Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the wake of Dr. Susan Koegel’s departure from the biology department in spring 2019, cell biologist Dr. Lauren Crowe has joined Tufts as a lecturer who will begin teaching this fall. The Tufts Daily sat down with Dr. Crowe to discuss her background, what led her to Tufts and her plans for teaching one of Tufts‘ largest courses: Biology 13.
The Tufts Daily (TD): Could you start by telling me a little bit of your background? What was your path to Tufts? What are you looking forward to here?
Lauren Crowe (LC): My name is Lauren Crowe [and] I am from North Carolina. I did my undergraduate at [the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill] and got my Ph.D. from Duke. In September of 2016, I moved up to Boston to do my post-doctoral research down in the neuroscience department at Tufts. I was in the program TEACRS [Training in Education and Critical Research Skills], which is a postdoctoral program that is 75% research and 25% teaching and faculty development. During my time at TEACRS, I taught a cell biology course at Bunker Hill Community College, and when I was in North Carolina, I taught at North Carolina Central University, so I have had experience teaching these kinds of courses … I am going into one of the largest classes at Tufts, so I get to see approximately 25% of the Arts and Sciences community, which is very exciting … I am looking forward to interacting with all the students here and getting everybody excited about biology. I am excited about making this class as enjoyable as possible despite its size.
TD: What made you want to teach Biology 13 specifically at Tufts?
LC: … In the past, teaching in North Carolina Central [University,] I have been able to see marginalized students fall through the cracks. Being able to teach Bio 13, [it] being such a big introductory class, I feel like it’s a chance to help students who would otherwise be dropping out of biology without additional support. A lot of my teaching training has been focused on making the classroom more engaging, minimizing stereotype threat and creating a level playing field for everyone to be able to succeed in biology. So, one of the things I am most excited about is being able to … help everybody reach the next level in biology. I feel like there are some advisors who would tell their students to go into communications … instead of helping them and giving them the tools to succeed.
TD: Biology 13 is often considered a cornerstone class for many students in terms of their decision to continue or stop pursuing biology. What are some things you plan to do to make this class more accessible for all students regardless of what they decide to pursue going forward?
LC: I think a lot of people come into introductory science classes thinking that it will involve a lot of memorization. Memorize this formula, memorize this definition [or] … this set of facts. But science is a whole lot more than that … it’s about applying that knowledge to solve problems we don’t understand yet. Part of Bio 13 and a lot of introductory science classes as an incoming undergraduate is getting you to switch your mind from just memorizing facts and flash cards to being able to think about these problems and apply [the knowledge] and create scientists. So, I think some students [are] not expecting that. And it’s hard — it’s a skill you have to learn. I don’t think it’s fixed. Some students are good at that and some students are poor at it. Every student has the potential to do it, but they need to put in the work to develop the skill … So, my hope is that through the course, we can work on those skills together and create a new generation of scientists. And even if they decide not to go into science and that that’s not their calling, hopefully they’ll be able to take those critical thinking skills and that ability to apply knowledge to unknown problems into whatever field they decide to go into.
TD: Is teaching these skills made more difficult with a larger class? How do you plan to gear such techniques to a larger class, making use of study groups and office hours?
LC: Yes and no. In general, it’s a different way of thinking that students haven’t been made to [use] before. I think in a lot of high school classes you do a little bit of it, but you’re starting to increase in your education, you’re starting to develop new skills, all these new expectations are expected of you … I do think that it is a bit of a challenge in a bigger class, so I am doing something called a partially flipped classroom, which puts some of the onus on the students to learn basic foundational facts outside the classroom and then bring that into the classroom … What I’ve seen in the past is that if you spend class time being a passive recipient of knowledge … and doing those problem sets at home where you’re being asked to apply it, then you don’t realize that you have misconceptions that you are applying to the problem … I’d prefer to have students working on the problems in class so that we can clarify misconceptions and apply [concepts] in a supportive environment. It gives you a chance to build a little bit of a community with students sitting around you. We’ll be using a lot of technology, like Poll Everywhere, so it gives us a chance to give immediate feedback between both me and the students. Because of the size of the class … we’ll also be having group office hours … so even if students want to drop in and don’t have specific questions, they still might get something out of listening to other students’ questions … There’s also the optional recitation and we have the [Academic Resource Center] study groups … so there’s a lot of opportunity to build smaller communities within big lecture classes…
TD: Do you plan to continue research on campus, or will you be focused mostly on teaching?
LC: … Part of the lecturer job description is just teaching and service, but I am interested in pursuing some educational research once I get my feet wet and settled in … One of the great things [about] having such a large class is that you have a chance to try out new techniques and see if they work or if they don’t, and it would be cool to publish a few case studies in the future.
TD: What are some pieces of advice you would give to an incoming first year student?
LC: There’s a couple things. More directly related to class and your education, I think that there’s a lot going on in your life. You might be away from your parents for the first time … you might not know anybody here, and it’s tempting to get involved in everything right off the bat and then fall into the pattern of procrastination and cramming. But the research really does show that spaced studying is better. I try to design the course in such a way that you have to do spaced studying, and it holds you accountable for that. Even in other courses, where it may not be as structured, [set] some time aside and [get] into a routine of reviewing your notes before class … and not just coming up on an exam … It’s really about the learning. You’re here to learn and become experts … the cramming-exam cycle will basically allow you to forget most of what you learned, and you want to be able to have these foundations to take to your other courses … The second thing is, I know how important it is to have other things outside your core curriculum to focus on. Whether it’s sports or dance or being an [FYA or CDA], don’t lose sight of yourself, but pick your one or two things that you’re really passionate about and don’t try to do it all … If you’re doing ten different extracurriculars as well as trying to stay on top of your studies and not getting sleep, it leads to health issues and a lot of stress.
TD: What do you want to see at the end of the class? What is your goal for the semester?
LC: It’s not really measurable, but I just would really like to see Bio 13 be a community. A lot of first years and second years, they’re in this class together and they’re going to be struggling with the same things. Hopefully they’re celebrating their accomplishments together. Like I said, it’s about 25% of the Arts and Sciences students, so despite the fact that it’s a huge class, I’d like to see a community built out of it of students who support each other and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.