A Scientific Approach to Education

Michelle Smith photoWhen Michelle Smith emerged from graduate school and began interviewing for postdoctoral research positions, she was flooded with the realization that her passion was no longer in biological research.  After receiving  her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Washington, she decided to pursue a three-year long science teaching fellowship at the University of Colorado. Here she became interested in a different kind of research; the research of science education. Education research is a growing field aimed at advancing knowledge of learning processes by continuously developing methods to enhance education and learning. Researchers in this field aim to improve education by better understanding learning at different stages, and how formal and informal processes of teaching affect a student’s capability of learning.   Smith is currently an Assistant Professor of Biology and researcher for the STEM Education Center (RiSE) at the University of Maine.   The RiSE Center provides an integrated approach to University-based research and professional development, which brings together faculty from a variety of different disciplines in order to improve education.

“I’m really happy to be in my tenure track position, but it wasn’t like a knew that’s what I wanted to do all along.  A few things had to fall into place in order to make it happen.”

-Michelle Smith

When she arrived for her interview at UMaine in 2011, she was welcomed by an array of faculty members, both from the RiSE center and the School of Biology & Ecology. Individuals who were also passionate about improving undergraduate science education were eager to learn about her research and teaching philosophy. Since arriving at the University, she continuously strives to improve science education here at UMaine, and at institutions across the country.

Interactive learning photoSmith’s research at UMaine focuses on how to help students learn biology effectively, and how to help teachers adopt productive educational practices in their classrooms. She is interested in investigating the origins of universal misunderstandings in genetics. By determining what aspects of peer discussion make it an effective learning tool, she aims to facilitate course transformation and student excellence by collaborating with biology teachers on science education questions. She then takes her research a step farther by implementing these research education questions in her own classroom, BIO 350 Concepts and Application of Genetics, which introduces students to the chromosomal, biochemical and molecular basis of inheritance. In order to help students understand abstract concepts in genetics, Smith’s teaching philosophy includes an emphasis on interactive learning and stresses the importance of real life examples that she hopes students will carry beyond her class.

“Dr. Smith is the most compassionate teacher I have had the pleasure of learning from at the University of Maine, “ said Christopher Nashi, a forth-year biology student currently undertaking his capstone in Smiths lab. “Her passion for learning, unfaltering optimism, and excitement for teaching has positively influenced my experience at UMaine, and will continue to do so as I finish my undergraduate degree.”

Masters in Science Teaching, MST, student Jonathan Dumont was assigned to work with Smith at the very beginning of his graduate program at UMaine.  Dumont took on a project aiming to improve course performance in Biology 100, the introductory course for the Department of Biology & Ecology.  Specifically, Dumont is exploring strategies to improve course performance and lecture examination performance throughout the duration of the semester. With guidance from Smith, Dumont hopes to improve student’s content knowledge and deductive reasoning skills in order to increase the number of students that continue in STEM programs.

Photo of articlesIn a published paper in the Editors’ Choice section of Science magazine, Smith introduced a new way of documenting student and instructor behavior in STEM courses.  The protocol, called The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS), can be used in order to examine interactions occurring in the classroom and update decisions about how to create a more academically engaging environment for students. Dr. Smith’s research has made an immense impact on the educational practices and research here at UMaine, but her impact has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Maine.  In the month of May alone, Smith’s research was highlighted in articles by The National Science Foundation, The Chronicles of Higher Education, The University of Washington, and Wired.  She recently traveled to Australia to speak at a conference, which aimed to bring academic and professional staff together to discuss and develop their ideas confronting Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.  Her research was also featured in an article named Best of 2014 in Science.

Michelle Smith teaching photo
Smith leads a professional development talk at UMaine for STEM faculty and instructors.

Smith has become a mentor to many education enthusiasts at UMaine, and runs a research lab, which consists of individuals committed to improving undergraduate education. “More holistically…we are really looking at science education reform,” said Erin Vinson, STEM Professional Development Coordinator. “Our research focuses on what we can do to help students be successful in STEM courses, and how we go about doing that. It’s really just all of these different strategies that we are trying, and seeing which ones are most successful and beneficial to students.”  Vinson works with Smith on a variety of projects, and is in charge of organizing and implementing professional development opportunities on campus for STEM faculty and instructors.  To date, over 60 courses from 13 different STEM departments have been observed by Smith and her lab. This program is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Smith goes above and beyond the expectations as a professor, mentor, and colleague by continually adjusting her teaching practices in order to foster student learning and excellence. By combining scientific and educational research, she is bringing a progressive, multi-disciplinary approach to education research, and is paving the way to a brighter future for higher education.