May 14, 2014
by Rachel Griess
Erica Suchman, a Colorado State University microbiology professor, is known as one of the nation's best college science teachers for cleaving to the concept that learning by rote is less important than teaching students to 'think like biologists.'
“She always asks, ‘Why?’ She urges us to think critically and explain the information,” said Justin Purcell, a senior in Suchman’s General Microbiology class this spring. “She uses different modalities to reiterate the information and make it stick.”
Suchman is one of only 12 CSU Distinguished Teaching Scholars, who stand among the most outstanding educators in their disciplines. On Sunday, Suchman will add another accolade to her list of honors when she accepts the 2014 Carski Foundation Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award from the American Society for Microbiology during its annual meeting in Boston.
The award recognizes a professor for tremendous dedication to students and the scientific community, and for contributions to improving microbiology education.
Suchman has worked for nearly 20 years in the CSU Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology. She has been honored many times for her expertise in using active learning techniques to foster critical-thinking skills while teaching science in large lecture halls.
“It’s nice to be acknowledged and appreciated when you’ve put in the hard work,” Suchman said. “I am constantly thinking about how to improve my classroom, how to encourage students to ‘think like biologists,’ so they are moving past memorization to truly understand the science.”
As a teenager, Suchman wanted to attend veterinary or medical school, but she gravitated to the science of infectious disease: She has investigated potential biological controls for the species of mosquito that transmits Dengue fever virus, a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics.
“I enjoy when I can share my passion for biology with my students, like when I’m able to bypass all the tedious details that no one is ever going to remember and actually get students excited about biology – even if it’s over some ‘strange’ interest like infectious diseases,” Suchman said, laughing. “If students can understand the concepts, they are far better equipped to use critical thinking when they are confronted with new situations.”
Her students say the approach works.
“Professor Suchman is very practical when it comes to teaching,” said Chauncy Hinshaw, a sophomore majoring in microbiology. “She puts everything in terms we can understand and applies it to real-life situations. She helps us understand why the information is relevant and how we might use it in our future careers.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, the charismatic Suchman roamed a large classroom, passing among small groups of students working on a written exercise. She stopped at each group, addressing each student by name, to check comprehension of the application of scientific principles to a variety of problems.
She then assessed learning through a question-and-answer session using iClickers with all students in the classroom. More than 90 percent correctly answered each question.
“I took her general microbiology course last year, and I’m amazed at the material I’ve held onto,” said Kylie Mitchel, who now is a microbiology teaching assistant.
Suchman believes that there isn’t a sole method that works; rather, she presents materials in several different ways to fully engage her students and to ensure comprehension among all.
“Last semester, Professor Suchman’s general microbiology course was the first class I took in America,” said Rui Li, another teaching assistant. “The way she taught allowed me to make a lot of progress in understanding microbiology, despite the language barrier.”
Suchman said that, above all, she works to convey scientific concepts.
“The general public has this misconception that biologists are just encyclopedias filled with all of this memorized information,” Suchman said. “Though biologists do know a lot of information, it’s so much more than that. My goal is for students to understand how biologists think, how they apply enduring concepts, and how they reach conclusions.”