In learning you teach, and in teaching you will learn

Phil Collins

Homines dum docent discunt.”(Men learn while they teach.)

Seneca the Younger, in Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

Some of my best memories in grad school at Stanford come from my experience as a teaching assistant. Through three undergraduate courses and one graduate course, I gradually built the trust between my students and me during teaching, and savored every “Eureka!” moment of my students. My gut feeling that I was connecting with and helping students was borne out by the very positive feedback and high scores received from them, which are documented on the Stanford “Course and Section Evaluation” website (Course Evaluations Chem 36, Chem 130).

Outside of the classroom, I also enjoyed mentoring high school and undergraduate students in our lab, and working as volunteers to lead discussion groups and help minority students from undeserved high schools in the local area. I am excited to move back to the Bay Area and Stanford as an assistant professor, and teach courses at the Materials Science and Engineering Department and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

Scope and Depth of Teaching

The famous quote by the English biologist Thomas H. Huxley (a.k.a. “Darwin’s bulldog”), “try to learn something about everything and everything about something”, speaks to the scope and depth of teaching and learning that I could not agree more with. This quote is particularly true when it comes to the multifaceted world of neuroengineering where physical sciences and engineering meet with the biological underpinnings of the mind, as exemplified by Ramon y Cajal’s beautiful revivifying drawings of neurons fueled by Golgi’s staining method, and Hubel’s seminal discoveries in the visual system made possible only by the invention of the intracortical microelectrodes. It is pivotal for students to receive solid training in engineering to master the required skill sets for problem solving, while keeping well informed about the new frontiers in neuroscience and biomedical sciences to stay familiar with critical current challenges where groundbreaking changes can be made from the breakthroughs in engineering. The resonating story shared by Steve Jobs at his epic Stanford commencement speech to connect the dots in one’s life asks us to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future, although you cannot connect the dots looking forward. Pioneers who belong to the time that has yet to come are those who can speak the languages of physical sciences, engineering and biology, and couple new breakthroughs in the physical sciences and engineering to the ever-expanding demand and inquiry of the life sciences.

Methods of Teaching

The “teacher / learner” duality in Phil Collins’ quote above could find its root in Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius (‘Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium‘). In his seventh letter to Lucilius, Seneca the Younger indicates that teaching is a mutual process, as it involves as much learning as one has to teach. The distinct roles of teachers and students become completely blurred in the Socratic method of electric teaching some two millennia ago. One may see this as the Hellenistic version of B. F. Skinner’s teaching machine as it will give immediate feedback like a peer in a discussion and accommodate students at their own pace. From another perspective, blurring the roles of teacher and students with the Socratic method of teaching is akin to extending the teacher’s ego to the entire class, thus the efference copy from an outgoing command (a question to discuss, an idea to brainstorm, etc.) would be compared with the incoming feedback (answers, opinions, etc. to throw in) to reinforce the teaching / learning process. By intermingling peer learning with traditional lecturing, I expect to achieve a balance between instruction and independent inquiry, which will drive effective communication and collaboration in and out of class.

Objectives of Teaching

Being one of the most prominent thinkers of his age, the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti argues that “there is no end of education,” and that “the whole of life … is a process of learning.” The way most classes are taught these days gives us the impression that the objective of teaching is to have students attend the lectures, finish all assignments, complete reading the recommended books and pass the examinations. It is usually left unspoken yet true that the objective of every single class is to help the students to open a door to a completely new world, to see more nodes that this current node is connected to, to appreciate the vastness of knowledge that drives our curiosity to explore the uncharted world, to stay hungry and stay foolish and to keep looking and never settle at the current stage. Every mind deserves the joy of constantly refreshing itself by choosing to be a lifelong learner, while also bound by the commitment to become a dedicated teacher and pass on the same joy to minds of the like.