Building skills in Biology

I stood in Cathedral room 232. In front of me were 150 anxious biology students eager about their first college exam the following morning. It was time for me to explain the levels of protein structure as part of their review system. Working with students one-on-one during my office hours, I recognized that there were students from varying high school backgrounds in biology: some had taken AP biology, and others enrolled in biology in ninth grade. They were waiting for me to explain a topic they were all struggling to understand. At that moment, I recalled my experience as a first-year college student, having not taken AP biology. I needed to meet the students where they understood, so we started with the foundations: establishing our basic definitions of proteins, amino acids, and peptide bonds. At each step, we added more ideas, like mutations in amino acids and effects on protein folding. As we built the complexity of the pictures, I continuously checked in since there is a distinct look that comes across one’s face when one feels overwhelmed. While there were 150 students in the lecture hall, if I noticed one student’s face go blank, we started again, and I altered my explanation, making sure to follow up with them. It was a feeling I related to, feeling abandoned when a concept becomes too complex to comprehend immediately.

But as a teaching assistant, I was responsible for ensuring everyone was on the same page. One student, “Cameron,” approached me at the end of the review session and expressed feeling helpless about learning the material. He felt unprepared, given his high school background in biology; it was his first time seeing the content in years. We sat down afterward, and I allowed him to articulate his understanding of the material, so I had him explain the material to me. When he got to a point where he was uncertain, I recognized it was my time to step in, and we created a list of all of those unsure moments, which became his list of weaknesses that he needed to study further. If serving as a teaching assistant has taught me anything, there is tremendous value in practicing diligence: going the extra mile. When I think of the characteristics a teaching assistant should possess, I think of compassion, collaboration, resilience, dedication, and diligence. Most important to me is diligence because it is demonstrative of a conscious choice to put care and effort into a cause. One of the most rewarding aspects of working as a teaching assistant is working with a student like “Cameron,” who reminds me why practicing diligence is most important when considering the attributes of a teacher: it demonstrates genuine caring. Implementing biology skills into each recitation every week has been a gift. It has allowed me to practice diligence each week, especially during office hours.

As a UTA, one of the most rewarding experiences is holding my weekly discussion groups. Each week another UTA, Hannah, and I hold an hour of discussion time for students to ask questions. This time gives us another opportunity to interact more personally with the students and build skills such as figure analysis, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and others.

Dr. Zapanta and Dr. Swigonova in the Department of Biological Sciences research how using 3D models can help improve students’ learning. With the help of their expertise, we were able to build a recitation around using these 3D models, specifically for understanding protein structure and function – it also happened to be the most popular recitation of the semester.

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