The Night Class: BTI Opens Lab to Community College Course

by | Apr 5, 2016

TC3 GroupAnyone staying late in the lab at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) on a Thursday night will witness a small but dedicated group of Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) students and a BTI graduate student or postdoc huddled around a microscope, discussing basic biology concepts, or laughing about a bit of science news—a teaching arrangement that has benefitted students and teachers alike since 2010.

The partnership between BTI and TC3 provides students with an afterhours alternative to traditional biology lab sections and gives young researchers a chance to hone their teaching skills with a beginners class that is all their own.

Alexa Schmitz, a graduate student in Maria Harrison’s lab is teaching the spring semester class. She decided to take on this challenge while also finishing up her doctorate and looking for her next position because the course meets in the evening and requires minimal prep work. She has been a teaching assistant in multiple Cornell classes and even teaches tango out of her home, but this is the first science class that is all hers.

“I love that it’s my class. I’m actually the teacher finally,” said Schmitz. “It’s really rewarding. I immediately connected with all my students, because of the small size.” Besides looking good on a CV, the class gives her valuable experience for running a class—an important skill, should her career path stay in academia.

She notes that many of the attendees are non-traditional students and are taking her class because they have children or work during the day, not just to fulfill a requirement. “They’re doing it because they really want to learn biology,” she said.

One of those students is Antoinette Dallaire, a working mother of two, originally from Staten Island, New York. She moved to the area three years ago but recently decided to go back to school to pursue a degree in a medical field and is considering nursing.

“I think the class is wonderful and I think Alexa is an amazing teacher,” said Dallaire. “I enjoy the fact that she works all day and then comes to class, because I too work all day and then come to class. I like that she is striving for more and so am I.”

Dallaire chose the course offered at BTI because it’s closer to her home and the evening time slot makes finding childcare easier. She also appreciates having classmates who are in their 20s or 30s, and thinks that the location on the Cornell campus attracts students who are genuinely interested in learning the material, instead of just fulfilling a requirement.

Classes tend to be small and fairly cozy, ranging from six to 15 students, so everyone can ask questions and share stories about their lives. Students also take turns bringing in snacks.

“It’s really a nice, tight, small group of people,” said Michelle Morris, a first-year social sciences major.

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Before enrolling at TC3, Morris worked as a paralegal for six years and had never taken a hard science class before. Though the content is unfamiliar and challenging, she likes the combined class and lab format, and feels that she is building up basic concepts that will help in her future career. She aims to transfer to Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, with the ultimate goal of entering a social work field, such as assisting youth who are in prison, or those who have been released recently.

Despite the difficulty she has experienced with the material, Morris finds that she has gained a new appreciation for how her cells function and work together in her body.

“You sort of take for granted that your body keeps doing all these things,” she said. “It’s working so hard to keep me going.”

Schmitz has also learned a thing or two from the class. Besides realizing how much she loves teaching, she has also learned not to take anything for granted regarding her students’ knowledge. Concepts that seem simple to a full-time biologist can be strange and difficult for students who haven’t studied science since high school.

“I get a lot of students saying, ‘This is probably a stupid question…’” said Schmitz, “but good, I want the stupid questions.” She talked about the day in class, when no one knew the difference between a prokaryote (a cell without a nucleus, such as a bacterium) and a eukaryote (a cell with a nucleus, which makes up animals, plants and fungi).

“I said, ‘That’s great! That means that I get to teach you tons of stuff,’ and they just all started laughing,” she said. “It just gave me that baseline—I know so much that I can teach them.”

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