Biology Professor Highlights Active Learning in Science Education

“As an instructor, I try to teach how the topic has relevance from different approaches in biology,” said Erik Herzog, Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. Herzog teaches undergraduate biology courses at the university. His lab uses a variety of techniques to study the cellular and molecular basis of circadian rhythms, biological clocks that drive near 24-hour rhythms in living beings including animals and plants.

Herzog has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and neuroscience from Syracuse University. He spent six years as a postdoc at the University of Virginia before joining the Biology Department at Washington University. He has taught undergraduate classes at Wash U for 18 years. In 2014, Herzog became the director of ENDURE, a pipeline program that prepares undergraduates from diverse backgrounds for neuroscience Ph.D. programs. In 2018, Herzog received the Award for Education in Neuroscience from the Society for Neuroscience (SfN).

In an interview with The Teaching Center, Herzog discussed the challenges of teaching biology and how to address them with a broad curriculum. He also emphasized the importance of acting learning in science education by citing examples from his own teaching.

What was your path to becoming a teacher? 

I started thinking that I might want to be a teacher when I was in high school and I was a swim coach. I coached kids of all ages. I also taught adults and pride myself on having taught swimming to a 70-year-old who was afraid of the water. I really enjoyed that. It was an opportunity to say, if you’re out there you get people’s attention and they listen to what you have to say. The idea that I could get in front of people and share my ideas was foreign to me at the time.

How did you become interested in circadian rhythms?

When I was a grad student working with Robert Barlow, we discovered that horseshoe crabs see equally well during the day and night. I was fascinated by the idea that somehow, these crabs put on night vision goggles to anticipate the night and that they did this everyday in order to be able to navigate and do the things they do.

Then I discovered that there’s this thing called a circadian clock that allowed them to anticipate these millionfold changes. I went to the lab of Dr. Gene Block at the University of Virginia to learn more about circadian clocks. It was a coincidence: I saw it in my data that these crabs were seeing equally well day and night, and then I went to study the biological clock.

What are some of the challenges of teaching biology?

One challenge that we all face in biology is that we don’t agree on the fundamental laws. We agree that to be a biologist, you need to think about evolution, genetics, cells, and systems, but we all approach it with a different set of fundamental facts, so building from there and integrating the lessons of biology is a challenge.

At Washington University, we’ve done a good job in the Biology Department of defining a curriculum that trains students broadly in the biological sciences. We’ve refused to subdivide the majors. As an instructor, I try to teach how the topic has relevance from different approaches in biology.

How do you use active learning in your teaching?

I teach two classes to undergrads at Wash U: One is the lab of neurophysiology and the other is about biological clocks. The first class is hands-on. The students take the data they collect, analyze it, interpret it, and put it into a manuscript. They end up writing three full-length scientific manuscripts with drafts and reviews by their peers. That’s one way in which active learning works well in the lab setting.

In the biological clocks class, students work on a Wikipedia project. During the first half of the class, they’re introduced to famous scientists in the field. Then they look at Wikipedia to see who is missing from the public database. They then nominate and vote who they want to create in Wikipedia. We divide students into teams of three and they work on around 40 Wikipedia sites. They generate a living document for the public. Students enjoy getting to interact with scientists in the field to check the validity of the story and they enjoy working together as a team to ensure the best quality product.

Why is supporting diversity in STEM important?

Among the many reasons, I feel that science is for everybody. Subsets of our community have not always felt welcome or invited to become scientists, so opening doors is a first step. Another reason is, the demographics of our country are changing such that who is a minority will be different by 2050. If we don’t start training those who are in the minority now and will soon be in the majority, it will be a problem for everybody.

How do you see science education changing in the future?

I think most of us have bought into the idea that independent research experiences are an efficient and important way to train future scientists. The future of science education at Washington University will hopefully involve training for research mentors that benefits the mentors without being burdensome, training that teaches best practices and is based upon real data. I’m excited for Washington University to invest in training for research mentors and resources for mentors.

Who were the teachers who most impacted you and why?

There are many people who have contributed to who I am as a scientist. My postdoc mentor, Gene Block, taught me how to do science and how to enjoy the collaborative process. I was also inspired by two professors in undergrad, Dr. Dan Rittschof and Dr. Richard Forward Jr. They gave me my first taste of independent research.

Here at Washington University, I arrived and started working closely with Nobuo Suga (Professor Emeritus of Biology) and Paul Stein (Professor of Biology and Physical Therapy), who were instrumental in my teaching. From Nobuo, I learned to always have a piece of scratch paper to draw pictures and I learned how to write upside down. From Paul I learned how to use the board and always have a plan for where you’re going and what you’ll test.

Interview has been condensed and edited.