Whether you are new to academic teaching, interested in it, or even experienced in academic teaching, a plant scientist, not a plant scientist, this article is for you. Good teachers and educators have the power of making any individual passionate about topics they thought they hated, and exceptional ones can change the course of our lives. We interviewed a diverse panel of university lecturers to find out what good teaching is, what makes a good educator, and how we can all learn from them to spread our passion about plant science!
What is your role in your institution?
Gabrielle Tichtinsky: I am an associate professor at University of Grenoble Alpes in France, teaching to bachelors and master students, and I do research in a research group with full time researchers at the Cell & Plant Physiology Laboratory in Grenoble. I am currently co-coordinating an international plant science master, called PLANTA-international, which leads to a double diploma from University of Grenoble Alpes and University of Milan (Italy).
Alex Costa: I am a full professor of plant physiology in the Department of Science at the University of Milan (Italy). I have a teaching load of 120 hours, spread between bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which include classical lectures and tutorials. If we also count “indirect” teaching, i.e., preparing lectures and exams, organizing lab meetings, supervising interns and doctoral students, the number of hours could go as high as 350 per year. However, not all lecturers do this amount of hours.
Richard Milne: I am a Senior Lecturer in the University of Edinburgh. My research interests focus upon various areas of plant evolution, often but not always using Rhododendron as a study organism. I have won the Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s annual Teaching awards four times within the College of Science and Engineering!
How long have you been teaching plant science?
Gabrielle: If I include my teaching activities during my PhD, I started teaching plant sciences, among other topics… 27 years ago!
Alex: Officially since 2012, but actually already during the PhD I helped during lab practicals and I did some teaching during my postdoc. In particular, during my postdoc they asked me to do some lectures on Arabidopsis thaliana as a model organism, and that was the first time I had to prepare classes on a model system… So I’ve been teaching for almost 18 years now.
Richard: I have been teaching for 18 years, since 2005, when I was asked to organize a first-year teaching module while working as a NERC research fellow!
What do you enjoy the most about teaching?
Gabrielle: I am fond of two different aspects. First, organizing ideas and knowledge, trying to find the best way to present them in a gradual, understandable and interesting way. Second, presenting in front of students, with a black board and colored chalks, asking them questions about things they know and trying to connect this knowledge with the story I am talking about.
Alex: What I like the most is being able to put my research into teaching, to pass to students what I know the most and my direct experience. But this is also risky sometimes: putting your research into your teaching can be very rewarding if the students are interested, but it becomes very frustrating if those in front of you are totally uninterested. In the second scenario, you put yourself on the line and you start to wonder if what you are doing is even interesting at all. I know some colleagues who experienced this and reacted by never mentioning their research when they teach… So it is subjective. Something else I love about teaching is being able to interact with students and stimulate their interest. I do my best to try to strike the right chords so that they may later come to me and ask me questions about things that I may not know, but we can figure out together.
Richard: Happy students keep me going and most importantly, I feel fulfilled when I see people gaining something from my lectures – whether it be knowledge, jokes or a fun fact. Sometimes, I’ve had students leave anonymous comments stating that I am the reason why they chose to do a plant science degree. Additionally, I thoroughly enjoy the ability to let my extrovert and creative side run wild in my lectures…
When did you decide to become a teacher/educator?
Gabrielle: In high school, I always claimed I would never be a teacher! Then, as a master student, I had the opportunity to prepare lectures and I enjoyed it a lot, realizing that I could maybe face students.
How do you get this modern generation to be interested in plant science amongst all the other ‘cooler’ fields like cancer or virus research?
Gabrielle: It is definitely not easy. The aim of science is to explain what is happening around us, so I try to link examples from everyday life to the subject of my classes, and I find that it helps capture the attention of students. I do this for plant science but also for other subjects. I try to bring their attention to things that they may have always taken for granted and I try to stimulate them to ask themselves how these things work, how we can use science to understand more about them.
Alex: I try to make plants interesting by showing their uniqueness. Plants are sessile, but that doesn’t mean they are immobile; on the contrary, they have been pushed to become even more sophisticated than animals in some ways. The first examples that come to my mind are adaptations to make reproduction possible without water, but also long-distance communication and imaging, which are central themes of my research. The basic mechanisms of long-distance communication are very similar to the ones found in animals, but the way plants have integrated them is very different. It’s like they all have the same Lego bricks, which work and fulfill their functions just fine in both animal and plant cells, but they use them in a completely different way. Moreover, in plants we have the opportunity to work with multicellular organisms, often in their natural environment, and get more information about how a complex system works. We just need to beware of “humanizing” plants, which is becoming more and more popular. I believe that our role as plant scientists is also to spread our research and knowledge about plants by using simple but specific terminology.
Richard: To be honest, I do not observe a big generational difference in plant science interest. It’s always been known that a small population of university students take up plant science. The take up in plant science degrees does not have a random distribution. Most of the time we get 7 or 8 students and one year we had 17 students! I believe that plant science interest depends on the educator and the teaching. Unfortunately, we saw the biggest drop in the number of students taking up plant science during and slightly after the Covid-19 lockdown, and we still don’t know why. To reignite interest in plant science, a few of us co-organised an in-person ‘Plant Science Day’ workshop that included career talks, a tour of the plant science labs and facilities. It was an enjoyable event and we managed to encourage one student to switch to the plant science degree.
What works for you when dealing with Generation Z?
Gabrielle: …Does it work? Seriously though, I have not noticed any differences in Generation Z compared to the previous ones. I noticed that working on group projects, instead of, or in addition to, usual classes, works well to motivate students and it also ends up increasing their engagement and their sense of responsibility. I also started drawing schemes to summarize the key concepts of a class or of a whole course, and I like to keep them updated as I build them for and with the students every year. The only thing I did notice in the past few years is that students have been taking less and less notes, as they know that they will have access to my slides. This is not a problem in itself and I do not force them to do it, but I think they do not realize that note taking is often the first step to start elaborating the new concepts I am teaching them, and that it could help them organize their knowledge, and remember it more efficiently later on. Recently I have noticed that tablets are getting more and more popular, as they allow students to take notes directly on the slides that I am explaining, and I believe this is a very good compromise.
Alex: I feel like students are always the same, it has never been easy to capture their attention. I try to do that by presenting unexpected aspects of plants, in some cases by using technology. For example, we are used to seeing an animal moving, but videos that follow plant growth and show that, within 24 hours, leaves move, can generate amazement and interest. Another way is to talk about plants that have or do striking things, such as Mimosa pudica that reacts to touch or carnivorous plants and their flytrap, which have recently revealed spectacular things at the molecular level. I have also tried to change teaching strategies. Earlier this year, I took a paper that I had recently read and which I found absolutely beautiful, and I started reading it with the students. We discussed how the abstract and introduction were written, and we looked at the experiments together. That got the students to participate, ask questions, and I was trying to give answers but I was also asking questions myself, so there was a true interaction. To me, that’s just the most beautiful thing about teaching and working with students. Unfortunately, there is no magic recipe, but one thing I like is connecting teaching and personal experience, as directly as possible, often through personal anecdotes. Sharing my experience, including failed experiments or past mistakes, helps to connect with students, and to establish a good relationship with them.
Richard: Humour. Storytelling through animation (I use Microsoft Powerpoint to do this). Managing the energy in the room by varying the pace of the lecture. You can watch an example of my lecture on this Youtube video. Every human being will be attracted by doing unexpected things and be engaged by variety! In my lectures, I get students to volunteer and participate in fun games that are relatable to the material. For example, when introducing the concept of wind- versus insect-pollinator plant species, I ask volunteers to blindly throw sweets over their shoulders to their classmates and other volunteers to bribe third parties to deliver the sweet to a classmate at the last row of the classroom. The newer generation also engages really well with digital tools. In Edinburgh, we’ve been using Wooclap and Xerte software for digital classroom teaching and for improving interactivity in the prepwork. These tools help us manage students, material, and track student progress more easily. The trade-off comes in the form of more prep work (e.g., editing videos, uploading quizzes) for us educators to do before releasing teaching materials every week.
What was an unexpected struggle you have had to face or are currently facing as an educator?
Gabrielle: Something I did not expect was the human aspect of teaching. I had not anticipated facing students’ personal problems, and trying to help them be confident to solve them. Though unexpected, it is an aspect of my job that I truly like, and I am happy to help them in any way I can. In the beginning, when I was still a student myself, there were sporadic events in which students would not respect me or my authority as a teacher, but I am happy to report that this issue has resolved by itself over time. Something that is inherently hard is building a good course, which takes years of trying and perfectioning, and more generally feeling legitimate when teaching a new subject that is not part of my expertise. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix, but talking to other people and using books to study and structure my thoughts really helps.
Richard: My biggest is teaching in a new way. Education and teaching strategies have evolved throughout the 18 years of my teaching career. For example, flipped lectures are being employed where the teaching and material is in the student preparatory ‘homework’ online and the ‘lectures’ are used as a Q&A session. However, fully-flipped lectures do not always work, especially when exploring certain conceptual topics, one example being natural selection. We could easily spend more than an hour in an in-person Q&A or activity session but not get anywhere as the topic is too vast. This year, we are employing a semi-flipped lecture where we will give students some background information (e.g., mutations, genetic drift) in the online preparatory work, more information via videos or slides during the in-person session to spark focused conversations and get it rolling. We will see how it goes!
What is your advice for young researchers or early career researchers (ECRs) who would like to teach (plant) science?
Gabrielle: Love what you teach, even if you do not always get to teach what you love. Be curious about the (plant) world around you and always try to convey your curiosity. When you start teaching a subject you are not familiar with, try to find an aspect of it that you find interesting or fascinating, and use your own curiosity to stimulate the interest of students. If you have to build a course from scratch, ask around, read books, and then sit down, think and start by defining the overall objectives of the course you are going to teach – what are the core notions that you want the students to learn about the subject? What is the most effective and engaging way to convey them? It may seem obvious but very often it is not. Asking yourself these questions from the beginning will save time and increase your confidence, and ultimately it will ensure your classes are clear and understandable for the students.
Alex: Most of the time the attention you have in front of a person is 90 percent about the sound of their voice, not about what they say. So my advice is to teach what you know, teach through the lens of your own research, of the things you do or would like to do in the lab, in order to convey your passion and make classes more engaging. If you can convey passion through the tone of your voice and get people interested, even just a fraction of the time, the goal is achieved. Clearly, you have to take the time to explain basic concepts first, but always keep in mind why they are so crucial to understand the most interesting and exciting topics.
Richard: I would highly encourage them to attend another lecturer’s lecture if they have time! This allows one to see what works and what does not work with different teaching materials (e.g., general background to topic vs. methodology vs. technical materials) as well as subjects. It is also important to engage in the teaching community and attend pedagogical seminar talks when you can. Good teaching means playing to your own personal strengths. I use animated powerpoints, energetic delivery and regular pop culture references. But it’s possible to be just as engaging with a blackboard and chalk, and/or with a gentler vocal delivery. Different teaching styles make for a more varied student experience, too.
Richard: Good teaching will lead to students being interested in any subject. I think you have to want to do it, and have passion for the subject you teach. I firmly believe that any subject can be exciting with the right teacher, or be boring as hell with a poor teacher (I call this the ‘Hogwarts principle’ after their dire history teacher, Professor Bins). The best teachers can also remember, or imagine, themselves as the students: think about what they do and do not currently understand, and how best to help them fill in the gaps. Paradoxically, the real scientific geniuses can sometimes not be the best teachers, because their understanding is so far ahead of everyone else, it’s hard for them to imagine the students’ perspective. I don’t have that particular problem! What matters is what happens in the students’ heads, not the teacher’s. Information overload must always be avoided, and phrases like “you don’t need to read this bit” should never be uttered. Text that’s not meant to be read, should not be there!
About the Authors:
Yen Peng (Apple) Chew is currently a 4th year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She works on developing CRISPR gene editing technologies in green microalgae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. You can find her on Twitter at @_applechew.
Laura Turchi is PhD Candidate in Grenoble, France, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. Her work aims at modeling how transcription factors regulate gene expression in plants, with a strong link between bioinformatics and molecular biology. You can find her on Twitter at @turchi_l.