Teaching Statement

Alistair J. Cullum
Department of Biology
Creighton University
acullum@creighton.edu

My major goal in teaching undergraduates is to provide the basic foundations that will allow each student to develop his or her understanding of and capabilities in the biological sciences. Too many of the students I encounter at UCI have a reasonable knowledge of individual facts, but have little grasp of underlying concepts and unifying principles, and also are largely unaware of what science really is and how it is done. These are deficiencies I hope to overcome or avoid altogether through my approach to teaching.

In lecture courses, my emphasis is on conceptual understanding rather than data memorization. I believe that students can easily learn or review names and facts on their own, but they often fail to grasp basic principles and patterns unless these ideas are carefully developed for them. In teaching physiology, for example, I highlight the concept of regulation as an organizing principle. Once students understand the basic idea of feedback loops, and the importance of homeostasis, the study of most physiological systems can be framed in the context of these concepts. I have found that this approach allows students to achieve a level of comprehension of physiology that simple memorization does not. I can assess this comprehension (and my own effectiveness as an instructor) during discussions by asking students to consider previously unexplored challenges to homeostasis in a particular system. Once they truly understand the system, students should be able to deduce appropriate physiological responses to a variety of perturbations.

Laboratory-based courses have the potential to serve a number of useful functions. In addition to reinforcing concepts developed in accompanying lectures, I feel that lab exercises provide an important opportunity to develop hands-on skills and problem-solving abilities. Ideally, the modern undergraduate lab should include exposure to modern equipment and computer-based data acquisition and analysis, but at the same time emphasize a clear understanding of what and how the instruments are measuring. In at least some of their lab courses, students should be asked to develop and execute a small research project that makes use of the experimental skills they have developed. Additionally, each student should also have the opportunity at some point in his or her tenure to move beyond these courses, developing a more substantial independent project in conjunction with a faculty member.

One aspect of undergraduate education I would like to see emphasized more is instruction in scientific methodology and reasoning, an area that is too often neglected even among science majors. After graduation, students will be making both professional and personal decisions that require them to consider the scientific merit of academic and popular reports concerning biomedical research, environmental policies, social reforms, and other issues. The ability to decide whether questions or methods were appropriate, whether causation or merely correlation has been demonstrated, and whether findings are being overstated or twisted are vital analytical skills that students should take away from their science training, regardless of the career they pursue. Instruction in these topics might take place in introductory courses through short lectures on the scientific method and discussions of current topics in the popular media, and in advanced classes through assignment and discussion of readings in the primary literature.