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Teaching Goals and Strategies

Message Number: 


In response to Message #14, here is a personal teaching and learning philosophy statement provided by Terrence G. Oas, associate professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Duke University. 

Looking forward to receiving other such statements from science and engineering faculty. 

Rick Reis 

-------------------------905 words ----------------------- 

Teaching Goals and Strategies 

Terrence G. Oas 
Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry 
Box 3711, Rm. 436 Nanaline Duke 
Duke University 
Durham, NC 27710 
(919) 684-4363 
(919) 681-8862 (Fax) 

Most of my teaching involves instructing graduate students in the thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and spectroscopy of biological systems. Given the varied backgrounds of our students, this can sometimes be a challenging task. In our Physical Biochemistry course we have had students with no training in multivariate calculus or physical chemistry and others with undergraduate degrees in physics or mathematics. To each, I have tried to presen t the aspects of biochemistry missing in their undergraduate training. The goal of my lectures is generally to acquaint students with a physical description of biological systems using the quantitative language of mathematics. This approach is sometimes met with some resistance: often students pursuing degrees in biochemistry have chosen the field in part for its non-physical aspects. However, when I am most successful even these students come to appreciate the quantitative facets of problems they have studied in less mathematical ways in other classes. I try to convey the importance of a rigorous chemical view of the molecules in molecular biology, the avocation of almost all modern biochemists. The modern literature is rich in proposed biological m echanisms that demand the close scrutiny of thermodynamics; and some of them fail. I use some of these examples in my lectures to emphasize the relevance of thermodynamics to modern biology. Whenever possible, I try to present the intuitive non-mathemat ical description that accompanies the mathematical one. The goal is to reinforce this association so that it might be useful when the student re-encounters the problem later in his/her career. 

It is my firm belief that physical concepts cannot be taught or learned merely through lectures and/or reading. These concepts demand the use of an entirely different part of the brain than language and therefore must be e xamined and practiced in non-verbal ways. For this reason, I use problem sets extensively in all of my teaching. Because I consider the problem-solving process so important, most of my grading is based on problem assignments. I find that by frequent as signment of problems I can assure that the students have thoroughly studied the concepts I've presented in my lectures. Often, I set up problem sets in my lectures and then, in the problem set, lead the student through a derivation or analysis in a step- by-step fashion. Many times the problem sets present new material that is never covered in class. This can often be a very time-consuming way for the students to learn, but I have been pleased to hear from many of them that they consider it time well sp ent. I also encourage the students to collaborate on the problems and often hold help sessions so that this process can occur with some guidance from either myself or a teaching assistant. This not only helps the students overcome some of the thorny con cepts but also provides useful feedback to me to improve my lecture presentations and problem writing. 

As course director of physical biochemistry, I have continually varied its structure and composition in an attempt to find the most effective format. The constant feature of the course has been its focus on fundamental pri nciples in kinetics, statistical thermodynamics, spectroscopy (quantum mechanics) and diffraction theory. Many physical biochemistry courses around the country are taught as technique surveys. It has been the collective agreement of the primary instruct ors of our course that it is more important to expose our students to the underlying principles behind these techniques than it is to teach them the details of the techniques themselves, which are often rapidly changing and may be very different by the ti me the student encounters them in their work. 

Typical of most medical school courses, our physical biochemistry course has traditionally been taught by several instructors. This has both benefits and liabilities. The broad range of instructors' expertise improves the veracity of the lectures. However, the lack of continuity from topic to topic reduces the chances that the students will see the interconnections between subjects. In some years, I have attended most of the lectures and have tried to point out the places in one lecturer's present ation that relate to others'. Most recently, I have decided to drastically reduce the number of lecturers from a maximum of eight to four. This required that I present more lectures, but I was concerned that the course had become too fragmented. I ha ve attempted to improve the communication between instructors so that we are all aware of the places in our lectures that interrelate. In the future, I plan to continue to keep the number of instructors small and work to further improve the continuity of the course. 

Under many circumstances, I have been fortunate to work with a group small enough to engage in discussion. I am sure I am not alone to say that this is my favorite form of teaching. I enjoy the Socratic method, particu larly when one or two students and I can work through a problem together. I also use this approach when training the undergraduate and graduate students in my laboratory. We spend a great deal of time at my white board discussing derivations, designi ng experiments, and analyzing data. In my opinion, this is the time when the most long-lasting learning takes place. When a student sees the way in which quantitative theory relates to his/her own work, the concepts become an integral part of how th ey perceive the world from that point forth. I consider this the most important contribution that I can make.