Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Wizard's Apprentices' Last Day

Today was my students' last day as Wizard's Apprentices. After today, they all will have finished their one required lab course (this was a basic "survey of biology and chemistry" course) and will return to complete their business, accounting or english degrees as they work their way towards their bright and shining futures as tomorrow's Masters of the Universe.

I spent 2 hours this morning preparing their lab practicum, which examined them over the anatomy of the fetal pig, Sus scrofa, that they have been intensively exploring during the second half of the semester. This exam consisted of 30 questions, one per "station", where a student's fetal pig dissection would be lying in a pan on its back, splay-legged, guts obvious to the world. A pin sporting a small, numbered piece of tape was stuck into a particular structure or organ that the students had to identify. Each student was given one minute to identify each item as they moved from station to station in unison (well, more or less). Later, the lecture professor, who acts as the lab sections supervisor, told me that he thought the exam was "beautifully done." I should take some pride in that, I suppose.

I, on the other hand, was somewhat disappointed by this exam because all the other instructors decided that the students (non-majors, after all) should only have to identify particular organs and structures, but were not required to know anything at all about the physiology (the special function) of each structure. I think this lack of required knowledge placed these students at a disadvantage because part of identifying something is to know a little about what it does. Or so I think because that's how I learn best.

After I had finished setting up the practicum, I found myself with a few minutes remaining before the exam was scheduled to begin, so I ran through the sweltering heat to the science building for an iced latte as a treat to myself. I later realized this was a mistake as I tried to move errant pins back to their proper location with shaking hands.

The exam didn't take long, as I had planned. My students, who seemed to prefer talking to me rather than taking the exam, had to be reminded repeatedly that this is a final exam, not a somewhat smelly social hour at the nearby pub. But really, I spent those last minutes with them secretly feeling happy that they still wanted to speak to me.

Almost all of my students are of the Jewish faith and many of them did not like hearing about evolution -- at first. But I think I did reach most them (I am not sure how I managed this) because they all became more comfortable and interested to discuss evolutionary theory with me as the semester progressed. This freedom to speak so freely with them about evolution was tremendously satisfying to me.

Of course, we all shared a passion for Harry Potter, which might have been how we connected. Shortly after the semester began, one of my students cautiously informed me during classtime that they had all agreed that I reminded them of Professor McGonagall -- this was before they knew of my passion for Harry Potter. I was surprised and complimented. I can only suppose that my lab section (there were four in total) was thought of as Gryffindor House, although none of us mentioned it. A few days later, I accidentally referred to the lecture professor in front of my students as "Professor Binns" (as mentioned in an earlier essay on this blog -- let this be a lesson to you all regarding the nicknames you choose in your blogging for your associates). My students, whom I had been referring to as "my Wizarding Apprentices", laughed and began referring to him that way, too. Oh, and don't let me forget to mention that, after finishing the taxonomy lab, the entire class had a great time trying to figure out the proper classification for hippogriffs, unicorns, and centaurs!

But today, it all ended as abruptly as it started.

Today, I realized that I am probably the last real interaction that most of these people will ever have with a scientist, or with science and evolution. I hope that I did a good job, that they learned something that interested them, that they learned something that they can take with them always, as I told them several times during class. I hope they saw the astonishing beauty that was before them every day, disguised as a pig. I hope that they grew to appreciate science and her practitioners. I hope that I had made a subtle difference in their lives and in how they think about things. And also, selfishly, I hope they will not forget me.

After the exam was over, I packed up my books and answer papers and walked out the door to find one of my students waiting for me.

"Thanks, Professor," she smiled at me. "I learned so much from you. Now I want to take an anatomy class!"


Image sources;

Purchase College, State University of New York (no, I am not affiliated with them)

Holy Trinity School (no, I am not affiliated with them, either).

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue #34.

Included in the Carnival of Education Issue #26,
the Best of Education Blog Writing.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

11 Peer Reviews:

Blogger Tabor said...

Haven't had time to read you post, but had to send you this for comment:


4:36 PM  
Blogger Tabor said...

Gee, now I just read your blog and wished you had been one of my undergraduate teachers. You always strive for excellence, something the cynics have long abandoned. You keep things relevant. And you respect the viewpoint that others might bring to the whole process of learning. You are going to make a great teacher, even though I think your heart is in research.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for anatomy vs. physiology, as Dr. Richard Feynman said, "there is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on." I think its too bad that a lot of science education rests in memorization and not synthesis of knoweldge.


5:10 PM  
Blogger Chris Clarke said...

GREAT ending.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Pinky said...

I remember those interactions with non-majors. There's a certain satisfaction in watching them "get it" at some point during the semester.
Excellent read. :)

And as far as dissecting a fetal pig... there was a reason I went into chemistry!

6:43 PM  
Blogger BotanicalGirl said...

I'm glad to hear you connected so well with your students. I know you'll make a great prof if you can survive all the trials on the way. Very nice ending, and I agree with you that some functionality questions should have been on the exam.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

Great post. Teachers do make a difference, and good teaching does inspire. Sounds like you made an impression and taught them well. They were lucky to have you.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great job Professor! you deserve a pat on the back! And another latte!


11:28 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks for the link, Tabor. I linked to that story in my previous issue of Birds in the News, and even included a link to a video of the mice killing those birds. My thoughts: I find the horizontal transmission of these behaviors to be fascinating, but I am gravely concerned for the future of the birds, who are already in serious trouble without this additional problem posed by introduced pest species!

And thanks for your kind words regarding my teaching. I try, and that's the best ting I can say.

Psilo .. it's good to see you here. This science class (it's just introductory, after all) relies on lots of memorization. But I do spend a lot of time with my students, teaching them how to think about things .. I even tell them that my main job is NOT to teach them how to memorize stuff, but how to discover things for themselves and how to think about new information once they have it.

Thanks for your comment, Chris. That means a lot.

Pinky .. it's great to see you back again! I hope your own job search is going well and that you find something that you enjoy.

Thanks, BotanicalGirl. Let's hope I get a chance to prove you right!

RD .. as always, it's good to see you here. Until my student told me that she wanted to take more A&P classes, I had not realized that such a comment could mean very much to any professor. I learned something, too.

Thanks, Dawn! I actually got the deluxe treatment at starbux; an iced chai latte (my favorite)!

1:00 PM  
Blogger Dr. Charles said...

fantastic post, i'm sure you did a fabulous job exposing them to the world of science and evolution. only having to name organs without a concept of physiology must have been like having to memorize state capitols without us history... frustrating for you i'm sure. congrats on the harry potter reference :)

12:47 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks, Dr. Charles; At first, I thought the HP references were kind of silly, so I was reluctant to talk about it. But I think my students enjoyed the HP references, and I am glad to see that the blog carnivals did also.


9:01 AM  

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