Learning the Ropes...and Teaching Them Too!

By Lawrence Fatica
March 02, 2015

As graduate students, we occupy an unusual role in the university. Yes, we still take classes and worry about exams, but we also take on more professional responsibilities like research and teaching. For CASHP students, this includes teaching laboratory sections for ANTH1001: Introduction to Biological Anthropology starting in our first semester. The course is a whirlwind tour of the field covering everything from evolutionary theory to genetics to osteology to the fossil record. Students take the course for any number of reasons. A few are anthropology majors. Most are trying to get their dreaded science credits out of the way. Others just really like the TV show “Bones”. For most of us TAs, however, this is the first time we assume the role of “teacher,” one we will likely have for the rest of our careers.

There are a variety of resources available to TAs: TA orientation seminars, countless education websites, the sage advice of older students. But none can really prepare you for the first time you stand in front of a class. You have a plan; you know the material backward and forward, but looking out over twenty expectant stares can be exceedingly unnerving. I remember very little of the first class I taught. I know I said a lot of words and I’m pretty sure they had to do with evolutionary theory. I do, however, remember the exhilaration I felt afterward.

A second memory from my first semester as a bioanth TA stands out in my mind. I was leading the class through the infamous Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium lab. By this point, we were pros at Mendelian genetics and we had gotten through the binomial expansion with no casualties; all that remained was to put it all together in a full-on simulation of a breeding population. For the exercise, each student is given a genotype and the class uses the principles of Hardy-Weinberg to predict what future generations will look like. Successful execution of the simulation requires complete participation, attention to detail, and accurate calculation. Of course, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing fell apart.

Somewhere in between the second and third generations we paused to check our math. The numbers didn’t add up. We had made a mistake and I had no idea where. Anarchy ensued. Students were arguing. I was frozen with embarrassment while people shouted numbers and equations at me. Somehow (to this day I’m still not sure how) order was restored and we made it through the quagmire of observed and expected gene frequencies and got our numbers to work out. I left class defeated.

As I reflected on the Hardy-Weinberg debacle later, I realized it wasn’t a complete failure. Sure, I had shown weakness and my classroom got a little rowdy, but my students were arguing about science! They were engrossed in figuring out why our experiment wasn’t working! They were determined to make sense of what was happening! And that is, after all, the reason we teach science. I may not be that inspirational teacher from the movies (at least not yet anyway), but as long as my students are asking questions about the world around them and figuring out ways to answer them, I’ll consider lab a success.