Researcher shines in the classroom, too

Beth Krizek wins Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award

Biology professor Beth Krizek — recipient of a Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award — fell in love with research as an undergraduate, years before she gave much thought to teaching. Two decades into her career as a plant biologist, research remains her passion — but her classroom skills are top-notch, too, as her students will attest.

Krizek is “very knowledgeable and passionate about what she teaches and knows how to present it in a way that is easy to understand and apply,” one student wrote in a teaching evaluation. Others commented that “she is awesome” and they “love the way she teaches.”

It’s well-earned praise for a professor who remembers the days when she was nervous in front of a classroom.

“I am naturally shy, and I used to get up there and I think my voice would quiver,” Krizek recalls. “And then I realized, ‘The students are nervous because I’m nervous.’ And I just realized, I’ve got to relax up there — or at least pretend to be relaxed — because they were uncomfortable. You get better. You practice, you do it and you get better.”

Those days are long behind her. Now Krizek receives high praise, especially for Biology 523, a course she developed on plant development.

In the course, Krizek strives to show students what scientific research is really like. She’ll teach the students about an important scientific finding, then have them read the original research paper that led to the discovery.

“We have already stated the conclusion of that paper, but now they are reading how that conclusion was reached,” she explains. “It’s hard for them: It’s hard to read primary literature — the vocabulary. And it’s not written like a textbook. So, it’s hard in the beginning, and they struggle a little bit. But by the end they get a lot of confidence — they kind of figure it out, and they like that part of the course.”

It’s an approach that combines Krizek’s love of research with her desire to engage students. It also addresses what Krizek sees as a challenge in science education.

“In a lot of the courses, we are just giving them all this information and asking them to regurgitate it,” she says. “That’s like, ‘How well can you memorize everything?’ But we should be developing their ability to sift through the information and use reason and critical thinking skills.”

Those skills are enhanced by learning what scientists go through to discover something.

“Designing experiments and actually doing them in the lab is so different from taking a laboratory course, where you are kind of following a recipe, and it’s hopefully been designed so it mostly works — which is really not real science,” Krizek says. In a real lab, Krizek says, “A lot of times it doesn’t work, and you have to do a lot of troubleshooting, and it can be really frustrating — so I think you have to have a certain personality to do it.”

For those who who fall in love with it, research — like teaching — can be highly rewarding. Research came first for Krizek, but she’s finding the reward in teaching, too.

“I think it’s one of those things where if you are open to getting better, you can improve a lot,” Krizek says. “You can learn a lot from your colleagues, and new technologies come around that you can use. It wasn’t my first love — research has always been my love. But, of course, introducing undergraduates to research is really rewarding, too.”

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