Teaching Spotlight – Scientist Spotlight Activity

Scientist Spotlight activity featured the life and work of Nanophysicist Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi

Jaclyn Dee recently assigned a Scientist Spotlight activity in her BIOL 112 course. Students were asked to watch and respond to a short TED talk video in which Dr. Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi talked about her life and work as a Nanophysicist and how she invented a tool that detects dangerous bacteria earlier than traditional methods.

Keep reading to learn more about the purpose of this activity, how the students responded, what surprised Jaclyn about the student submissions, and why you might want to consider including Scientist Spotlight activities in your course.

What was the idea or purpose behind this assignment?

I designed this Scientist Spotlight activity to get students to:

  1. see scientists as a diverse group of people and personally relate to scientists. I also wanted them to see that being a scientist is not a scientist’s only identity. Scientists can be entrepreneurs, musicians, writers, mothers, etc.
  2. identify connections between the basic biology we were learning in class and current research.
  3. identify elements of effective oral, scientific communication. We learned that students value oral presentation skills during the student focus groups we ran last summer. It wasn’t feasible to insert a big presentation into BIOL112, but I still wanted to try to tackle this in some way.

What were the students’ reactions to the assignment?

I think it was well-received. Students were told they would only receive participation credit for the assignment, but 79% of my students completed the activity. The vast majority of the responses were thoughtful and relevant. There were plenty of “lightbulb moments”. Some students were thrilled by an aspect of biology that was new to them. Other students were surprised to learn that engaging in research required courage, ambition, innovation, and perseverance. A couple of students admitted they were surprised that someone could make contributions to science while raising children.

What was your response to the students’ submissions?

It was personally rewarding to read the students’ responses to the questions I posed. Reading what they were surprised by let me know that they were learning some pretty amazing new things. This was also a great way to get to know students as individuals and learn about their motivations for being in university. I was also surprised by some of the connections that students made between the Scientist Spotlight and class materials. There were connections that I hadn’t anticipated, but they absolutely made sense and made me appreciate some of the class material even more.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I would highly recommend this activity. It is eye-opening for students and it’s fun to read the student responses. Very little preparation is needed. The hardest part is finding diverse people to spotlight who have an online presence, but you only need to find a handful of them. You can look to your professional societies, Twitter, and TED Talks for inspiration. Here are some links for websites you could consult to find scientists to spotlight:



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