As NABT president-elect, you are asked to consider options for the “Find the President” contest, which takes place at the annual Professional Development Conference, and to write this essay of introduction to the membership. Conference attendees who “Find the President” receive a sticker used to complete the contest ballot for the prize drawing. The president-elect therefore needs to be easily identifiable. My name, Finazzo, doesn't really call to mind any clever associations, and identifying a single hobby was challenging because of my many interests. The same is true of my many passions for biology, so articulating a one-page action plan for NABT was unrealistic. Therefore, I offer here a few meandering thoughts.
Photography is the hobby that I eventually chose to support the contest. While not a professional, I can generate the occasional exceptional image. Recently, as I was scanning through some pictures for the conference promotional materials, I noticed something interesting. Along with the expected number of family, vacation, holiday, and scenery shots, the vast majority of the photographs were of small things like lichens, mushrooms, animals, flowers, and bugs.
The idea of small things in nature caused me to question the phrase “You can't see the forest for the trees.” This cliché means that if you focus too much on the small issues, you may fail to see the interconnectedness of the whole. That's a good point, but I have found, in my many professional roles, that I often do just the opposite. I despair over what I think I see as the forest (STEM literacy or illiteracy for instance), focusing on the big picture rather than on the components that ultimately shape it. This realization led me back to thoughts about small things and individuals.
I started teaching as an undergraduate at a large research university. In the years since, I have worked at a four-year college and at open-access two-year colleges, and I am currently employed by a formerly two-year college that now offers baccalaureate degrees. How I teach has changed dramatically. When I first started, I naively thought that my students were just like me – academically prepared, excited about learning, and thrilled to be in biology class. That first semester was a real eye-opener, and it took me a while to realize that teaching really wasn't happening if learning wasn't occurring. That realization opened up an even more exciting and more challenging world. Now I ask myself daily how I can engage students and encourage them to discover biology. How do I make learning fun? I ask myself, how can I maintain rigor and depth in the curriculum without overwhelming students with details? This is particularly tricky, because as a biologist I relish those details. I don't have the answers. We teach the way we were taught until we learn otherwise, and I am learning to do otherwise.
I am learning that to attend to the “forest,” we must concentrate on the “trees.” So, returning to small things, consider each of your students as a single tree. How many forests have you generated during your career? What impact have you had through your classroom interactions, and how many lives you have touched? We all have wonderful stories, particularly of the straight-A, teacher-pleasing students who go on to greater success. Of course, we may never know how much we have influenced others because we do our jobs, send our students off, and, for the most part, never hear from them again.
I would like to share one story of a student who did return. A student popped her head around the office door and said, “You probably don't remember me, but I had you for class.” I told her frankly that I didn't remember her name but I certainly remembered her face and that she had been in my class two years earlier. She seemed pleased and told me she was graduating from the local four-year college with a degree in business. She said she had enjoyed my class and the associated field trip to the Everglades. She told me that she liked the Everglades experience so much that she returned there with some friends the very next weekend and, a few weeks later, even led a group of her friends on a bike trip to the park. She said that this one class activity had encouraged her to visit parks throughout the state!
This small comment from one student turned around an otherwise bad week. I'm certain that she wasn't one of my “top” students, nor was she a biology major. However, she left the class with an appreciation for the natural world that she then shared with her friends, in turn “building the forest.” Yes, I have had students who would qualify as science successes, but this student often comes to mind as a prime example of the power of teaching.
We have all had students like this one, even if we don't know it. We must always remember that what we do is important even for those students who don't go on to make major scientific discoveries. Most of our graduates will vote, and many will raise children and share lessons about the natural world with them; some may even go on to be teachers themselves. Each will influence society. Therefore, every student needs to be scientifically literate, because every student needs to be equipped to understand and function responsibly in the world. That is our job: to engage students one at a time, to grow the forest one tree at a time, and to build the future in the process.