The science of teaching

Q&A/The winner of this year’s Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching talks about why clarity is so important, how he learned to accept his own blunders—and why he still gets nervous.

Paul Sniegowski

“You reach a point where you’re finishing sentences for each other.” 

When Paul Sniegowski got the call telling him he’d won the School of Arts and Science’s top teaching award for 2005, his mind began reeling. Sniegowski had forgotten all about the award.

“I had just put it completely out of my mind,” says the associate professor of biology. “So when Dean Bushnell called, I thought I was being asked to be on some committee, so my mind was racing, trying to come up with a legitimate excuse. It was a complete surprise.”

The bigger surprise may be that Sniegowski is a biologist at all. Until his early 20s, he seemed set on the path to becoming a professional violinist. After five years at the Indiana University School of Music, his childhood love of science caught up with him, and he hasn’t looked back.

Recently, Sniegowski caught the public eye as the co-writer of a letter denouncing the Dover, PA School Board’s decision to mandate the teaching of Intelligent Design in its biology classes. Sniegowski feels strongly that school students should be taught “real science.” He also feels strongly about his students at Penn, his lab research on the genetic stages of evolution and his titanium and carbon-fiber racing bicycle.

That’s right, his bicycle.

Every day Sniegowski cycles in from his home in Media, 16 miles away. “It’s fun,” he insists. “It keeps me from going crazy.”

Q. Tell me about some of your early teaching experiences.

A. My first teaching experience was teaching the violin. I had about 30 violin students for four years or so and they ranged in age from 5 through college age. And although that’s very different from biology, there are common elements. One of the things I learned is that there’s a bond of trust that’s built up between the teacher and the student. The teacher is going to be fair. The teacher is going to give praise when it’s due. On the other hand, the student is going to come across with the work as a condition of that contract of trust and I think that carries over into what I think about teaching here.

Q. Was music important to you from an early age?

A. Yes, I think what often happens with kids who have some ability is they’re urged to go as far as they can. That was true in my case. I was one of the better violin players in the area of northern Indiana where I grew up so I went to Indiana University School of Music.

Q. But you didn’t pursue a career as a musician.

A. I realized I wasn’t going to be a successful musician unless I devoted most of my waking hours to practicing, and I’ve always also been interested in the life of the mind and in biology.

Q. Were you one of those kids who was always poking around in puddles?

A. Yes, I grew up in a town with a river and some wooded areas … and so I spent a lot of my time just mucking around in the river and fishing and catching critters, reading books about this and that. It’s funny how it just came back at a certain age in my late teens and early 20s.

Q. Was it hard to go back to school to study science?

A. Yes, it was difficult. I was in the position that a lot of our post-baccalaureate students are in here in the College of General Studies. You’re older and you don’t know any of this stuff. There’s a whole language that you don’t know. I sometimes wonder if that doesn’t help me explain things. It’s given me empathy because I went through it at a fairly advanced age.

Q. Tell me some things you’ve learned in your teaching career.

A. Two things. First, when you go back and teach the same stuff, don’t assume you’ll remember it from last year. The other is I used to get really, really upset by little blunders. Now I say to my class, “Eventually I’m going to eat crow in front of you, I’m going to get something backwards or not have my facts straight,” and I’m just straightforward about that.
Also I’ve learned that clarity is more important than voluminous content. I’ve concluded it’s better to cut down on the number of things we talk about in favor of understanding a few important things extremely well and trusting the students will go on from there to fill out all the filigree details.

Q. What’s your favorite teaching environment?

A. In some ways the most satisfying teaching is with grad students who are finishing up. You reach a point where you’re finishing sentences for each other … your minds are so together on thinking about things.

Q. Do you ever get nervous teaching?

A. All the time. If you really care you’ll get nervous, and there are certain lectures that always make me nervous. One is on the evolution of sexual reproduction. It’s probably one of the most complicated topics and I know there’s no way to do it justice. So this year I just said to the class, “Just so you know, this lecture always makes me nervous.”
Also, I’m invariably exhausted after a lecture … I can’t do anything for an hour and half after.

Q. Tell me about your research.

A. Basically I study the genetic stages of evolution. The best way to study evolution is through changes in the genetic blueprint. I’m part of a movement ... in which people bring microorganisms into the lab that have very short generation spans and actually observe the evolutionary process directly. This is very exciting because we can observe the sorts of things that Charles Darwin was talking about directly.
I’m most interested in the evolution of mutation rates. Mutations are sudden random changes that happen in the blueprint. ... what’s interesting is evolution can tinker with that machinery. It can turn up the mutation rate, turn it down, so forth, and what we study in my lab is how that happens. It has relevance to things like ... the emergence of cancers in cell populations in the body.

Q. I can see why you got caught up in the Intelligent Design debate.

A. A lot of the credit goes to Michael [Weisberg, assistant professor of Philosophy]. When the Dover thing hit the news … we came up with the idea of writing a letter to the school board pointing out that Intelligent Design is not part of the scientific debate that’s going on right now and you’re not really teaching real scientific controversy or real scientific knowledge if you present it in a classroom. You’re instead misleading students and doing them a disservice. I talked to my colleagues in Biology and he talked to his colleagues in Philosophy and everyone we could find was happy to sign.

Q. So you wanted to set the record straight?

A. It sort of pains me to talk about this because I am in no way interested in challenging someone’s beliefs or the basis by which they make their moral decisions and live their lives. Really I’m concerned, as a scientist, that we teach real science.

Q. Did you get negative feedback, threats?

A. No threats. Certainly abuse, by email. And the other signatories, too. For a while I’d see colleagues in the hall and they’d say, “Oh, I got another crazy today.” Some of them suggested we were trying to bring about the downfall of western society.

Q. What gives you the most satisfaction in your job?

A. Seeing somebody understand something and catch fire. I had a student who was not doing great in my evolution course and he found a topic he really liked and worked hard on it and wrote a really good paper and it ended up increasing his grade a lot. I saw him a year later and he buttonholed me on the Quad and he was all excited because some scientific papers that were relevant to the term paper he’d written had just come out and he wanted to tell me about them. That kind of thing is what makes it all worthwhile.

Originally published on May 12, 2005