Teaching Practicum Reflections – Urea Cycle

The classroom was alarmingly unpopulated when the clock struck noon, despite the quiz scheduled at the beginning of class; only half of the students were present. As I frantically adapted my planned learning activities for the lesson, the importance of clearly communicating the instructor’s high expectation on attendance and participation throughout the course hit home for me. How could one establish a safe, inclusive, and challenging environment that fosters empowerment, meaningful learning, and accountability?

The topic of the lesson was on the biochemical pathway of urea cycle. The learning objectives were – By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:
1.Describe the enzymatic conversion of ammonia to urea, with close attention to the compartment of these steps
2.Compare and contrast short- and long-term regulations of urea cycle
3.Identify and discuss the advantage of interconnection between the citric acid cycle and urea cycle

I thought that my animated PowerPoint presentation was a powerful teaching tool – it helped me to manage my pace and prevented overloading students with excessive contents. Given the nature of the topic, I found myself using guiding question and repetition to engage my learners as I explained the enzymatic reactions. I noticed that in allowing silences and additional time for the learners to answer my questions, they would turn to one another to discuss and arrive at an answer/consensus amongst themselves – perhaps I could include more structured peer discussions throughout my lesson, both as opportunities for the students to process the materials and as an formative assessments. However, I discovered that managing each student’s air-time was surprisingly challenging with this Q&A teaching technique. While using eye contact and open body language to encourage quiet students to contribute to the discussion proved somewhat effective, I think I could have invite different individuals to participate by posing specific questions to them or by acknowledging the active students’ contribution and requesting them to allow others an opportunity to speak.

With the small number of students, I invited them to join me at the whiteboard to add enzymes responsible for each step of the urea cycle as a detailed review, as a discussion platform for the energetic cost of nitrogen metabolism, as an aid for the brief discussion on relevant pathology mechanisms. While I thought the activity was engaging, challenging, and well-aligned with my learning objectives, I felt that the lesson fell flat for me as an instructor – I question whether the students would remember anything from this lesson after their exam in a few weeks. I’ll teach biochemical pathways to fulfill curriculum requirements and to prepare students for other advanced courses, but I wonder whether we could steer away from basic recall assessments and how might we make these contents to be more meaningful for the learners beyond the bounds of a classroom or an examination…

Teaching Practicum Reflections – Biological Membranes

For a 90 minute lecture on biological membranes (for an introductory biochemistry course at Columbia College), I probably spent close to 8 hours making (only) 14 slides. I had a lot of fun creating the teaching material. The PowerPoint presentation was carefully animated – each concept inviting discussions and each slide building on the one previous. The process of designing the presentation allowed many opportunities for me to question the overall alignment between my learning activities and learning objectives, to strategize around how to best engage all of my students, and to think about specifically how each participatory activity may help my students learn (e.g., stages of the Kolb’s cycle).

I invited the students to collaboratively draw a typical biological membrane at the beginning of class and built on their previous knowledge as I introduce additional more in-depth concepts (e.g., chemical structure and molecular interactions). Throughout the lesson, I used many guided questions to help them make connections between concepts. At the end of the lesson, the students taught one another as they collectively filled out a compare and contrast worksheet on the projected whiteboard.Overall, I am happy about the lesson  – most of it unfolded as I had planned and anticipated. I feel confident that the students met the learning objectives by the end of the lesson.

The learning objectives for my lesson were – by the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  1. List and describe the interaction(s) between each major component of a typical biological membrane
  2. Compare and contrast characteristics of a membrane channel and a transporter
  3. Given the characteristics of a solute and the cellular environment, provide the most feasible passive and/or active transport mechanism across a semi-permeable and selective membrane barrier

From this teaching experience, I think one of my strengths is my ability to leverage technology in creating powerful teaching and learning aid. In animating the slides and in minimizing text, it created space for story-telling and helped to enhance student engagement. I also think that the learning activities were well-structured to provide a safe space for everyone to participate and were well-aligned with the learning objectives. I found it difficult to manage time (I only filled 75 of the 90 minutes in this lesson), not knowing how to best balance between amount, depth, and breadth of content and opportunities for students to engage with the material and to integrate knowledge. I recognize that finding this fine balance takes practice, experimentation and experience – but it is most definitely something I need to be conscious of whenever planning a lesson.

In my post-teaching discussion with the course instructor, he left me with some questions to ponder on – how could you further challenge your learners in this class? what kind of assessments could help you distinguish stellar students from good students?

Designing Transformative Learning Activities

How to best facilitate my learners’ processes in moving from a disciplinary novice to a practitioner? in shifting their default thought processes away from identifying context-specific information and more towards considering big picture principles/concepts at play whenever confronted with problems?

In our last GCP session on Disciplinary Transformation, we were invited to design participatory learning activities to help “transform” our learners from disciplinary novices to practitioners.

From my personal observation and learning experience, there is a tendency for disciplinary novices to be fixated on one macroscopic aspect of the disease, whether that is the pathogen or the most clinically affected organ system, thus often finding it difficult to explain the multifactorial process of pathogenesis and disease progression. The disciplinary problem I shared was: Explain the pathogenesis and disease progression of a given disease (e.g., atherosclerosis). The designed activities for each are as follow:

Notice Frame of Reference:
Large Group Brainstorm
1. What comes to mind when you hear the term, atherosclerosis?
2. What are some risk factors for atherosclerosis?

Learn Frame of Reference:
Expert Groups – assign each small group with a risk factor of said disease and ask them to explain how each risk factor contributes to the development of atherosclerosis.
1. high blood lipid content (hyperlipidemia)
2. endothelial damage
3. chronic inflammation (immune function and regulation)
4. thrombotic risk (coagulation and complement components)

Transform Point of View:
Creative individual assignment to integrate what they learned in the expert groups and to identify at least one other mechanism (with appropriate references/scientific evidence) that may contribute to the multifactorial processes of pathogenesis and disease progression of atherosclerosis (e.g., illustration of pathogenesis and disease progression with caption, review paper, or video)

Transform Habit:
Student led in-class group presentations and discussions on pathogenesis and disease progression of different diseases

I think this metacognitive process very useful in keeping my learner-centre focus when planning lessons and in aligning my teaching intention and actions. This is most definitely something I’d like to experiment and play more with!

SoTL: Through the Learner’s Lens

During last week’s GCP session, we explored scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and considered the various methods that we could employ to answer our own questions re: our teaching practice and effectiveness.

With goals to enhance and augment learner’s processes, SoTL is a useful tool to inform us about the overall alignment between our intention, belief and action. Its dissemination is a by-product of our continual efforts to improve our discipline-specific pedagogical approach – its core value lies within the process of these systematic investigations (e.g., self-reflection to identify specific issues of teaching and/or learning, critical appraisal of said issues using appropriate methodology and analysis, and application of results to practice).

To immediately apply what we’ve just learnt, we were asked to identify areas we’d like to learn about our current teaching practice and to develop a research question based on our personal reflection. I noticed that all of the questions that I had about my teaching practice were through my own lens as an instructor! I totally neglected to consider the other, and arguably more important, side of the “teaching and learning” equation – where was my learner’s lens?

This exercise really illuminated my blind spots as a developing instructor – it is not about me! In order to truly assess my teaching effectiveness (i.e., alignment between my intention, belief and action), I’ll have to actively involve my learners, seeing that they are the only credible source to comment/provide feedback on the impact of my teaching!

My key take-away from this session was: to consciously prioritize my learners’ learning above my own eagerness to “perfect” my teaching practice – to actively use their lens to inform how I approach teaching to deepen their learning. Another note to self – this is a learning process that requires a whole lot of self-compassion, patience and honest reflection!

Learning Science vs Learning to Become a Scientist

I finally met my fellow Fearless Rainbow Unicorn Musketeers last Friday! It was a fast-paced, interactive session on pedagogical content knowledge*.

In one of the many activities, we were asked to generate a list of seven qualities of practitioners in our own respective disciplines. This task proved surprisingly challenging for me, despite the fact that I am a research scientist who works at the bench and interacts with numerous other scientists on a daily basis. I think it was partly because this important, big-picture question was never explicitly posed to me; while I have reflected on how I would like to engage with the world as a scientifically-trained individual on occasions, I haven’t spent much time in verbalizing/identifying the qualities that I value in a scientist.

It took me a while, but these were some fragmented thoughts that I managed to capture:

  1. detail-oriented
  2. unbiased observers
  3. critical appraisal of evidence
  4. formulate and defend opinion/ideas anchored in evidence
  5. seeking creative ways to improve current medical interventions
  6. logical thinking and analysis
  7. good communicator

I think one important quality that I missed to include here and one that I try to spark in my learners was curiosity. I think curiosity or the thirst for a more coherent understanding of the world around us is one of the key intrinsic motivations for one to pursue science. It became apparent to me that these qualities I value (and would expect) in a fellow scientist explain why I am involved in various science-related extra-curricular activities (e.g., knowledge translation, high school student mentoring, and community educational outreach).

The jolt of panic kicked in when we were then asked to eliminate four qualities from our lists, because it proved even more difficult than the first task! It required even more introspection around what is my definition of a responsible scientist – one who is able to critically evaluate and objectively interpret evidence, formulate opinion or make informed decision based on evidence, and to engage in discussions with others who are not scientifically trained.

  1. detail-oriented
  2. unbiased observers
  3. critical appraisal of evidence
  4. formulate and defend opinion/ideas anchored in evidence
  5. seeking creative ways to improve current medical interventions
  6. logical thinking and analysis
  7. good communicator

The last instruction was to further distill the list down to one single quality, at which point I wished that I had a shorter list to start with or that I could create a word that combines all qualities of a scientist! I think this process helped to illuminate what I truly value in a scientist, as a scientist:

  1. detail-oriented
  2. unbiased observers
  3. critical appraisal of evidence
  4. formulate and defend opinion/ideas anchored in evidence
  5. seeking creative ways to improve current medical interventions
  6. logical thinking and analysis
  7. good communicator

To me, science is not merely the pursuit of knowledge about the world around us; I think science represents a diverse set of tools or an ever-evolving model that guides us in how we adaptively and responsibly interact with the world as a collective. This activity emphasized my personal objective in engaging with science and highlighted how the scientific community – the good, the bad, and the ugly – influenced my view about the discipline.

Now, the lingering question is: how could I create space and encourage my learners to explore what science means to them and reflect on their own position in the discipline? how could I effectively facilitate their learning processes in integrating and in embodying these important qualities of a scientist?

* my working definition of pedagogical content knowledge is: knowledge about how to reorganize and transform discipline-specific concepts/ideas/information in such a way that is accessible for diverse learners’ comprehension/integration and how to select appropriate educational methods and strategies to facilitate their learning processes.

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