I recently got some praise on the AP Bio teachers’ forum for answering some statistical questions, which embarrassed me a little. I always feel like an imposter when I help anyone with statistics. Despite having a B.S. and M.S. in math, and a Ph.D. in computer science, I learned statistics rather late in life—my first course in it was a graduate stochastic processes course in 1999, when I was 44, and my second was a Bayesian statistics course in 2001. Other than those two courses, I’m pretty much self-taught in statistics and have to rely heavily on Wikipedia and other on-line sources.
I occasionally answer biology questions on the forum also, though my biology has an even shakier foundation: one freshman bio course, one junior-level biochem class (without the prerequisite general and o. chem), one graduate protein structure class—again, I have to rely heavily on things I’ve heard from colleagues or seen on the internet. I feel like a real imposter answering bio questions on the AP Bio teachers’ forum, since everyone else on the forum has had far more courses in biology than I ever will. I doubt that I have the knowledge to teach even an 8th-grade life science course, much less an AP bio course.
While I’m always willing to share what I know, I frequently have gaps in my understanding that I’m not even aware of.
Of course, I’ve gotten used to teaching things I’ve had to teach myself—several of the courses I’ve created have been in subjects where I had had no formal instruction:
- applied circuits for bioengineers (2013)
- technical writing (1987–1999)
- digital typography course (1996–1998). Just this month I met an alumnus of that course, who got into graphical design, then web design and programming as a result of that course—he regrets that he did not take any other computer courses in college.
- bicycle transportation engineering (1997)
- bioinformatics: models and algorithms (our core grad bioinformatics course, 1998–present)
- protein structure prediction (1996–2011)
- banana slug genomics (2010, 2011)
- how to be a grad student (1990–present)
- resource-efficient programming (2004)
Other courses I’ve created after only one prior course:
- VLSI design (1982–2000)
- digital synthesis of music (1989 and 1991)
For that matter, my first faculty position was a joint appointment between an EE and a CS department, teaching mainly EE courses, based on having a CS PhD and having taken 3 EE courses (digital logic, microprocessors, and VLSI design).
Of course, I’ve also taught several courses designed by others, often with little prior training in the field. I find that more difficult than teaching a course that I’ve designed myself, even if it takes me six months or more to teach myself the material before designing a course (as with the circuits course).
Because so much of what I’ve taught is material that I’ve had to teach myself, I tend to take a different approach to teaching than many other faculty. I see my role as trying to provide guidance for students to learn the material faster than I did, with less time chasing down blind alleys, not to just dump some pre-digested knowledge into their heads for them to memorize and regurgitate. I don’t teach them as I’ve been taught, but as how I wish I had been taught. I tend to pose them problems to guide their learning, rather than giving them information, then expecting them to repeat it back to me. (I’m self-taught in pedagogy also, but that is normal for university faculty.)
I want them to learn skills (not facts) that can serve them as a basis for further learning—for example, in the circuits course, I wanted the students to be able to design and build simple amplifier circuits and to be able to write design reports. I didn’t care so much whether they could work book problems as that they acquired the mental attitudes of engineers—that they could design and build things, that data sheets are worth consulting, that precise and accurate recording of what was designed and measured is essential, that often you have to check things for yourself (not blindly trusting the data sheets or simple models), that consistency and sanity checks are an important part of any problem solving, that breaking a problem into subproblems is an essential element of design in any engineering field, and so forth. (I think they got some of that, but it takes more than 10 weeks for the attitudes to really become part of their worldview.)
I think that the flattery on the AP Bio teachers’ forum was to soften me up to mentor a bright high school student that the teacher knew. I’m willing to serve as a mentor for smart and motivated kids interested in bioinformatics, but not in other branches of biology—I just don’t know enough in those fields to guide anyone. Even in bioinformatics, I don’t find it easy to guide students below a certain level of training—I have a few programming projects I could use student help on, but I don’t have many ideas for students who aren’t already expert programmers.
I have one pending request from a high school student wanting to do computational protein work in my lab this summer—something I don’t really do any more. I have no idea what to tell her—10 years ago, I had an active lab that I could have worked her into, but with the repeated failure of grant requests and my subsequent disillusionment with the whole grant rat race, I no longer have a lab. I’m now working more as a consultant on other people’s research (helping out with statistics, signal processing, genome assembly, and other things I’m self-taught in) and putting most of my time into teaching and creating new courses.