Innovative Pedagogy Interview

Tapping Into the Mind of Dr. Sitaraman

Divya Sitaraman

Dr. Sitaraman is here to save the day by solving professors trickiest brain teaser yet: engagement in the classroom. But fear not, she helps tackle this common issue with integrating “engauging”. No, not a spelling error but a technique used further to discover and unravel concepts.  In delving into the world of Neuroscience, she creates a classroom of discovery and purpose through her passion and research.

How do you make neuroscience accessible for students? What’s a typical day in the classroom for you?

Students are inherently interested in Neuroscience they are curious about how the brain works and how it does what it does. As an interdisciplinary science, it requires an understanding of many different fields. The challenge I face is exposing students to the real complexity of the system and multitude of approaches used to study it. The layers between genes, neurons and behavior are complex and need exploration and engagement. My role in this scheme of things is to merely present these layers and work with my students on exploring them. I am also a major whiteboard user, I love making schematics and concept maps.

Do you think your passion for neuroscience has helped shaped the tone you set for students in the classroom?

I don’t know about passion, but I feel like I barely know any neuroscience. I think every neuroscientist feels this way, like my students I am exploring. We go over experiments, theories and try to interpret them together. When we all are genuinely curious the process is quite enjoyable and rewarding.

What is the outcome you want your students to know by the end of the semester?

I want them to apply concepts and ideas from our course content to other ideas in neuroscience. I want them to see the links and not see things in isolation because nothing works like that. All my final exams are cumulative because I want them to integrate the information and come up with a picture of the system, but also enable them to address unexplored areas.

What is an important teaching tool you emphasize in the classroom?

I try to approach every topic with a set of logical (at least to me) questions. I present a lot of original research in my classes and work with students on the results and interpretations. It’s exactly the way we do research in lab. Identify some questions that we want answers to, define an experiment to answer these questions and interpret the results we get. I don’t see why the process of teaching science should be different from the way of doing science. I always saw teaching and research as these independent things, but it was the time I spent at Center for Scientific Teaching at Yale University as a postdoc that opened my eyes to the idea that the rigor and methodology of doing science works well for teaching too.

Students have gone to say that, “lecture style is very engaging and she has the rare ability of breaking down very complex topics into easily understandable bits”. How do you create this authentic connection with your students?

We all are connected by curiosity and once you tap into it it’s easy to move forward. Once you set up some interesting and relevant questions and provide a conceptual framework you can layer it with all the informational bits and pieces. I think framing and communicating those questions really help me create a connect. I don’t think I do it very well all the time but I always go to class with a few open-ended questions to set up the content. Also, I try not to meet anyone two hours before a class as I spend that time in isolation framing those questions.

What kind of advice would you give to a new professor who is hoping to engage their students in new and dynamic ways?

I am new to this and still trying to figure a million things out but more than engage try to “engauge” your students. Scientific Teaching a wonderful book by Jo Handelsman emphasizes this idea of Engaugement. Student engagement is a powerful assessment tool to understand the key issues that are preventing student learning. Engaugement helps you tailor your lecture or discussion to address common misconceptions, address difficult concepts and emphasize important points.