Bench to Blackboard: Q&A with Dr. Colleen Sheridan
Dr. Colleen Sheridan’s professional career has changed drastically – once an immunologist focusing on research, she is now a tenure-track college biology professor focusing on teaching. Two things have been a constant throughout her journey: a love of science and a passion for teaching.
Sheridan was awarded the Valerie Logan Leadership in Science Education Award at the Valerie Logan Luncheon held at Institute for Systems Biology on Thursday.
“I am so honored and thrilled to be presented an award from my heroes,” she said after accepting the honor. “We all have the power to change people’s lives.”
We wanted to learn more about how Sheridan decided to change students’ lives by transitioning from life as a scientist to life as a teacher. Read on to learn what prompted her decision to change the direction of her career, what challenges she sees facing STEM education, and much more.
ISB: You were honored with the Valerie Logan Leadership in Science Education Award for your pioneering vision and ongoing commitment and support to bridge STEM education beyond K-12 and into post-secondary education. What does this award mean to you?
Colleen Sheridan: I am thrilled and so honored to be given an award from the people in this organization that mean so much to me. Their tireless efforts have always inspired me to learn and try new things to help excite students about science!
ISB: You’re an immunologist-turned-science professor with stops in between. What prompted your professional journey from research scientist to science educator, and what are highlights of that journey?
CS: I had often tried my hand at teaching while in college and grad school in various ways to give back to and to interact with my community, whether it was teaching about epidemiology and viruses to middle school girls, HIV/AIDS and the immune system to high school students, or immunology to college students. But it wasn’t until I came to the ISB during my post-doc and became involved with the ongoing work at the Logan Center for Education and Systems Education Experiences that I finally knew that teaching science was what I really wanted to do.
I then found a biology instructor at a local two-year college and wrote her an email asking for an informational interview. After speaking with her, she introduced me to the dean and I was soon hired to teach general biology. I am so thankful that this instructor took the time to talk to me when she could have easily said she was far too busy. This instructor has remained an important mentor to me to this day.
After teaching college-level biology as a part-time instructor for a year, I decided that I should get formal professional teacher training and obtained my Master of Education degree in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Washington. During this time, I was taught engaging culturally responsive science instructional methods from an incredible instructor, Mark Windschitl. For me, these methods have revolutionized how I teach in the classroom and they engage students in authentic scientific practices that help them to learn challenging science concepts more effectively.
Just this year I got a tenure-track faculty position at Highline College teaching all levels of biology and am LOVING it!!! Highline College is one of the most diverse colleges in the Puget Sound area and I really get to see the effectiveness of the culturally responsive teaching techniques that I was taught. A big part of that is creating a caring learning community in my classroom while helping my students to attain high-level expectations of performance. In order to do that, I make sure to get to know their names in the first week of class and use their names often. I also try to get to know them and what their goals are. I am always learning from my students about their lives and new ways that I can help them, making this the biggest highlight of all.
ISB: How has your work with ISB’s two education groups, Logan Center for Education and the Systems Education Experiences, shaped you as an educator?
CS: Hands down, they were what excited me to become an educator in the first place. I can never thank them enough for involving me in their work with teachers and, when I finally became a teacher, in helping me to think of how to get my students learning about systems biology.
ISB: What are the biggest improvements/advancements you’ve witnessed in STEM education?
CS: When I was in high school and college, I had to get authentic science experiences by going outside of the classroom, and it was these experiences that inspired my love of science and continuation in the STEM fields. But that meant that not every student got the chance to experience how science could really be done. The move toward bringing authentic scientific practices inside the classroom, teamed up with student-centered active learning techniques and culturally responsive teaching methods have been the three biggest advancements that I have witnessed in STEM education. These methods help a diverse population of students become active, engaged learners in science and allow ALL students to have authentic scientific experiences. I expect this to engage a more diverse population of students and inspire them to choose a STEM career.
ISB: What are the obstacles you see facing administrators, educators and/or students in terms of STEM education? What are some approaches being taken to overcome these obstacles?
CS: It takes a lot of time and an incredible amount of effort for teachers not formally trained in these practices to start to develop them for their classrooms. It can often be overwhelming because this can be a whole new way of engaging students. I have seen several approaches to help overcome this daunting obstacle.
The Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 and the Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology: A Call to Action report published by AAAS in 2011 can be used as motivators to help stimulate change in teaching practices. In addition, many conferences in the area such as the Assessment, Teaching and Learning conference run by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), or the annual NWBIO conference run by the Northwest Biology Instructor’s Organization have workshops that focus on active-learning and culturally responsive teaching methods specifically for biology.
Schools may also have a committee whose mission is to support teachers to implement these practices. Highline College has one called the Assessment Committee that provides support to our teachers in reflecting on and revising their teaching methods to help their students meet their learning outcomes. This Committee also has wonderful support from our administrators because, in addition to helping improve student learning, it also helps to provide data to our accreditors that we are reflecting and revising our teaching methods for this purpose. Also, having just gone through the full-time tenure-track hiring process, I have seen departments specifically write their job descriptions to include that applicants have experience in student-centered active learning and culturally responsive teaching methods, which will help to bring new faculty on board who are familiar with such practices and encourage potential applicants to seek out this training.
ISB: What advice would you offer young educators looking to get involved with STEM education?
- Be passionate about the subject you teach. Your passion and energy can inspire and engage students to work through challenging science concepts and keep them coming back for more!
- Know your students’ names and use them often. In today’s diverse world, being able to create a caring learning community of students from backgrounds different from your own and helping them to succeed in STEM could not be more important. Read Geneva Gay’s “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching” (2002) Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2): 106-116 and help all of your students to learn science from a teacher who cares that they meet your high expectations.
- Get as much professional development as you can through formal training, workshops and conferences! This way you can really see what ambitious science teaching is going on out there and you can start meeting those educators to help excite you to try new things. There are many opportunities available in Washington state, from attending the UW College of Education, to working with the amazing folks at the Logan Center for Education, and, specifically for college educators, there is the SBCTC, NWBio, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), and so many others.
- For K-12 science educators, read the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and for college biology educators, read Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action (2011). For all science educators, go through the Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching website. These publications will invigorate you and give you an idea of what you should aim for and how you can teach what you love to do – science!
- Find a mentor – someone whose teaching you’d like to learn more about – and ask them for an informational interview or even if you could sit in on some of their classes. You could search the web for science teachers at schools in your area and send them an email. I emailed out-of-the-blue someone at a local community college, introduced myself, and asked for an informational interview. That interview got me in the door and that professor became one of my most valued mentors.