out lecture notes and “rehearse” so I could deliver a lecture from memory.
The pros, however, outweighed the cons considerably. Personally, I have always felt I teach best when keeping things a little loose and freestyle, and this approach hopefully makes it easier for me to keep changing things up and updating myself in future iterations. Preparing lectures in this way brought back fond memories of my own college professors, who relied on nothing but chalk and sometimes hand-drawn transparencies to capture our imagination.
So how did I approach each class, and how were the lectures informed by my research? To any scientist, the primary research motivator is curiosity. If I could, using the power of narrative, spark curiosity about a phenomenon/behaviour among students, and test them with questions (and the occasional intentional ‘mistake’), I might, I hoped, take them along a researcher’s thought process.
At first, this was met with dead silence and expressionless faces, but as the semester progressed, students became progressively more responsive, even coming up with thoughts that had never occurred to me. My classes began with a discussion of how behaviours might have evolved, and went further into discussions on function and adaptive value. My exams focused similarly on problem-solving related to these broad questions, with an emphasis on the fact that there are multiple possible interpretations of any behavioural observation if you think carefully.
The course includes a mandatory research project, carried out in groups (a tradition which preceded my teaching it, and which exists in other courses on animal behaviour as well), and one of the highlights of the course was seeing students apply concepts learned in class to understand the adaptive value of camouflage, interspecific competition, the determinants of various insect behaviours, and many other phenomena.
The experience had a positive impact on my research as well. Interacting with students who are in many ways “blank slates” allowed me to reflect more on communicating my own research, and made me more aware of alternative hypotheses and explanations. As a researcher, the main qualities I try to impart in the classroom are to be curious, not to fear the unknown, to work from first principles in a collaborative way, and to place value on process rather than outcome. In turn, my students, with even seemingly mundane questions, teach me not to take anything for granted, to break down all tasks into simple building blocks, and above all to not over-complicate my thinking. Finally, observing and working with this heterogeneous assortment of students gives me great perspective in listening to diverse views of science and the world, and teaches me to be ever more accommodating of views that do not match my own.
With modern technological advances such as CT scanning and open-source 3D reconstruction software broadening the horizons of organismal biology, the hope (and challenge) now is to integrate these advances with a more old-school approach to instruction (one that has stood the test of time for decades) in the classroom. A host of excellent researchers and teachers across the IISERs have been promulgating an interdisciplinary view of biology using diverse pedagogical approaches, and it is my humble hope that my contribution will in some way add to this and expand its scope.
The details are very much a work-in-progress, and there is always room for improvement. For instance, one complaint from students is that I often run too fast, which I am working on fixing. Another is that some students find this sort of syllabus confusing when it comes to preparing for exams. We have a long way to go to break the idea that all coursework should be geared toward exams, but I treat this as something to bear in mind nonetheless. All in all, though, I have found that incorporating the perspective of the curious naturalist into my teaching has been a rewarding experience for me both personally and professionally, and the students seem to enjoy it as well.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/journey-of-a-yi/organismal-biology-in-the-classroom