True learning is mostly an uncomfortable experience. Which is to say, it’s hard. Yet the rewards are enormous. You gain something that no one can ever take away from you. You are empowered. You start to believe you can climb other mountains. Bigger mountains. But at the very beginning, from the mountain base, it all feels insurmountable. It’s my job as an educator to guide every student through this process so that we can together experience the view from the top of the mountain. This starts with me: I am transparent about my own failures, I talk often about the normal but emotionally painful aspects of learning, and I do my best to provide practical tools that position students for success. No one ascends the first peak alone.
But biology education has a problem: it’s boring. Students commonly complain that biology is “just memorization.” Why do they say that about a subject so profound, so personally relevant to all of us? For two reasons that I use to shape my classroom. The first is that biology education lacks a framework. Biology itself has a powerful framework — evolutionary theory — but we teach each course siloed as if it’s a discipline all its own, rarely mentioning evolution (or other subdisciplines!), if at all. The second is that biology education lacks a compelling narrative. Classes usually present a series of facts devoid of connection, expecting students to appropriately place these facts within a larger organized knowledge structure on their own. This puts the onus on students to build frameworks and connect dots. How can they, when they’re so busy memorizing?
The (hopeful) goal of science is to discover and disseminate truths about the universe. We are fighting to climb mountains, just as our students. But science must be about both discovery and dissemination: what good are truths that do not bring value back to society? I relentlessly reinforce that biology offers tremendously profound truths. It teaches us that we are all related, to each other, and to every other living creature on the planet. It teaches us that we all are constructed of the same amino acids, coded by the same four base pairs. It teaches us where we came from, and how the Earth cradles and shapes all of us. It teaches us the kinds of things that bring real value to our society and the lives of individuals. True understanding of biological principles creates something we desperately need: empathetic and engaged citizens that care for the natural world.