One of Michigan State University’s real gems – Dr. Diane Ebert-May – visited The Pub Club last week to talk about learning. While we often spend much of our day thinking about our next western blot or PCR reaction, Diane spends much of her day thinking up new and creative ways to challenge all of us (yes, faculty as well!) to think about the meaning behind the experiment, and ultimately, the data and its application. This is a challenge that is often lost in the haze of racing to publication, to graduate, and to start the cycle over and over again, as we move through the hectic maze of academia. But what does it all mean?
We are philosophers – learners and teachers – officially appointed to think, to create, to discover, and in this role, we are charged with educating those around us to do the same. Diane has spent a career teaching others how to think, a task that on the surface may appear to be simple, but, when one considers the breadth of her tutelage, teaching others to think and to learn is more complicated than meets the eye. To be effective in this role, one does not simply assign a 10-pound textbook for their students to read, and through rote memorization, expect students to become philosophers. Diane has spent more than 20 years re-writing the book on how to learn, and through her research she has created a model-based system for teaching her students to become better students, teachers, and philosophers.
Diane’s research has shown, among many things, that students are more effective learners of complex concepts through collaboration, working in groups to develop and reconstruct (and deconstruct!) models based on data. As wet-bench scientists, we begin our “life cycle” learning the minutia of our craft – how to pipette, how to set up a reaction, or how to develop an X-ray film. What Diane’s research has shown is that we need to spend an equal amount of time analyzing our data, and with this, designing our next set of experiments to reach across scales. While we often accuse each other of “Not seeing the forest for the trees,” Diane has developed methods that posit we, as plant scientists, can see the forest and the trees (Ebert-May and Holt, 2014).
Fortunately for MSU’s faculty, many of our students are also pupils of Diane. Indeed, in last week’s Pub Club audience, several of the students and postdocs have taken Diane’s PLB802 course (https://msu.edu/course/plb/802/home.html) and are far better for it!
So what does all this mean?!?! Simply put, Diane challenges us – all of us – to recreate the academic learning environment within which we travel. To throw that 10-pound biochemistry book out of the window, and to teach students how to learn by playing with data. The concepts for all that we teach them lie in the Excel sheets, the X-ray films, the countless PCR plates that we plow through on a daily basis. Who knows….maybe we spend too much time analyzing these data for the expected, when the whole time, there was a breakthrough sitting right there in lane 3.