The 2008 Invitrogen Education Award: Susan Howitt

School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Australian National University

HowittI was appointed to my present teaching position in 1997. My previous appointments had been research only (although I had given some lectures). One of my new teaching duties was to convene, and contribute a significant portion of the lectures, into a second year molecular genetics course. I was shocked to discover that I was expected to teach quite a lot to a second year class that was completely unfamiliar to me (molecular genetics had advanced a lot since I was an undergraduate and although my PhD was in genetics, I had subsequently moved into other research areas). This raised the question of why undergraduates needed to know things that I managed quite well without. Once I had taught the course for a couple of years, I encountered another problem. I realised that there was a significant mismatch between what I wanted students to know at the end of the course and what they actually did know. They could often reproduce detailed facts about complex processes, but at the same time, had trouble applying even basic concepts to new situations.

Thinking about these problems led me to the view that has been nicely expressed by Jeff Schatz: "To a scientist, cramming facts is what practicing scales is to a pianist: there is no way around it, but it's not enough" (1). I spent some time experimenting (I am a scientist!) with ways to get students to engage with the process of scientific discovery, including reducing content, different methods of presentation and various active learning strategies. I was still dissatisfied, however, and eventually enrolled in a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. This was an exciting, if rather frustrating, experience. It was reassuring to discover that there was a theoretical framework dealing with what I was experiencing, but it was sometimes hard to adapt from 'real' science to the approach and methodologies of the social sciences. I am now completing a Master in Higher Education and am especially interested in two related areas: conceptual learning and training students to become researchers. I am involved in collaborative research projects in both areas. In 2006, I was awarded the ANU College of Science Excellence in Teaching Award for my role in developing research-led and research-oriented courses. I am looking forward to my new role as Chair of the ASBMB Education Special Interest Group.

1. Schatz G. (2005) Letter to a young scientist, Jeff's View on Science and Scientists, Elsevier.