My PhD is in comparative animal physiology, but my latest research interest is in teaching. My first teaching job was as a lecturer at UCI, where I taught 15 discussion sections a week for the large lecture courses. This repetition allowed me to experiment with different teaching techniques, and I could easily see which styles worked and which did not. It became clear to me that students learn best when forced to interact with the material, instead of just taking notes.
I am using this experience to train new discussion leaders to teach Biology discussions with excitement and interaction. My primary project is the In-situ TA Training Program, but I am also Co-Director of the HHMI-UCI Professor Program.
My other research interests are in improving performance in large lectures for under-represented minority students and assessing the usefulness of education technology.
In my lab we study the activity of living neurons in the brains of both flies and mice. Current experiments are focused on using a mutant approach to gain insight into the mechanisms involved in regulating activity in central circuits that process information during learning and that mediate responses to nicotine.
I have always had close interactions with a small number of students directly involved in my research, and I try to impart to them the excitement that I was exposed to as an undergraduate. However, the majority of my undergraduate teaching has been in large lectures, typical of introductory classes taught at research universities. As my children began approaching the age of university students, I started to think more deeply about how we were training these students. I realized that traditional didactic lecturing focuses on transmission of facts, akin to an “information dump.” With access to large volumes of information literally at their fingertips, the challenge is to teach today’s students to learn the critical thinking skills that will be necessary to evaluate and interpret information they receive.
With this goal in mind, I undertook the challenge, along with three outstanding assistant professors, to completely redesign our introductory biology course in Fall 2004. As a result of that work, I became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2006. This Professorship gave me eight years of funding to study mechanisms to improve teaching and learning in biology at UC Irvine.
I am now Vice-Provost, but our work continues in the School of Biological Sciences as the UCI Biology Education Research Program.