Faculty Spotlight: M. Ruth Elliott

Just like traditional on-campus classes, Penn LPS Online courses emphasize communication and connection with instructors as well as peers. Our courses are designed and delivered by Penn faculty who bring years of teaching experience as well as professional expertise to the classroom. The Faculty Spotlight series aims to introduce you to some of the outstanding instructors who make our courses so immersive and effective. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Meet M. Ruth Elliott

M. Ruth Elliott is currently a lecturer in biochemistry for the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously worked as a research technician and lab manager in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania with Dr. Susan R. Weiss for nine years, where she also trained graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the basics of animal research and primary cell culture. Elliott obtained her Master of Science in Biotechnology from the University of Pennsylvania while working in biomedical research, and her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from Temple University in Philadelphia. She also taught nursing students at LaSalle University part time for several years before joining the Penn LPS Online faculty.

In 2023, Elliot was awarded Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies Award for Distinguished Teaching in Undergraduate and Post-Baccalaureate Programs. She co-teaches two courses in the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences Physical and Life Sciences degree concentration: PHYL 1200: Foundations of Life Sciences and PHYL 1600: Foundations of Physical and Chemical Sciences.

Congratulations on your teaching award! Tell us about some of the courses you teach for Penn.

I’m currently teaching biochemistry for the Pre-Health Programs. Biochemistry is now required by most medical schools as a prerequisite, and it's also a section of the medical school entrance exam, the MCAT. And every year I teach PHYL 1200 and 1600, which are 8-week asynchronous courses for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS).

I also teach a course called Pathogens and Pandemics for Penn Summer Prep. The High School Programs team noticed that a lot of the students applying in summer 2020 were talking about how the pandemic was impacting their education, and they thought a class that helped high schoolers understand the biology behind what was going on would be helpful. My old research job was in a lab that studied coronaviruses, so I put together that course a couple of years ago, and then this year we broadened it to infectious disease in general. I hire Pre-Health Programs students to help me teach the summer course, giving them opportunities to apply what they know to a level of students who don't really have much biology experience yet.

Do students in your other classes typically have biology experience?

The prerequisites for biochemistry are a year of general chemistry, a semester of organic chemistry, and a year of biology. So all of the Pre-Health students have extensive biology and chemistry experience, but they may not have STEM backgrounds in their undergraduate career. I get Pre-Health students that come out of theater or music performance, a lot of students from sociology or psychology majors; some come out of finance and all kinds of different backgrounds. For the BAAS courses, some students are planning to declare a Physical and Life Sciences degree concentration, and some students are taking PHYL 1200 or 1600 to check off their foundational requirements for a degree. By design, there’s more diversity of readiness for school in the BAAS—some students may have worked successfully in a career or chosen to parent full time, but haven’t been in school for a long time.

How do you support students who are relatively new to scientific education?

One of the challenges is that students come in with insecurities. They think, well, now I'm in this science course at an Ivy League school, and I'm not as smart as the other people around me. And it turns out that's not true. People with different backgrounds have different strengths. For example, being able to perform under pressure is important for medical school entrance exams as well as for being a doctor.  And there's a lot of reading and writing and communicating in science—there’s a section of the MCAT that’s basically reading comprehension, and that is historically the most difficult score to improve on. So I try to help students from other backgrounds see that you're not coming in with a disadvantage, you're just coming in with different kinds of knowledge and experiences that can enhance your academic career here.

Another important aspect of my teaching philosophy is that we always say we don't want students to be perfectionistic—we don’t want them to be obsessed with getting things right or getting an A without real understanding. And I think one of the best ways to do that is to build in a lot of flexibility in the assessments, and give them a chance to improve and learn what they did wrong the first couple of weeks. They have time to try things and mess up and then get better before the final grade.

The great thing about both the Pre-Health Programs and the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences is that the students are academically mature, even if they aren't very experienced in STEM. These students are taking time for school because they've decided they're passionate about a different career than they had initially anticipated, so the level of buy-in of students is very high and they're ready to think about how the class material relates to their life, to their previous academic experience, to their future career.

Are there strategies or techniques that you find overlap between your many different diverse student populations?

Humans love to understand how things work. I think that's a universal trait. And the pandemic showed us how much our biology curriculum has failed us, so a lot of people do want the power to understand basic scientific concepts and how information is obtained by scientists so that they can consume information responsibly and make their own decisions for their own lives and families. That's something that I like about teaching: You can empower people to solve actual problems and to think in new ways that help them to have more enlightened understanding of what's going on.

I also try to make all my classes collaborative as best as I can. In the high school courses, they work together to make group public service announcements throughout the whole two weeks. They work in groups to do other kinds of activities, and that helps them learn to work as a team. I try to make a lot of the high school curriculum a little bit more narrative-driven, and also encourage students to make their own narrative about how disease has impacted their lives and their community. It's amazing how much high schoolers can think of interesting solutions to problems without all of the necessary STEM background.

Over the years I’ve been teaching biochemistry, I’ve moved toward a flipped classroom: students watch the lecture content before class, take a quiz covering birds-eye-level concepts, and then class is entirely composed of them discussing and solving problems in groups. At first, they hate it and they’re tempted to get discouraged. By the end, they really enjoy the homework because they realize they’re able to accomplish a lot if they stay calm, break it down piece by piece, and work together—and they see how relevant the material is to actual disease research and human and animal physiology.

The hardest classes to do this in are the Penn LPS Online courses. There's kind of a bias in the STEM world against discussion boards, but the online team has really challenged us to think about how to make discussion board questions or prompts that are effective at helping students really talk to each other and think. So, for example, PHYL 1600 involves algebra-based word problems, which is a big step for a lot of students who have no experience with that. In the discussion board, I ask them to assess how they approach solving problems: list the things you do, which of these have helped, and which of these you have realized are not good strategies. And they respond to each other with advice and share what they’ve learned from their peers. I was surprised how engaged students were with that.

Why is it important for students of science to learn collaboratively or work in teams?

Science is a big field, but it's still hard to find a scientific career where you're not dependent on other people. Most scientific teams in industry and in academia are organized into labs, which is another way of saying a group of people who are doing similar things and sharing space and resources. In science, people are experts on different things, and most projects require multiple expertise, so you have to be able to combine your expertise with that of other people. Being able to work well in those environments is useful.

Also, being able to communicate what you’re doing is important. I’ve sometimes told my students that you can find the cure to cancer, but if you can't tell anyone about it or get anyone to make it for you, that’s not very useful.

If you’re just testing the waters in online science education, read more about an introductory course in “Explore everyday biology and think like a scientist in Foundations of Life Science.”

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