Jeff Schinske is the department chair and professor of biology at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. He is also the co-Editor-in-Chief of ASCB’s education research journal CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE) with Kimberly Tanner at San Francisco State University. He answered a few questions for the ASCB Newsletter.
What inspired your love and interest in science?
I’m lucky to have grown up in a family that has a lot of enthusiasm for science. My father was a chemist and his father was an electrical engineer, so I learned to appreciate science early on. My own passion for science took off following visits to the California Academy of Sciences where I saw the amazing diversity in colors and shapes of marine fish in their aquaria. I couldn’t believe that such creatures existed, and I had to learn more! This eventually led me to major in marine biology and to study fish speciation through molecular genetics in graduate school.
Why did you decide to become a life science educator?
Similar to the way my passion for science began with my family, so did my interest in education. Teaching runs in my family; my mother and sister as well as my extended family have made education part of their careers. I knew I wanted to do something related to science education but entered graduate school uncertain about exactly what that would be. As part of my graduate studies, I partnered with a middle school teacher in San Francisco and completed graduate seminars in research-based teaching. One of my grad student colleagues suggested that I should think about teaching at a community college. I had not attended community college myself, but this seemed like a good fit.
I taught courses at two community colleges while finishing my graduate work and was immediately hooked. I had never met such brilliant, hardworking, resilient, and creative people as the community college students I served. I felt (and continue to feel) like I need to work as hard as possible to deserve the privilege of teaching such amazing students. I enjoy that pressure and appreciate that I will always have room to improve. My job will never be “done.”
What were some of the challenges you have had along your career journey and how did you overcome them?
I struggle with anxiety to the point that it has prevented me from fully engaging in my education and career-related activities. I did not always share this with my students and colleagues, but have found it to be a particularly important point of connection with my students. Many, or perhaps most, of them have similar challenges, and hearing this about me seems to help them realize my class is a place where challenges are accepted and accommodated.
What is your education philosophy?
I believe every student is capable of excelling and meeting the highest of expectations if given the support and resources they need. Though I teach fast-paced, content-rich courses, I begin each term with the goal of every student earning an “A.” I’ve never achieved that goal, but I keep aiming for it. I try to be active in my classroom, at my college, and on broader scales to push to dismantle systemic inequities that prevent students from achieving their potential and earning that “A.”
What do you hope to accomplish as co-Editor-in-Chief of LSE with Kimberly Tanner?
I hope to honor and sustain the amazing work of past editors. They have made LSE an indispensable resource for educators and education researchers, and the journal has evolved over the years in groundbreaking ways. Going forward, Kimberly and I are both passionate about ensuring the research and perspectives featured in LSE are representative of the students, faculty, and researchers in our communities. Analyses of LSE papers suggest we still have much work to do on this front.1 As an example, only around 1% of LSE papers feature a community college context, though close to half of all undergraduates are enrolled at community colleges. Similarly, most articles in the analysis of LSE papers did not report demographic characteristics of students or look for differential results based on student identities.
It’s exciting to see LSE papers informing national policy and the practices used in classrooms around the world. We would hope that the practices recommended in the journal will be based on evidence collected in contexts representative of the classrooms where those practices are employed. This likely will require additional research in community college contexts and involving students, faculty, and researchers from traditionally minoritized and marginalized communities.
What advice would you give an aspiring life science educator?
Be kind to yourself and try to always see the best in your students. It’s a lot of work to develop engaging and effective lessons, assignments, and assessments for a class. When we see a student not participating in an activity or not turning in an assignment or receiving a low grade on a test, it’s all too easy to assume the student was not interested or did not study enough. On closer examination, those students are generally highly motivated, conscientious, and extremely hardworking. However, something about our instructions might have been unclear, or the student might have been enduring extraordinary levels of difficulty unrelated to class, or they might not have felt welcome as a member of the class community. In other words, there might have been deficits related to my class’s ability to support the student as opposed to deficits centered around the student themselves.
If I observe students not performing to my expectations, I consider it my job to find out what about my class might be responsible for that underperformance. With a little reflection and some candid feedback from students, I can usually identify a way I could have better structured my teaching to promote success. This is where it’s important to be kind to oneself. It’s okay to realize that a hard-thought-out lesson could still use improvement.
Tell me about your hobbies or personal interests.
I have two sons, ages 6 and 11, and I try to spend as much time with them as possible! I have a bachelor’s degree in saxophone performance and love that my kids are also very interested in music. I’m interested in tattoos—especially blackwork and dotwork styles—and like thinking about possible next tattoos to get. I love basketball and baseball—watching and playing, in spite of not being especially talented at either!
1Lo SM, Gardner GE, Reid J, Napoleon-Fanis V, Carroll P, Smith E, Sato BK (2019). Prevailing questions and methodologies in biology education research: A longitudinal analysis of research in CBE—Life Sciences Education and at the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research. CBE—Life Sciences Education 18, ar9.
About the Author:
Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.