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

My passion for teaching started from my experience as a teaching assistant during grad school at Stanford. I helped my professors teach and develop three undergraduate courses and one graduate course, from which I received very positive feedback and high scores documented on the Stanford “Course and Section Evaluation” website (Course Evaluations Chem 36, Chem 130).

Outside the classroom, I also enjoyed mentoring high school and undergraduate students. Especially, I worked as a volunteer to lead discussion groups for minority students from underserved high schools in the Bay Area. Back as an assistant professor at Stanford, I enjoy teaching courses at the Materials Science and Engineering Department and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. I am the recipient of Stanford University’s highest teaching award, the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Scope and Depth of Teaching

One quote that resonates with me is English biologist Thomas H. Huxley’s (a.k.a. “Darwin’s bulldog”), “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something”. This quote is especially true when it comes to the multifaceted world of neuroengineering where physical sciences and engineering intersect the biology of the brain. Epitomizing the multidisciplinary nature of these fields, Golgi’s staining method based on a simple inorganic reaction inspired Ramon y Cajal’s beautiful revivifying drawings of neurons. Furthermore, advances in micromachining led to Hubel’s invention of the intracortical microelectrodes, which in turn spurred his seminal discoveries of “simple cells” in the visual cortex. These historical examples speak to the need for multidisciplinary training to make new discoveries: one needs to go deep in their own specialty while exploring broadly in related research areas. We can look at these different areas as the “dots” in Steve Job’s famous Stanford commencement speech: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” In my teaching, I always encourage my students to become fluent in physical sciences, engineering and biology, thereby enabling them to apply new findings in basic sciences to the pressing challenges of life sciences.

Methods of Teaching

The “teacher/learner” duality in Phil Collins’ quote above is rooted in Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius (‘Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium‘). In his seventh letter to Lucilius, Seneca the Younger argues that teaching is a mutual process since teachers have to learn as much as they have to teach. The distinct roles of teachers and students became blurred in the Socratic method of dialectical teaching. This phenomenon can be seen as the Hellenistic version of B. F. Skinner’s teaching machine since learners are given immediate feedback much like in a discussion with their peers. From another perspective, the Socratic method of blurring the roles of teacher and student reinforces the teaching/learning process by iteratively comparing the questioning prompts with student feedback. By intermingling peer learning with traditional lecturing, I aim to balance instruction and independent inquiry, thus driving effective communication and collaboration in and out of class.

Objectives of Teaching

As 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 traditional methodology of education gives us the impression that the objective of teaching is to have students attend the lectures, finish assignments, complete the reading, and pass the examinations. What is left unspoken is that the true objective of every single class is to help the students to open a door to a new world, to see how new dots connect to old ones, to acknowledge the vast knowledge that lies behind the uncharted world, to stay hungry and foolish, never settling for what is simply given. Therefore, the overarching goal of teaching is to pass on the joy of learning while inculcating in students the spirit of inquiry and exploration.