The importance of using research in teaching
Dr Stephanie Smith, Teaching Fellow
In this post, Dr Stephanie Smith, a Teaching Fellow at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, reflects on the links between research and teaching in her academic career so far…
For 14 years of my life I have been a researcher, largely in animal genetics. For 9.5 days of my life I have been a teaching fellow at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security. This may be considered by some a slightly skewed background for me to be writing about research-led teaching. But hear me out.
Genetics research has taken me from looking at sharks to pear trees to deer to cows. We, as humans, shared about 50% of our DNA with that of a banana; so you start to see that when you’ve worked on the genome of one species, the next species usually requires a similar approach. In my recent experience in teaching, I am starting to see it has a multitude of different approaches: online versus on-campus; flipped vs non-flipped; different modes of student engagement; peer instruction; different types of assessment and feedback. It’s a totally different species.
During my time in research, I wasn’t shackled to my desk and I tried to take opportunities to teach when I could. In 2017, when working at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), I helped create an online course called ‘Vetnomics’, which was designed to upskill vets in the field of genetics and genomics. Given the huge technological advances in genomic technology over the last 50 years, this was designed to improve across-stakeholder communication (vets, farmers, breeding companies, academics) and the suite of services vets could offer.
After the necessary theoretical foundations (first part), the course focused on the application of genetic and genomic tools in practice (second part). The second part was almost entirely derived from case studies and research projects undertaken within the last few years; the most obvious and intentional research-led teaching I have experienced. It was purely for the purpose of understanding the application, relevance and benefit of research-derived approaches. ‘The tools are there’, we said. ‘We helped build them so you don’t have to… our research shows they work’. The underlying principle was that staff research, collaborations and experience were informing the very ‘curriculum’ that they were trying to teach. You can find out what attendees had to say about the course in the SRUC Facebook video.
In my transition between research and teaching, I was briefly a Research Assistant at The University of Edinburgh looking at student engagement in class using lecture recordings. Essentially, this was research on teaching. I helped modify and develop a rubric to try and objectively measure the use of evidence-based best-practice from lecture recordings across four disciplines. It was an eye opener. Watching tens of hours of other people teaching was fascinating. Especially when I didn’t know the topic; I was less distracted by the content. I find lecturers that present themselves as a “performer” and maintain engagement through change in intonation and tempo the most inspiring. As a predominantly quantitative scientist, this was a learning curve for me in terms of getting a grasp on qualitative analyses, use of ethogram-based tools and social science terminology; and yet I have already used all these skills since. Further, I was reminded of subtle practices that make a huge difference; for example, repeating a student’s question aloud such that all the class can hear and engage with it.
As far as I see it, research and teaching are two sides to a scientific coin of any value; two commonly used verbs which exist outside science and yet science doesn’t exist without. Science would stop if the so called ‘post millenials’ chose not to teach or to research. So ultimately, maybe after another 13.98 years in teaching, I might give you a more balanced account of research and teaching; however, I fear not. I have a memory of a goldfish.
Stephanie Smith recently joined the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security as a Teaching fellow working on the undergraduate and postgraduate course opportunities. Her background is population genetics, molecular ecology and evolutionary biology. Despite studying wild systems during her PhD, she spent over 5 years as a post-doc working on a domesticated species (the dairy cow) at Scotland’s Rural College. She is particularly interested in the application of genetic approaches to tackle issues in conservation biology and sustainable living. She also tries to participate in science communication when she can as she believes it is very important to communicate research to the public and wider audiences and share the exciting aspects of science.