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How I teach

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Professor makes introductory biology course engaging, relevant

Professor Oyenike Olabisi

​Oyenike Olabisi consistently gets excellent feedback from students on what she calls her “Why Should I Care” slides, a lecture explaining to all students — including the music and fashion design majors — why biology matters in their lives.

Editor’s note: First-year students, prospective students (and some of their parents) wonder and worry how they will handle the academic transition from high school to college. In a series of stories, UDaily speaks with University of Delaware professors who teach courses commonly taken by students during their first year on campus. In this story, Associate Professor Oyenike (Nike) Olabisi explains how she teaches biology.

Imagine seeing the mugshot of an escaped prisoner on the evening news. Now picture spotting that person in a grocery store the next day. What is your first move? You register danger, of course. You call the police. You protect others by signaling to fellow shoppers.

This is one of the metaphors adopted by Oyenike (Nike) Olabisi, associate professor of biology at the University of Delaware, in her teaching about mRNA, a molecule in the body that conveys protein-making instructions meant for cells. In the case of vaccinations for the coronavirus (COVID-19), synthetic mRNA injected into an arm contains the blueprint needed for producing coronavirus spike proteins — in other words: it contains the disease’s mugshot. This way, should a vaccinated person come into contact with COVID-19 at, say, a grocery store, the body is able to recognize these proteins as dangerous. The immune response is triggered. Surrounding cells are protected from harm.

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Prof. Olabisi teaching a class

​Prof. Olabisi, in a 2016 photo, engages her students using a computerized polling feature that allows them to answer anonymously if they don't want to speak out in a group.

Of course, Nike Olabisi (pronounced Nee-kay O-la-bee-see) does not need to incorporate into her curriculum America’s current pandemic at all. She could simply explain the basics of mRNA the way they are described in your typical textbook, in all their protein-encoding glory. But connecting foreign or abstract concepts to current events is one way she captures the attention of a class. 

“For many of my students, the struggle is: ‘Why should I care about this’?” Olabisi said. “So it is central to my course design and philosophy that I help them see the relevance of what they are learning — not just to their lives, but to society.” 

Olabisi’s Principles of Biology course (BISC 104) is taken by many first-year students, including those who major in music, elementary education or fashion merchandising. Translation: These are not people necessarily titillated by photosynthesis or frog dissection. Or, at least, they do not realize they are, until Olabisi connects these biological concepts to their true passions.

Consider the sociology students more invested in social justice than genetics. To their pleasant surprise, this course manages to link the two. Each semester, when covering the technical aspects of phenotypes and genotypes, Olabisi polls her class: Is race a biological fact or merely a social construct? The majority, she said, vote for the former. Then the professor uses evidence to contradict that position: There is no gene or set of genes common to all Blacks or all whites. In other words, looking different does not mean human beings actually are all that different, at least not in any real, genetic sense. Indeed, Olabisi contends, you will find more genetic variation among penguins — those flightless aquatic birds that appear indistinguishable from one another — than among human beings.

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Students in a classroom

​In this 2016 photo, Prof. Olabisi encourages her students to work in groups as well as individually, and to take advantage of her office hours for additional help. During the coronavirus pandemic, that group work and those office hours still happen regularly in a virtual format.

“The last thing I want is to just bombard my students with facts, facts, facts,” Olabisi said, noting that this is a common experience (and turnoff) for biology students in some high school classrooms. “Instead, I try to connect those pieces of information to a bigger picture.” 

Take the process of meiosis, a type of cell division that results in the eggs and sperm necessary for sexual reproduction. A public policy major enrolled in this introductory class solely to meet a science requirement may zone out if presented only with the technical stages of this process and its associated vocabulary, words that would sound right at home in a Lewis Carroll poem. (Asters! Centromeres! Homologous chromosomes and sister chromatids!) But Olabisi relates this process to societal issues. Things that go wrong in meiosis lead to conditions like Down Syndrome, and the longer a woman delays having a baby, the greater the chance of giving birth to a child with this kind of disorder. 

“You might be a senator tomorrow,” Olabisi said. “And you may be involved in conversations shaping paid parental leave or issues surrounding women in the workplace and when they may want to start a family. So this knowledge may help you better empathize with your constituents.”

This big-picture focus is novel for many who spent high school biology struggling to memorize esoteric definitions for fungi and flagellum. For this reason, Olabisi encourages her students to connect with her for study tips and strategies outside of class: “It is not me versus you guys,” she said of the Blue Hens in her course. “It is all of us in this together, collaborating to build a community of learners.”

One member of this community is Jayla Alphonso, a first-year elementary education major who enrolled in the course in fall of 2020. At first, she said, she was a person “who was never really into science, so I was, like: ‘Ugh, Why do I have to do this’?” But once she took Olabisi up on her offer for additional help, her viewpoint began to change. Not only did she learn effective strategies for comprehending that aforementioned meiosis process (Olabisi encouraged her to draw it out, which made all the difference), she discovered an unexpected perk: a potential mentor for the long-term.

“There are not many teachers who look like me, as an African American,” said Alphonso, who ended the semester with an A. “And she really encouraged me as an education major, always giving me tips on keeping up with my studies. She is someone I could see myself keeping in touch with.”

Olabisi’s accessibility also made an impression on Cory Mengden, a junior chemistry major. During one interaction, he contested a mark on an exam, explaining in detail his rationale behind one answer in particular, and Olabisi awarded him the extra point. Another conversation did not result in any extra credit, but it did “spark a nice back-and-forth that helped me better understand the topic,” Mengden said. “She’s a receptive, engaging professor.”

While some academics in the scientific community might pride themselves on “weeding out the mediocre students in year one,” Olabisi said, she approaches teaching differently: with faith in the ability of her students to grow in their capacity for scientific thought. She helps them as much as she can in this effort by, for example, scheduling quizzes on the same day every week to aid a class in establishing a time management routine. She also allows students to drop their lowest exam grade.

“I’m not saying biology will be easy or that there won’t be failures along the way,” Olabisi said. “But a growth mindset means knowing that you can learn from failure, that it doesn’t define you as smart or not. Come talk to me about what’s working, what’s not working and how to improve. Because just like you can build muscles in the gym, you can build knowledge.”  

Fair warning: Students who adopt this growth mindset in Olabisi’s class just might grow a little more than expected. At least, this was the case for Rafeala Dougherty, a first-year student who took the course in the fall of 2020. 

“When I started, I was majoring in elementary education,” Dougherty said. “It was one of those courses I had to take to meet the University’s breadth requirement. But then I realized I was more excited by — and interested in — this subject than any other. In the end, taking Professor Olabisi’s class, I switched my major to biology.”

Article by Diane Stopyra; photos by Amanda Oldham and courtesy of Oyenike Olabisi

Published Feb. 1, 2021

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How I teach