STEM Spotlight with Dr. Kristen Miller

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Dr. Kristen Miller is no stranger to the UGA campus, specifically the Biological Sciences building. Currently the head Introductory Biology Lab Coordinator, Miller is responsible each semester for training over 40 teaching assistants in how to teach biology to undergraduate students. Miller is actively involved in the STEM community, and has been an award recipient of several STEM mini-grants. Miller has received praise from her colleagues, including Dr. Marshall Darley, Associate Professor of Plant Biology (Emeritus). Says Darley, "Kris’ conscientious, caring, skillful, and creative leadership has had a significant and positive impact on the instruction and training missions of the Division of Biological Sciences at The University of Georgia. We are better because of Dr. Kristen Miller."  Here we discuss with her the highlights of her most recent mini-grant work focused on the research of caselets.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you go to school?

I did my undergraduate studies at Bucknell University. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Animal Behavior, which is a mixture of biology and psychology. Afterwards I came to UGA for graduate school. I have a Master’s of Science in Biopsychology and a second Master’s of Science in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development. I also have my Ph.D. in Science Education.

What is your role at UGA? What department(s) do you work closely with?

My job is as a science educator. I am the faculty member in the Division of Biological Sciences who coordinates all the introductory biology labs. That generally means I hire and train about 45 graduate students, mainly from departments that are part of the Division of Biological Sciences, how to teach biology to undergraduate students. Our lab instructors are called “GLAs,” or graduate lab assistants.

Do you work with undergraduates or only GLAs? What kind of work do you do with these students?

It's a mix of both. I teach a graduate-level professional development class in teaching methods. Most of the students that take that class are science graduate students. Every week I meet with all the GLAs who teach the biology labs and spend time helping them develop their teaching skills. We have some undergraduate teaching interns who also work with us.

How many undergraduate students are influenced by your work?

We have four introductory lab courses every fall and spring. There are two for science majors and two for non-science majors. Each semester the graduate students teach approximately 2,200 students in 90-100 lab sections . . . a lot of work!

For the past two years, your STEM mini-grants have been focused on using caselets in the classroom as a professional development tool for GLAs. What are caselets and how did you become interested in this research?

Caselets are an abbreviated form of case discussions, a professional development tool used with K-12 teachers to present teaching dilemmas through classroom-based stories. Teachers read the teaching dilemmas and follow up with reflection and discussion. This form of active reflection has been a very successful means of helping teachers to develop as practitioners.  I developed caselets to be used as a similar teaching tool for science graduate student instructors who traditionally receive little to no teaching support.  They can be used in short periods of time and are designed to help the instructors present science concepts effectively to undergraduates in science labs. I am focusing the caselets on teaching science as inquiry, which is a national call for science teaching reform. Last year, a graduate student and I developed an initial set of caselets and introduced them to UGA biology faculty and into the teaching methods course. We got a strong, positive response that they are a very useful teaching tool. Then, graduate students in the teaching methods course developed their own caselets and reviewed each other’s work as part of a course assignment.

My most recent efforts have included building a dedicated website so that these caselets may be made available to a wider audience. This new website will also provide the opportunity for others to give feedback. Dr. Tom Koballa, Dean of the College of Education at Georgia Southern University, initially encouraged me in developing caselets, and has also provided feedback and support for this research.

 You plan to present your research on caselets at the 2012 national ABLE (Association for Biology Laboratory Educators) meeting. What is the most satisfying part of sharing your findings to a national community?

The conference participants include undergraduates, lab managers, as well as faculty and graduate students. All are devoted to providing good learning experiences in the lab. This receptive audience encourages innovative work and provides meaningful feedback, and many are willing to try out new ideas. It's wonderful to be able to present my research to that type of audience. Over the last few years, the presentations have elicited responses from faculty in several universities who have expressed an interest in using caselets to train GLAs. With other universities testing caselets, I am gathering more data on when and how others are using the caselets.

Did any of your colleagues or students assist in your research? How did they contribute?

Last year I worked with Tonjua Freeman, a Ph.D. student in Science Education. She was essential because she helped me get the project off the ground. She has taught with me for multiple semesters. The great thing about Tonjua is that she is already very familiar with teaching science as inquiry. She helped brainstorm ideas and talked to GLAs to develop the initial set of caselets.

This semester I am working with Jenny Munhofen, a Master’s of Science candidate in the School of Veterinary Medicine. She is helping to develop the website while writing caselets. She is also contacting organizations to determine whether they would be interested in using the caselets. There's no way I could get this work done without Tonjua and Jenny. They're fantastic.

 Other than caselets, what are your greatest topics of interest in research?

I'm interested in several things. One is how to use writing as a means to teach science; I am interested in promoting principles and best practices of teaching and responding to student writing in order to promote more writing in laboratory and lecture environments.  All of our introductory laboratory courses are designated as Writing Intensive Courses through the Franklin College’s Writing Intensive Program. My other focus is teaching science as inquiry and how to prepare new instructors to do this. It involves instruction in pedagogy, assessment, learning, and practical application.

 What part of teaching do you enjoy and why?

One thing I like about my job is that all of the graduate students with whom I work are becoming experts in their respective fields, and they add so much to our lab curricula and instructional meetings.  I feel lucky I can help them start thinking about another aspect of their graduate and future faculty careers: teaching. There's a big difference between understanding and teaching a concept. In our introductory biology labs, students are expected to design many of their own experiments while the GLAs facilitate this process. It's fun to show the GLAs that they can engage with their students in ways that allow the students to discover the process of science as they wrestle with all aspects of designing and conducting scientific experiments, rather than the GLAs telling them how to do everything. That is just one aspect of my job I enjoy.

Thank you so much for sharing with our STEM audience about training GLAs using caselets to teach science.  On a lighter note to end this interview, would you tell us your favorite place on campus?

It's part of campus, but not on campus. It is the Lake Herrick complex. It gets me out of the office, and it's beautiful.

To learn more about Dr. Miller and her research visit the Biological Sciences website at http://biosciences.uga.edu/people/faculty.html.  To read about Dr. Miller’s STEM mini-grants, go to http://www.ose.uga.edu/projects/small_grants/2011_2012/index.php. To learn more about Lake Herrick, please visit the following link: http://www.recsports.uga.edu/rec_template_1.php?page_ID=1277178425.

Interview compiled by Molly Berg

 

STEM Spotlight

In order to highlight the work of STEM affiliates and grant recipients, the Office of STEM Education interviews outstanding educators involved in the community.

Dr. Angela Birkes

Dr. Wendy Dustman

Kaycie Maddox

Dr. Leidong Mao

Dr. John Mativo

Dr. Kristen Miller

Dr. Ji Shen

Dr. Chi Thai