By Silviya Zustiak
What a title: a little provocative, a little scary, and what does it mean in first place? Within the course of a day workshop on teaching, Dr. Coppola from University of Michigan, Department of Chemistry, made himself abundantly clear: be interactive, teach the students how to think for themselves and excel, rather than just regurgitate facts. And the way to do that is by doing “real work”, i.e., using authentic texts and evidence, not just textbooks. Easier said than done, it turns out, and not just due to the difficulty and time required to implement inquiry-based learning objectives in your curriculum. The true culprit is the short-sighted notion still predominant in academia: if you care too much about teaching, you can’t be a serious researcher. But times are changing, he assured us. In the past, you could have “your legs chopped off” if you expressed an interest in teaching; now you can simply lose your toes.
Dr. Coppola himself discovered a passion for teaching, after receiving a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. He had the unorthodox idea that teaching is an important part of academia even at research-oriented institutions and, therefore, he secretly attended teaching workshops (which weren’t even that common at the time). His desire to be an “Education Researcher,” led him along a rather unusual academic career path, one that in the end permitted him to become an innovator and an advocate for quality undergraduate education. He came to NIH to impart his wisdom to us - the future educators - the NICHD postdoctoral fellows who would like to pursue an academic career.
The first thing that strikes you when you hear Dr. Coppola talk is that he is a man of strong opinions and wouldn’t easily give them up. For example, he may be one of the few remaining professors who uses chalk instead of PowerPoint slides. And his rationale for that is rather intriguing: teaching is an improvisational act and, thus, less structure equals more of you. He proceeded with a very convincing example on “notes,” stating that people don’t go to a concert to see the notes on the paper but to hear the musician play them out. The same principle applies to teaching, he said. He also sees an inherent problem with answer keys because they simply teach students to perform the steps to get to the right answer. He believes that, instead, open-end questions foster critical thinking and encourage students to work together, which in turn promotes true learning. For example, he showed us an interesting statistic: students retain about 10% from a lecture and 90% of what they teach to others. The lesson for us, the future academics, is to involve the students actively in the process of learning. This could be done in multiple ways. Some examples include asking the students to create a podcast, a video, or a song about a scientific concept, to become wiki editors, to write their own syllabus, to generate mini textbooks, or to invent exercises, all of which are demanding but memorable experiences for young minds. Dr. Coppola shared his experience with media instructional materials and pointed out how amazed he was at the students’ potential when they were given a chance to express themselves and be creative. And I think you would agree with me, that science is an act of creativity.
Finally, Dr. Coppola deeply believes that most of us who are Ph.D. scientists will probably end up teaching rather doing research. Why? From the 4500 institutions of higher education in the US, only 600 offer a Ph.D. program and only 300 are research-intensive. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. to do the math. There you have it: education training for academics is important and there is a lot more to it than just putting up a PowerPoint presentation. And don’t be discouraged, everybody makes mistakes (such as over- or under-estimating what the students can do) but good educators learn from their mistakes and move on.
So, if you ask me if I would recommend this workshop to other aspiring educators, and I would add: “If you are looking for a practical, unorthodox, and inspirational workshop on teaching, then yes, I do recommend this one.”