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.

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 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.