I began teaching a required Biomedical Engineering lab course for Yale juniors on my 28th birthday, Sept. 4, 2015.
After the thrill of accepting the job wore off, I felt totally unqualified to teach a college course (hello imposter syndrome!), and I knew that this particular course gets notoriously bad reviews. Through the years, I’d heard from students, instructors, and TAs that most of the labs don’t work, students get frustrated, and the material is quite cryptic.
Though these insights would have discouraged me three years ago, I viewed this as a good sign, because no matter what I did, the course prooooooobably wouldn’t get any worse; maybe I could even do better! And why not? Perhaps I could leverage my total lack of experience to create something new for the students in this class, because clearly the current methods employed in this course were not working.
Now I’ll skip to the end. The student feedback was the best that this course has ever gotten, and my personal reviews brought tears to my eyes.
The department chair called a meeting to ask incredulously how did I turn this course around and get such glowing reviews. Again, my methods were simple but not easy:
- Have fun!
Let me unpack each of these.
Caring meant that I genuinely wanted to transfer the material that I find quite exciting (who doesn’t love biomedical engineering?!) to younger minds in the hopes that I could spark in them something that would help follow their passions, whether or not it’s in the realm of science. Even if students take my class and realize that they hate science, then decide to radically change their professional trajectory, I consider that a win, as I think the world benefits when each person pursues what is uniquely interesting to them. And I realize that I’m a rare nerd that truly loves science.
My caring for this course did, admittedly, involve my caring a bit about what they would think of me, but the majority of my caring centered on the hope that students would understand the information I presented, complete the lab procedures, obtain somewhat relevant data, and enjoy the process of working with others in the pursuit of knowledge. In my opinion, a good teacher does not focus on being an authority figure, but instead focuses on efficiently packaging the knowledge being transferred. I did not want to put myself on a separate level from the students, throwing out a bunch of information; I wanted to be a partner in their learning by gauging each student’s engagement and learning style to best tailor my approaches. I really care, and the students picked up on that.
You can’t spell prepare without care (well kind of…but go with me on this), so the next step was to prepare as much as possible without making myself neurotic. Turns out I didn’t really know much of the material that I would be teaching, as I had dated a statistics major in college (who was all too happy to do those parts of my assignments) and had avoided biosignal processing as much as possible. Luckily, we live in a beautiful age in which you can learn anything via the Internet. After perusing the syllabus and outlining the material that was an intellectual blackhole for me, I queued up a bunch of really fun YouTube videos to efficiently learn the material before teaching it.
I called meetings with the previous instructor and my TAs to go through each lab procedure, took copious notes on the details, and rewrote the protocols to make them as clear as possible. Luckily, I made every mistake that could be made (so I thought) during the lab procedures, which enabled me to be prepared to help students when they made similar mistakes. I did learn that there’s no way that you can anticipate how many different mistakes a group of 25 can make, and how many different ways your somewhat unclear sentences can be interpreted. I made use of the support staff to get lab equipment replaced to ensure things were running as smoothly as possible before students ever set foot into the lab, which I also cleaned and organized. While these preparations certainly helped quell my nervousness, I still experienced pangs of imposter syndrome when the students came in, addressed me more respectfully than ever, and wrote down nearly everything I said.
The way that I got over my nervousness was to connect with my students. I took a deep breath and remembered that regardless of hierarchical structures, we are all just people. Even though I was the course instructor, I just happened to have occupied this planet longer than the incredibly intelligent, curious, and motivated students in my class. Not only was I determined to deliver the course content on their level, but also I wanted to connect with them beyond just the exchange of information. I think I surprised some of them when I asked nonstandard questions like why they loved biomedical engineering and what their biggest challenges in college were. They quickly warmed up to me and revealed interesting parts of their personalities, like flyfishing hobbies and entrepreneurial side projects, which not only made for better conversations in class, but also help me tailor the curriculum to give them as much value as possible. I also connected them with other people and ideas to enhance their learning and engagement.
Which leads right into having fun. Why do we have to be so serious in the classroom? Isn’t it more fun to think with a smile on your face? For awhile I also fell into the trap of thinking that intelligence is reflected by seriousness, and joking around is for amateurs. In this teaching experience, however, I laughed along with my students’ Snapchatting each other’s lab procedures, and only mildly suppressed my sarcasm during lectures. Having fun teaching helped convey my passion for the material, sparked students’ engagement, showed them that I cared, and further connected with them as scholars and as people. To quote Ben and Jerry, if it’s not fun, why do it?
By the end of the course, I almost felt qualified to have taught it. Perhaps imposter syndrome lingers when you’re pushing the limits of your capabilities and comfort zone, and I’ve learned to dance with that. Most importantly, I really enjoyed teaching this course, wrote a ton of recommendations for internships and research opportunities, received heartwarming comments (and even a Christmas card!) saying that I inspired students to continue their studies, and stay in touch with several of the students.
Why am I sharing this story? Yes, I do want to humble-brag a bit, but also I want to convey that you can effectively teach anything, regardless of your mastery of the subject, if you care, prepare, connect, and have fun 🙂