Teaching Experience and Philosophy

After getting tenure at ETSU (April 15, 2005 – current)

General teaching philosophy and approaches

After receiving tenure my teaching duties became more focused. The Department and the Chair found that my talents in teaching are especially useful for upper level courses, interdisciplinary courses, and courses which use mathematics or modeling. I developed new courses for the Department including a special topic course which is crucial for our new PhD. program. I also developed the new course 'Biological Research Methods' and re-developed the long abandoned Biometry course. These last two courses became mandatory courses for all graduate students in the Department. I completely redeveloped all of the other courses that I was allocated to teach from scratch. I use the following course development cycle for all my classes

  1. I pick a textbook for the subject and start to develop the course a semester earlier than I will teach it. This includes development of demonstrations, problem sets, online content, and models.
  2.  I teach the course for the first time and I study intently what works and where problems emerge. I ask feedback from students by making part of the last class a discussion forum and/or soliciting anonymous response to an inquiry. .
  3. I fix the problems when I teach the course the second time, refine the material, and extend it as needed, infusing it with more recent findings. I gather more feedback through students, peer evaluation, and SAI.
  4. Improvements as I listed in “3” will continue for 1-2 more teaching cycles.
  5. I pick a new textbook and start the course development cycle again, but keeping what I learned from the previous cycle, and the old textbook becomes recommended material instead of required.

I found that this method makes the material always fresh and modern. This keeps me in the continuous development and improvement cycle. Besides teaching the given content in each class, I also foster skill teaching. Every week, some of the class time is always dedicated to learn some new skills relevant to the class. This is obvious for classes where I have a lab section, such as Biometry. However, I reworked all of my classes to a new model where the students first receive the content material through lectures, then they receive assignments to put that information in use. I found this helps not only in retaining the material better, but engaging the students actively elevates their interest in the material. For example, Evolution is a 3+0 class, traditionally lecture based. My modification for the class was that I moved the class into the computer room, and, after having a lecture on population genetics, for example, the students have to work on simulations, do calculations, and interpret models and so on. This is not a traditional lab, but I call these parts of the lectures active learning components. Obviously during class time I only can start this process, and I want to be sure that everybody understands what needs to be done. Therefore, I talk to each student individually, we discuss potential problems, and I provide help if the student is stuck or needs some extra explanation. This process is extended into homework assignments, where the student finishes up the assignment and writes a report in his/her electronic notebook. This electronic notebook will be submitted later on and will be graded as part of the written assignments, given that this course is also a writing intensive course. I use this general blueprint for all of my classes with modifications. In my experience this approach works out very well and generally I have all students always present in my classes except if they are ill.

As a teacher, I am conservative with a twist. I do not believe much in the success of “new revolutionary approaches,” such as teaching history without dates or teaching biology without learning about organisms. I believe that personal explanation and brainstorming with the students are the keys to deep involvement in a scientific topic. Combining classical (but modernized) factual knowledge with usage of modern techniques will make this effort more fruitful and deep. I learned that certain aspects of science require the students to simply memorize a baseline of information (e.g., in taxonomy), but even difficult material can be learned easily when the lecturer presents portions of it repeatedly and mixes in connected topics to give students a feel of the importance and larger relevance of the topic in the framework of a knowledge network instead of a simple hierarchical link. Including popular news articles or other current events to illustrate scientific points and focus student attention on how the class material relates to real life has proven to be a fruitful method. I also like to offer students an opportunity to think for themselves and be creative (take home essay problems or finding hot topics in the scientific fields of interest to themselves). I am interested in the development of a more inquiry-based approach (where students ask questions about science and try to explore ways to answer them), where they can evaluate information relative to theory, rather than memorizing. In my opinion, science has to be taught as science is done. As a biologist skilled in modeling and statistics, I also try to find ways to increase the quantitative/modeling skills of the students.

Many of my classes also directly support the research in the Department. For example, Biometry supports the data analyses and Systems Ecology supports the modeling methods many research projects carried out at the Department (or other Departments) are using. In both classes, the students can have an extra capstone assignment for extra points, where they have to use the skillset they learned in the class. They can use this skillset for their own research only and not for canned studies. I encourage them to work on this assignment with their major professor. One of the last classes is dedicated to a series of presentations where the students present how they are able to use their new skills for their own research. For these presentations, I invite the faculty as well. Every presentation is followed by discussion where both students and faculty are encouraged to participate.

I am interested in instructional research and I also improve myself with constant learning and participating in workshops and projects. I was participated for 2 years in the project supported by HHMI (#52005872): An Introductory Integrated Mathematics and Biology Curriculum for the 21st Century. $1,700,000 for 4 years. (Co-PIs: K. Joplin; D. Moore; J. Knisley; E Seier; M. Helfgott). I also volunteered to participate in the NSF supported program TEQB, NSF 0525447 (Talent Expansion in Quantitative Biology, PI Anant Godbole) and the MathBench project collaborating with University of Maryland. More details about these are in the Research Section.

List of classes since 2005 summer

Invited teacher: Karl Franzens University, Austria (new course developed) 001.665: Quantitative Systemwissenschaften 3 (SN3) VU (Emergent patterns and Self-organization) Karl Franzens University Graz, Austria (summer course) for 9 students (05Su).

Sumamry of classes relating to student research mentoring until August 2011:

Pretenure period at ETSU (prior 2005 summer)

I was hired as a quantitative biologist for the Department. This position was supported by a Howard Hughes Grant. My duty for the first three years of my employment was to cooperate with the faculty of the Department in improving the courses by implementing inquiry based approaches into the curriculum. Although teaching classes was not among my duties for the first 3 years, I found that it is important to be involved in the teaching process. I volunteered to take part in teaching in addition to my duties related to fulfill the grant requirements. I team-taught several courses with different faculty members. This fostered our ability to implement several changes and discover new ways to present material to the students. My instruction effort has been focused on:

  1. Improving the introductory level courses (Biol I-III, both major and non-major) by implementing inquiry-based approaches.
  2. Introducing information technology to several freshman and upper division courses.
  3. Constructing databases to collect and process experimental data for the students.
  4. Designing and constructing a net-based system that allows global integration of lab exercises between different sections and courses.
  5. Revising lab manuals and planning new lab exercises .
  6. Writing several grant applications for developing and improving education.
  7. Collaborating with the Department of Mathematics to promote the implementation of mathematics and quantitative biology into the curriculum.
  8.  Implementing suggestions found in Bio 2010, published by the National Research Council. The report suggested explicit initiatives to improve biology education via increased collaboration with Math and increased integration of quantitative approaches in biology curricula.
  9.  Attaining the position of adjunct professor in the Department of Mathematics and becoming the Director of Institute for Quantitative Biology. These positions made possible to be a conduit between the 2 Departments and implement interdisciplinary education.

After the grant expired, I was involved in more direct teaching. However, the Department found it important that I continue maintenance of the databases and advising on IT related problems. My instruction effort in years 4 and 5 focused mainly on restructuring courses and developing new courses:

  1. Teaching 2 or 3 courses in a semester. These were a wide variety of courses both at the graduate and undergraduate levels; small and large classes; classes for biology, math, and University Honor students and for mixed populations
  2. Introducing quantitative methods in classes I was co-teaching with other faculty members.
  3. Developing new courses. Some of these new courses are a strongly modified version of some of our older courses. Some of the Bio 2010 suggestions were successfully implemented into several new courses. I also developed collaborative interdisciplinary courses with mathematician colleagues for a mixed (biology and math majors) student population.
  4. Establishing The Institute for Quantitative Biology was a collaborative effort of several faculty members of the Departments of Biology and Math. I was elected as the Director of the Institute and my duties include administration, promoting interdisciplinary instruction, and research. I wrote or was involved with several grant proposals aimed at instructional improvements.
  5. In 2004 and 2005 I led a 9 week long summer program. The program contained some instructional elements, but mainly offered mentored research opportunities for the students.
  6. Some of my efforts have also focused on developing an integrated math and biology curriculum. 

New courses, implementing considerable changes in existing courses:

  1. BIOL 1011, 1021, 1111, 1121, 1131. These are labs for Biology majors and non-majors, where students are exposed to scientific inquiry for the first time. Several hundred students register for these classes each year. Collaborating with several faculty members I have made considerable changes such as revising lab manuals, creating new lab exercises, developing excel spreadsheets to collect data and calculate measures and developing net-based databases. This last project required organizing the efforts of OIT to ensure the appropriate information technology environment (this was not available for us before) and developing a system by which we can implement different models of instruction (See the HHMI grant of the Department for details)
  2. BIOL-4367/5367 Systems Ecology. This course was one of the courses that changed considerably. I re-planned the course requirements and the content completely to fit better to BIO 2010 initiatives. We changed this course into an interdisciplinary course via team teaching (Istvan Karsai BISC and Jeff Knisley MATH). The students are exposed to quantitative biology, modeling, biology and mathematics. Both Biology and Math students took the course (along with some from completely different fields, such as English).
  3.  BIOL 3992 Research Orientation. In 2003 the substance of the course changed. It partially focused on quantitative biology, enhancing the connection between the Departments of Biology and Mathematics. We implemented an interdisciplinary lecture series (4 interdisciplinary topics were presented to a mixed audience of biology and math students). I team-taught and re- planned this course with Dan Johnson in 2003.
  4. BIOL 4907/5907 Biological Research Methods. In 2004 this course replaced the earlier Research orientation and a reference (Bibliographical Research) course. The course was completely re-planned and modernized. It became mandatory for all Graduate students. I coach each student individually to ensure that they prepare a good prospectus in their first semester.
  5. BIOL 1118, 1128 and BIOL 1138 Honors Discussion I, II and III. According to the Bio 2010 initiative these courses were changed. About 30% of the time it relates to quantitative biology problems. Both these units and the approach are new for this course. With this change we hope to steer students more toward interdisciplinary fields. I team taught and planned this course with the following faculty members: Arun Goyal, Karl Joplin, Lev Yampolsky, Dan Johnson.
  6. BIOL 3018 and 3028 Great Ideas in Science. This is the basic science course for University Honors students. I team-taught and planned this course with Dan Johnson and Robert Gardner. We completely redesigned the course with new approaches and material. I was mainly responsible to teach epistemology, cosmology and complexity science (this was half of the material we covered), while Dr. Johnson was responsible for the biology subjects (evolution) Dr. Gardner for the Mathematics.
  7. BIOL 4017/5017 Complex Biological Systems (3 credits). A new interdisciplinary course that was inspired by BIO 2010, the Institute for Quantitative Biology and my course I gave in Austria (Invited lecturer). I was team teaching this course with Jeff Knisley Dept. Math and G. Kampis (Basler Chair). The main aim of this course is to introduce modern interdisciplinary concepts into the biology education.
  8. BIOL 4287/5287 Experimental Animal Behavior (1 time). I team taught this course with Darrell Moore. This course was very research oriented and all students had to do their own research project. We were experimenting with a new instruction that was based on the way research is generally carried our in biology.
  9. BIOL 5300 Topics in Ecology and Evolution. This is a topics course BISC offers for graduate students. I team-taught this course with Dan Johnson. We showed how modeling helps to understand ecological pattern formation. This was a very demanding course, because of the integration of ecology, math and complexity theory that the students must grasp.
  10. BIOL 1130 Biology for Science Majors III. This class is the last of the sequence of general biology courses here. I learned large class management and lecturing for large audience. I team-taught this course with Tom Laughlin. I was responsible for sections on ecology, evolution and quantitative genetics.

Experience before coming to ETSU

In 1986, as an undergraduate, I competitively obtained a special teaching assistantship that introduced me into teaching of animal taxonomy and phylogeny, collection management, and the preparation of material for lectures. I learned a lot in this special position about successful teaching. I was hired at the Department of Zoology (Jozsef Attila University) in 1987 as research assistant, where I also lead labs on animal taxonomy and phylogeny, and took part in the associated lectures. One year later I taught a main course on ethology for undergraduate students. This was the first year in which this subject was introduced at the University. In the summers, I was a co-lecturer of fieldwork in ecology, and then I became the leader of the introductory entomology fieldwork.

After obtaining a Ph.D., I was hired as a research fellow by the Department of Evolutionary Zoology at Kossuth Lajos University, where I also led animal taxonomy and phylogeny labs and led the ethology lectures for undergraduates. In collaboration with two colleagues, we won several special education grants from the Ministry of Education and the University to introduce new courses and increase the quality of the teaching. We introduced behavioral ecology (Szekely and Karsai 1992: Behavior ecology in higher education: the limits of development (Hungarian edition of Scientific American)) and biostatistics. One year later I took part in the development of the new Ph.D. program and policy of our University. I was invited to submit a Ph.D. sub-program in our largest Science University (Eotvos Lorand University). Although I gave only a few lectures at Eotvos University, this cooperation proved to be fruitful. For example, our behavioral ecology and biostatistics courses gained national interest, and students from other cities and universities attended it. Beyond contributing to undergraduate education, I took part in several postgraduate courses in behavioral ecology, conservation biology, and my own course entitled "sociobiology and self-organization".

Popularization of science (media, books and software)

I have always believed that one of the main duties of a researcher is to keep students up to date and inform the public about the main results of research. I have written many popular scientific papers on ecology, entomology, sociobiology, and education. Hungarian Television made a film about our studies where our "Risk analysis of cultivation of transgenic plants" project was presented to the public. I have also written books for educational purposes. The first was a textbook written at the request of the Committee of the Entrance Examination of Jozsef Attila University. My second book (Barta, Karsai and Szekely 1995: Project Planning and Statistics in Biology) tried to fill the information gap, which was present at that time; there was practically no literature on this subject in Hungarian. My third book (Zsiros and Karsai 1997: Death and Life, Randomity and Rule: Modeling Some Fundamental Biological Mechanisms) is a completely original work that was supported by the Hungarian National Science Foundation. In parallel with this book, we developed software to study those theoretical biology problems covered in the book.