Biological Sciences professor helps students connect with material
October 30, 2020 | Updated on October 27, 2020 | Craig Brandhorst
Andy Schumpert got his first taste of teaching in graduate school at the University of South Carolina. Now an instructor and lab coordinator for the university’s Department of Biological Sciences, he credits his early experience as a graduate teaching assistant with kickstarting his career.
“I realized, ‘Research is fun, but I don’t know if research alone is going to satisfy me,’” he says. “Then when I started teaching in the Cell and Molecular Biology Lab, I fell in love with it almost immediately.”
And why not? Being at the head of the class — or the lab, as the case may be — appealed to the same basic impulse to identify and solve problems.
“Teaching is almost like this giant puzzle,” he says. “You’re trying to see what material students are struggling with and then figure out what you can bring into the classroom to make that material accessible.”
For Schumpert, that means creating a casual, fun environment and establishing an easygoing rapport. Asked to boil down his teaching philosophy to a single sentence, he instead offers a single word: “Connection.”
“I try to make the learning atmosphere as light as possible,” he goes on to explain. “I share memes, I crack jokes — they almost don’t even realize what’s happening. They’re laughing and then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Wait, he just explained the structure of this amino acid! It’s like I’m learning stuff!’”
Schumpert isn’t the first college instructor to bring humor and creativity to the classroom — he credits fellow instructor April South, for example, with the mantra “If they’re laughing, they’re learning” — and he won’t be the last. But as lab coordinator, he’s in a position to affect many more.
“I want to have as big of an impact on as many students as possible,” he says. “I want everyone to absorb and retain as much as they can so they can go on to do the next thing.”
He is also always on the lookout for the “next thing” himself, which is how he wound up in the Center for Teaching Excellence’s three-day Virtual Reality Bootcamp in May 2019. Inspired by the workshop series, he decided to use the technology in the department’s general principles of biology labs as a way to excite students and bring the material to life.
Teaching is almost like this giant puzzle. You’re trying to see what material students are struggling with and then figure out what you can bring into the classroom to make that material accessible.
When discussing Charles Darwin and evolutionary science, for example, he paired off-the-shelf virtual reality technology with readily available YouTube videos to transport BIOL 102 lab students to the often-described but seldom-visited Galapagos Islands — via wholly unnatural means.
“It was shockingly simple,” he says. “I’d seen these kind of gimmicky virtual reality headsets that you hook up to your smart phone at some point, so I shopped around — budget conscious, always — and it turned out Wal-Mart had a giant sale on them, a dollar apiece.”
Schumpert stocked up, slapped some “102 lab” stickers on the devices and made them available to the instructors and students.
“We had 42 labs this semester, so we had lots of graduate student teaching going on,” he says. “Trying to make sure all the TAs were trained up on how to integrate this technology was a little bit of a challenge, but once we got rolling, it worked great.”
Like everyone else in higher education, Schumpert is now thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect his teaching and that of the other instructors in his department. In the end, though, it’s just another puzzle that needs to be solved.
“This is definitely going to change the way we think about higher education,” he says. “But as I was telling the TAs, ‘What do you really want your students to take away from this experience? Go back to the learning outcomes.’ We just have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to still transmit knowledge.”