Teaching the TA’s Key to Better Biology Education

September 15, 2022

A faculty member’s mission to make biology instruction more effective and inclusive has gotten a big boost. Developmental and Cell Biology Assistant Teaching Professor Star Lee has just won two grants to further her work.

One funds six regional workshops beginning next year at universities across the nation to train graduate students on how to better teach undergraduates, something Professor Lee says is urgently needed. “TA’s get little direction on that skill, even though students taking large classes generally have more interaction with them than with the faculty,” she said. Improving their instructional style can make a big difference in how well the undergraduates learn and in ensuring all students, including underrepresented minorities, continue with their biology education.

The workshops are designed for TA’s in introductory biology classes containing as many as 500 students. A key skill the teaching assistants will acquire is the ability to get to know their students as individuals. “We need to think about creating an environment where they trust us and understand we care about what they are experiencing,” she said.

Professor Lee, who teaches multiple classes each quarter, does this herself by surveying her students. She also tells them about challenges she faced as an undergraduate, including financial concerns and food insecurity.

The other grant seeks to increase the number of Developmental and Cell Biology graduate students who complete their degrees and support those who are underrepresented minorities. The initiative provides stipends for up to seven grad students this academic year and includes professional teaching training.

A National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education grant, known as NSF IUSE, will fund the workshop series. A U.S. Department of Education Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need, or GAANN, award supports the graduate student stipend and professional development program.  Winning the two grants at the same time “is exciting,” Professor Lee said. “I look forward to working with graduate students on both.”