Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2006
Vol. 4, No. 1

TEACHING

Tutoring Project to Celebrate Golden Anniversary

> [THOSE WHO CAN, TEACH]
A Conversation with Trina Schroer, professor of Biology

[TECH TOOLS]
Putting Biology Field Work
on a Map

[CLASSROOM ENCOUNTERS]
Looking at Art with a "Period Eye"


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[THOSE WHO CAN, TEACH]

A Conversation with Trina Schroer,
professor of Biology

 

Professor Trina SchoerBiology professor Trina Schroer is well known among students for her ability to convey complex science in clear and simple terms. A member of the Krieger School faculty since 1990, Schroer was honored last spring with an Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award.

“With Dr. Schroer teaching, the concepts were complex and the intensity high, but it never felt confusing or overwhelming thanks to her unique ability to explain even the most complicated or scientific methods or mechanisms,” noted one student in nominating her for the honor. Said another student, “In an environment where research is emphasized, she is the first to remind us that the best researchers are also exceptional teachers.”

Just before the start of the fall semester, interim editor Sue De Pasquale sat down with Schroer to talk about the challenges inherent to teaching advanced science.

PHOTO: WILL KIRK/HIPS


 

Cell Biology has a reputation for being a tough course, and it’s one that all prospective pre-meds should do well in, so the anxiety level is high. How have you been so successful in getting your undergraduate students to grasp the course’s content?

A major element of being an effective teacher is knowing your audience. You have to remember that these are college students and not your peers. Faculty sometimes treat undergraduate students like they are PhDs and skip the basics, so that much of the material ends up going over the students’ heads.

At the start of the course, I try very hard to gauge where my students are—what they’ve learned in high school. I assume nothing and take it from scratch. However, I ramp it up very quickly. I give students a chance to come in slow and, provided they’re paying attention and keeping up with things outside of class, they should be able to follow the material.

 

Scientific terminology can be a little daunting for students just moving into advanced study. How do you overcome that obstacle?

I use the simplest words possible and no specialty terms unless I have already defined them. When I use an acronym or a word with a foreign word root, I always provide the full phrase and/or the roots.

This approach is a response to my own experience as an undergrad, when I took a medical school course without any of the necessary prerequisites. I quickly discovered that “medical-ese” is a completely foreign language. I want to spare my own students the pain of trying to follow a lecture that includes completely unfamiliar words and terms.

 

You’re also a big believer in using analogy as a teaching tool?

Yes, I use analogy a lot. Many of the complex phenomena I describe are much easier for students to grasp this way. For example, when I’m talking about the relative sizes of biological structures, I might say that a particular part of the cell is the equivalent of a ball of string in a room the size of this auditorium.

One favorite analogy is the one I use to describe the three experimental strategies used to study modern cell biology: biochemistry, genetics, and physiology. Basically, I ask my students to consider the cell as a car factory, with different kinds of scientists observing from the outside. A physiologist would treat the factory with poisons (drugs) to see what happens or comes out. A biochemist would blow up the factory and try to re-create a functional factory from all the different pieces. The geneticist would kidnap the workers inside one at a time to see what kind of product is made after each kidnapping. Is it missing its wheels? A roof? Or does it look perfectly normal, but simply not move?

 

If you could change anything to improve the manner in which courses like Cell Biology are taught, what would it be?

I’d like to see more use of computer-aided visuals and videos. I’m a very visual person and there are many concepts that could be illustrated well in animations and recordings made from real cells. Given the quality of computer animation and live cell microscopy today, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for imaging real biological processes. You can give a lecture and then show a movie that illustrates exactly what you just described.

That said, I am reluctant to move to PowerPoint for my Cell Biology lectures. I find it discourages students from being actively engaged in the lecture, and, in some cases, even attending class. If the students are not provided with a hard copy of the lecture at the beginning of each class, they are encouraged to study in advance and be present and attentive during class.

 

 

Last fall, you taught an upper-level elective on the biology of AIDS.
Have you enjoyed teaching this course? Why?

It was a very gratifying experience. The students who elected to take the course really wanted to be there, so they were really interested and completely engaged in the material.

Basically I cover the whole picture of AIDS. I’m not shy about talking about how people get AIDS and how to avoid getting it. I realize that some of my students are ignorant about this, yet they’re in the demographic most at risk. Many of my students are pre-meds or plan to pursue a career in public health; I tell them, “I hope that you will want to go out and fight this disease, but I want to be very sure you won’t get it yourself!”

AIDS is an important public health problem that’s not going to get easier or better in our lifetimes, so I consider teaching this course a true community service. Teaching, in and of itself, is an altruistic profession, but life in the “ivory tower” tends to shield one from real-life problems. Teaching about something where people’s lives are at stake makes me feel particularly good about
what I do.