An unconventional science teacher, Seattle University professor Vicky Minderhout has received a teaching award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for her innovative biochemistry class.
Fourteen years ago, Vicky Minderhout did something very radical for a university professor: She set aside her biochemistry-lecture notes, moved away from the lectern and began teaching from the center of the classroom.
She wanted to coach her students at Seattle University to think about how biochemistry works, to puzzle their way through the structures of proteins and work out the functions of carbohydrates. She wanted them to discover answers for themselves.
“I view it as a coaching role,” Minderhout said. “We’re really trying to coach thinking.”
Today, Minderhout, 61, is being honored as Washington’s professor of the year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in recognition of her student-centered method of teaching science.
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“It’s hard work to do in an undergraduate setting, but what Vicky has shown is that it can be done,” said Dana Riley Black, director of Seattle’s Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology. “Communities need more professors who think differently and try these new things.”
Minderhout’s method is grounded in the Socratic method, a form of inquiry and debate that’s as old as, well, Socrates, the Greek philosopher who lived nearly 2,500 years ago.
“So much of education is lecture and regurgitation, not applying the knowledge you have,” said Matt Ryskalczyk, who majored in biochemistry at Seattle University and is now in dental school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Minderhout never gave a lecture, and her small-group work “was really good for building critical-thinking skills,” Ryskalczyk said.
Visit Minderhout’s class of about 30 students, and you will be struck by how different it seems from an ordinary college classroom.
Her students are grouped in threes and fours, and they spend most of class time in conversation, working their way through a set of questions in a workbook that Minderhout and fellow professor Jenny Loertscher wrote. Before class, they’re expected to pick up the background they need from assigned readings.
Minderhout and Loertscher both walk slowly down the aisles, eavesdropping on conversations, leaning down to check a sketch of a cell’s structure, coaxing ideas from students and asking questions to help lead them to possible answers.
At times, Minderhout will interrupt class to guide everyone in a new direction, and there is always a review and discussion at the end.
“In Question 6, observe everything about the protein you are trying to draw, because we’ve noticed a lot of the drawings are in-com-plete,” she tells students midway through an exercise.
Later, she asks a student to draw a hydrogen bond on the whiteboard, then challenges the class with a blunt statement: “I don’t agree with this,” using the moment to teach a basic lesson about how hydrogen bonds are formed.
Student Hannah Franklin, a senior, was at first skeptical of Minderhout’s methods. In her experience, group work often meant the smartest person ended up doing all the heavy lifting. But in Minderhout’s class, everyone is participating at a high level, she said.
“Everyone is really bright, really into it, really committed to the work,” she said. “You get perspectives that you wouldn’t be able to get on your own.”
Filling in gaps
Seattle University president Stephen Sundborg called Minderhout a “phenomenal” teacher, and said that for students, her inquiry-based method is “the kind of education that sticks with them.”
Minderhout thinks most students develop gaps in their learning as they move through their education. In science, where students must have a foundation of knowledge in order to understand more advanced concepts, a little knowledge gap can turn into a major stumbling block.
In a lecture class, Minderhout said, professors rarely discover that students are missing a critical chunk of information until after the final exam. Students who do poorly come to think they aren’t smart enough to be science majors.
Minderhout thinks these knowledge gaps may explain why a significant number of students drop out of science, or switch majors, even at a time when there is a national emphasis on encouraging more students to study STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — because that’s where the jobs are.
“If we want more undergrads to go through the pipeline into STEM careers, we need to be pretty thoughtful about their education so we’re not dropping them out early on,” said Black, of the Center for Inquiry Science. The center works with K-12 schools in the Seattle area to encourage the inquiry method of science teaching.
Minderhout “is the kind of person we’d put out there to say, ‘Hey look, it can be done,’ ” Black said.
Minderhout learned about the new method of teaching science at a conference in 1997. Later, she and Loertscher wrote the workbook, “Foundations of Biochemistry,” and she won a National Science Foundation grant to beta-test the material around the country. She has also held 40 workshops to model the way an inquiry-based undergraduate course can work.
Mary Huber, senior scholar emeritus and consulting scholar for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said winners of the award typically get invited to give presentations about their methods. “There are many opportunities that come out of this award that amplify” what the professors are trying to do, she said.
“It’s not just hands-on, it’s really minds-on,” Black said. “And that’s the type of workers we want in our field.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.