Jo Handelsman is a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University. Dr. Handelsman is currently awaiting Senate confirmation as the Associate Director for Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Jo Handelsman wants faculty to approach teaching with the same rigor, spirit of experimentation, and creativity that they bring to their research by incorporating problem-solving and other active learning techniques and assessing their success.
After speeding through college and graduate school, Jo Handelsman became a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when she was just 26. "I was so unprepared," Handelsman recalls with a shudder. "We are extremely well prepared to do research. But that's not all we do as faculty."
She had no training for perhaps the scariest task of all: teaching. When Handelsman first entered the classroom, she lectured at her students, like most of her colleagues before her. "We all go into the classroom and simply do what was done to us. That's not a very scientific way to go about it," she says. "We would never do that in our research."
As she stood terrified in front of those students, Handelsman had no idea that, two decades later, she would be known nationwide for her efforts to improve science teaching. The gap between what Handelsman was telling students—a lot—and what they were taking in—very little—became clear when she started teaching a class for 30 undergraduate nonscience majors. The breaking point came when she tried to teach the students how to prove that a microbe was the cause of a disease. "It just felt so dry, so mechanical, that I finally said to them, 'You guys just have to do this.'" At the next class, Handelsman arrived with Petri dishes, toothpicks, and sick plants. "At first, they all just stared at me and had no idea how to proceed. I told them to talk to each other." The room erupted. "They were acting just like scientists," Handelsman recalls proudly. "That was the moment that I realized that there is another way to teach." Handelsman calls that way "scientific teaching."
Handelsman draws on evidence-based studies to create a "toolbox" to improve undergraduate science teaching, such as active learning, mentoring, classroom diversity, and self-correction through feedback—lessons she has developed since her appointment as an HHMI Professor in 2002. A good lesson incorporates the best aspects of science itself: the rigor, creativity, and dynamism of a scientific community and the thrill of the experimental chase, she says. As an advocate for teaching reform, Handelsman has been a regular co-organizer of the Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and HHMI, among other organizations. The intensive, week-long course brings together faculty from universities across the country to work on integrating research and modern learning techniques into classes that help students understand how scientists think. Handelsman moved from Wisconsin to Yale University in January 2010, where she expanded her scientific teaching programs to a national scale.
Since joining the Yale faculty, Handelsman initiated research on the impact of implicit bias on the ability of women and minorities to engage in science. In response to her own and others' work demonstrating widespread and pernicious biases, she developed a new project that attempts to reduce bias through fictional videos that illustrate the impact of bias on men and women in academic science.