What is an e-portfolio? This website, which I refer to as my e-portfolio, is a gallery of my professional teaching experiences. With this e-portfolio, I hope to give you some insight into my educational interests, skills, and experiences. As you navigate this site, you will discover that my research background is in cellular and molecular biology, genetics, and bioinformatics. [What is bioinformatics?] From my perspective as a biologist, and as educator, I hope to enable diverse audiences of learners to more effectively explore these new and exciting research fields. This website is best navigated through the pages in the menu bar that you see above. The Teaching page includes highlights gained from my experiences as instructor, teacher, and mentor. If you’re looking for my Teaching Portfolio this is probably where you should go first. The Resume page contains my current academic resume. The Coaching section of this site explains how my involvement in amateur sport in Canada has shaped many of my professional values. The Blog is the dynamic part of this site, where I catalog interesting educational related news items and new teaching materials that I’ve developed.
My Teaching Philosophy
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to good teachers and mentors from very different environments: in academic research, in sport, in science outreach, and as a university-level instructor. I am constantly learning about good teaching practices from these colleagues, coaches, collaborators, researchers, and instructors. I believe that good educators are always learning.
My view is that good teaching is a lot like good coaching. It is my role as an educator to encourage students and to coach them for success. I believe that being friendly, approachable, and encouraging is key to success as a teacher. I encourage students to approach and interact with me because I believe building relationships with students is an important part of my role as an educator. I like to celebrate student successes and I like to encourage students to push their own boundaries. I believe that an effective learning environment includes goals, group activities, interactive discussions, authentic hands-on exercises, reflection, regular feedback, and peer and self-evaluation. This kind of atmosphere engages participants and breeds motivation, which is key to a successful learning experience. Enthusiasm and encouragement is contagious in a positive classroom environment and when supported appropriately students can strive beyond what they thought they were capable of. I’ve seen this time and time again in my classrooms and as a coach.
I’ve had the opportunity to create and be part of several educational initiatives where I think this kind of experience exists for students. In my role as a faculty supervisor for the iGEM synthetic biology competition, I mentored a team of undergraduate students (ranging from 1st – 5th year students from the Faculties of Science & Applied Sciences) who carried out a student-driven research project. For many of these students, this was their first experience with scientific research and my role was to create an effective environment for them to learn about and carry out their research for this synthetic biology competition. When asked why he wanted to be chosen to represent the team at the iGEM competition, one student, Jacob, responded with “If you had told me at the beginning of the summer, what I would be capable of, and what I’ve learned, I wouldn’t have believed you!” As an educator, it is my role to provide these tools for success – which include a realistic set of (learning) goals, a positive and encouraging environment for learners to push their own boundaries, effective feedback, and opportunities for hands-on practice. When a student reflects that they’ve gone beyond what they thought they were capable of, the coach inside me brightens.
This focus on building relationships with students and coaching students for success is one reason that I think my involvement in developing and implementing the new First Year Seminars in Science (SCIE113) program at UBC has been so rewarding for me personally. SCIE113 has enriched my experiences as an educator in many ways. The small class size of these seminars (<26 students) has offered me the unique opportunity for developing relationships and stay connected with first year students. These students share their enthusiasm, interests and challenges with me and I have the unique opportunity to affect their experience at University more broadly. By creating the type of positive classroom environment that I’ve described above, I am helping them to set expectations, identify strategies for success, and I work hard at providing feedback that challenges and encourages them. Bruce, a first year student in the first ever offering of SCIE113 at UBC said to me, “Dr. Fox, you are less like my professor and more like my coach at University.” Comments like this, are why I teach.
I also have a deep interest in research, particularly interdisciplinary research, which drives my enthusiasm for teaching. The field of bioinformatics with its diverse applications and intersection of disciplines (biology, computer science, statistics, and technology) continues to interest me. To be a good educator, I think you need to be intellectually stimulated by the content you’re teaching. In SCIE113, I’ve found working with teaching colleagues with very different expertise areas, discussing nature of science – for example, to be a fascinating insight into different disciplines and their relationships with aspects of science. Designing and teaching a course that explores the epistemology of science through writing, in a way that is accessible to first year students, has been an incredible opportunity for learning and intellectual growth. My involvement in the Terry* project also keeps me engaged because of its connections between science and other disciplines including the social sciences and humanities. UBC MIX, a grass roots educational initiative that we started to encourage interdisciplinary connections in classrooms, is a natural extension of my academic interests.
The unique educational challenges offered by bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field where learners often come from very different backgrounds, initially sparked my interests in effective educational approaches for diverse learners. Through my experiences with different types of students: adult learners, high school teachers, junior athletes, graduate students, high school students, and undergraduates, I have learned to value different perspectives and how to respond to different audiences. I believe that it is important to recognize diversity and respond by offering experiences that are meaningful across all of the audiences that exist in your classroom. This inclusive and respectful approach is part of my core philosophy as an educator. As my educational interests have broadened, I have found that placing an emphasis on evaluation by the learner, of both teaching strategies and course content, has helped me to respond to diverse backgrounds. I believe that it is important to capture feedback midway through a student’s term or through participation in a workshop, so that I can respond to any needs identified, learn more about the diversity in my classroom, and/or implement student ideas. I regularly use online survey tools and paper forms to capture student comments in my classrooms. I believe that a meaningful two-way conversation about the educational experience can engage students with their own learning. This feedback also forms a very valuable asset in my ongoing review of my own teaching strategies and teaching materials that I develop.
I also think that learning activities need to be authentic experiences if they are going to be relevant to learners. In our field trip programs, for example, we use hands-on activities that give students the opportunity to work in “real-lab” and this is often cited as one of the highlights from their day. One of my strengths as a teacher is my ability to present materials in an authentic and relevant way. I try and achieve this by listening to students and the perspectives that they bring to the classroom. By building upon the student’s views, I try to present materials that take on real-life meaning. If I can get students thinking about, “How does this affect my life?” I feel that I have succeeded. I like good visuals and creative analogies. For example, one of my favorite activities for high school audiences is a quiz based around the question, “What would you need to carry the human genome in your pocket?” Learning about genome size is just the first goal. With this activity, participants reflect on what it would be like to walk into their own doctor’s office with a copy of their genome in their pocket. Making the subject relevant to the learner is the real goal. I also like to use story telling to make the subject real for the audience. As an extension of the above teaching activity, I ordered a kit from a company called 23andMe, that offers genetic testing for health, disease and ancestry to any consumer (for only, $99). I use my “23andMe – how genetics just got personal for me” story to share my own experiences and connect with students about ideas and issues surrounding personal genomics. I’ve also seen the power of the personal story for motivating and inspiring students through my involvement in organizing and coaching student speakers for the TEDx Terry talks conference. Recognizing the value of our students’ own personal stories as rich educational tools is also important in the classroom. For example, one of the goals with SCIE113, is to get students thinking about, “Where does science fit in my life?” We’ve helped students explore this question by creating learner-centered activities that encourage students to bring their own stories to the classroom as well activities designed to broaden students’ horizons by hearing the stories of other students, from roles models and from mentors.
In teaching, I strive to push boundaries. For example, early in my teaching career one of my focus points was on developing hands-on approaches for teaching bioinformatics. I incorporated new computer-based activities into my undergraduate classrooms and developed an outreach program designed to bring these same materials to high school students. With my involvement in a wide variety of science education and outreach programs, my goal has been to create meaningful experiences that cultivate scientific curiosity and literacy. My recent appointment as Director of the First Year Seminars in Science (SCIE113) in the Faculty of Science reflects these interests. In many ways this program reflects best practices for design and evaluation of science literacy programs and has allowed me the opportunity of working with a large team of course design, instructional support staff, researchers, and faculty from across every department in the Faculty of Science. My leadership style is inclusive, respectful and open, mirroring my own style as an educator. Designing, carrying out, and analyzing the data from our research plan to evaluate the effectiveness this new program, in collaboration with Skylight researchers, has been my first real foray into the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL). I am interested in continuing my involvement in SOTL research and at the moment, my research interests include assessing students’ views towards science and how these shifts in students’ attitudes might inform teaching. My goals for pushing my own skills as an educator include encouraging student reflection in the classroom and incorporating new methods for student feedback, including implementation of effective systems for peer feedback in large classrooms. I’m also always looking to build more active learning activities, especially those that encourage student involvement in the learning experience, into my repertoire.