The Ampersand sits down and talks with Megan Daschbach, a senior lecturer in chemistry and director of the chemistry peer-led team-learning program (PLTL) at WashU. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Daschbach earned her doctorate in chemistry here at WashU and has been a lecturer since 2011. We talk about her work in coming up with new strategies for active learning in the classroom, ways to increase retention of underrepresented groups in STEM, and interacting with students to help them become better without tearing themselves down.
So, for the summer what is your main focus?
During the summer, we really focus on finding new ways to incorporate active learning strategies into large introductory STEM courses, like Gen Chem. Every summer, we try to dedicate ourselves to one effort to better improve our course overall. We usually focus on active learning components because the more active learning you have, the more accessible and engaging these classes become. One major change in the course was, for example, in Fall 2014 when we incorporated i>Clickers into the class. We also started utilizing course content videos (more commonly known as a flipped classroom approach), designed to pull out key concepts from lecture material and create more time in the classroom for student-centered learning. We hope these efforts benefit every individual in our course while also helping to broadly improve the retention rate of underrepresented minorities—the more our students engage with each other, the more our classroom will feel like an inclusive and supportive community. Also over the summer, I am heavily involved with the POGIL project.
Could you tell me a bit more about this POGIL project?
Of course. POGIL stands for “Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning.” It is a pedagogy, or a system of teaching, which uses a student-centered strategy where students work in small groups with individual roles to ensure all students are fully engaged in the learning process. It is recognized nation-wide and is implemented at college and high school level in chemistry and biology, but we are also trying to expand to other disciplines. The POGIL project is a national society which I’m a part of. Next year, I will serve as the regional coordinator which will include hosting a conference for college and high school teachers in the area and teaching them how to facilitate this strategy in their own classrooms.
It sounds like one passion of yours is definitely making science more accessible and to help keep retention of minorities and women in STEM. Could you speak more about what made you passionate about that?
It certainly has its roots in my early education experience. I went to a public high school in Baltimore County with a really diverse student body. It was such an enriching experience—of course you don’t realize that as a high schooler, but when I went on to a small, liberal arts university, where by far and away the majority of students were white, it really struck me what a strength a diverse population is, and how lacking that was in my college experience. Chemistry is my love, and I want to see that field furthered; and one way to do that is to bring in a wider breadth of perspectives and experiences. It is something I think about a lot as a chemistry teacher for an introductory STEM class, because this is the level where most women and minorities end up leaving the field, where their STEM careers can be most fragile.
Since introductory courses are such big classes, are there ways students, especially those struggling or under represented, can find help or seek you out one-on-one?
We hold instructor-led help sessions, which are meant to give students a more intimate setting to ask questions, and we structure them be interactive problem-solving sessions. I also am always willing to take one-on-one meetings to help students strategize about how to better approach the course. I love teaching Gen Chem here at WashU, but it is a very large class and I’m simply not able to get to know every student enrolled. Interacting more with students is definitely something I miss from teaching smaller courses. It really is rewarding when students reach out—I wish more students would!
"I think most students would be surprised to know that we, your professors, may not have been the ones who got an A+ on our first quiz. We have struggled at one time or another too, and we can all relate where that is concerned."
Has the Chemistry Department tried new ways to encourage students to reach out?
Although we try new approaches every year to encourage students to reach out, because we teach such a large class, it seems students in general are reluctant to interact with the instructor. We also completely understand that it can be a very intimidating thing under those circumstances. I think we just want our students to know that we want to hear from you and see you succeed. We are absolutely invested in you and are excited to work with you. I think most students would be surprised to know that we, your professors, may not have been the ones who got an A+ on our first quiz. We have struggled at one time or another too, and we can all relate where that is concerned.
One my first mentees, who is now at Harvard Medical School, identifies as an underrepresented minority and was a first-generation college student. He was a freshman during my second year here, so we were kind of growing up together and learning a lot from one another. One of the most valuable things I learned listening to his experience was that when you don’t have an example of someone who has, fill in the blank—gone to medical school, gotten into university, etc.— you tend to fabricate that person. Unfortunately, that person is usually 100% perfect in your mind, and that’s an impossible example to follow.
While in college, there are a lot changes—figuring out who you are, what you want to study, finding your friends—so when you put the pressure on yourself to live up to a fabricated role model who is perfect in all aspects of life, it becomes a vicious cycle. Who can attain perfection? Since hearing his story, it has really been important for me to communicate to students how to hold yourself to a high standard, but also to forgive yourself, because you are never going to be perfect. We all need to find a realistic balance. I think a lot of students who are underrepresented in STEM fields are affected by this, and they put so much pressure on themselves. I think it can feel very isolating. I also feel that a big part of intervening must include coming up with strategies that help these students navigate social belonging barriers and help ease those anxieties that come with unrealistic expectations.
Do you think it is also important than not to not only have those interactions but to have that representation in faculty?
Absolutely, it is critical, especially from the standpoint of teaching introductory courses. We need to have a diverse set of faculty, so a student can look at front of room, and say “I see myself in this person.” We need more faculty of color, more from the LGBTQIA community, more women. We need to have a diverse set, so that when our first-year students have feelings of doubt, they can look up at the front of the classroom and say, “She did it, he did it, they did it. I can see myself in that person.”