Columns Journey of a YI

Pursuing science at a liberal arts university

Shivani Krishna

Shivani Krishna is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University, Sonipat. She is one of the Young Investigators (YIs) chosen to attend YIM 2020 at Mahabalipuram. In this invited article, she discusses her experience working with undergraduate students at a liberal arts University, and the unique challenges and advantages that such a system offers to researchers.

Shivani Krishna
Shivani Krishna 

I had never been fully exposed to a liberal arts education system before I joined Ashoka University, Sonipat. Today in India, along with Ashoka, we have a few renowned universities such as Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, FLAME University, Pune, and OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, that provide liberal arts education. Liberal arts education primarily aims at understanding how the world works and encourages students to think critically about real-world issues. 

Often, traditional barriers between disciplines hinder us from tackling large scale environmental, economic, and health problems. Breaking these barriers and providing students with a holistic education is crucial in today’s world where scientific research cannot work in insularity but has to be communicated and implemented in the right way for impactful solutions. It was only when I started teaching that I realised the advantages and challenges of teaching science, especially biology, at a liberal arts university.

Before moving to India, I was working for long hours with bumblebees in the lab and the field to wind up my postdoctoral work. Soon after I joined Ashoka, I started preparing for my lectures and began looking out for plant and animal systems in the vicinity for practicals. When it comes to student learning and responses in classroom lectures, there is not always a close match between our imagination and reality. My experience was no different. I prepared thoroughly for the first few lectures but after my first class, I decided that something has to change. For example, the diverse backgrounds of the students required the concepts I taught to be free of jargon and Latin names/​taxonomical details of plants and animals. 

I taught a theory course in ecology and co-taught a lab course in ecology and evolution with a colleague in the department. I found out that students in my class had not only learned genetics and microbiology but had also taken courses in economics, political science and psychology. I liked the challenge of teaching students whose way of thinking was different from mine. I tried making my classes interactive (and I believe I succeeded to a certain extent) and I used a variety of approaches to teach them ecological concepts. As part of these discussions, I have learnt that economics and ecology have several theoretical models in common and that experimental approaches are very different in sociology. Overall, I encouraged the students to think about how to design experiments to test a particular theory and how to make sense of the data once they have done experiments. 

Students that I taught were in their final year (upper level) undergraduate degree and I could, therefore, test them for higher-order thinking skills. These skills can help them dissect any issue analytically, be it in psychology or physics. Many of them want to go ahead and apply for graduate schools, while some of them want to do a master’s program in their field of interest. While they feel occasionally threatened by the large number of specialised courses that students from more traditional higher education systems take, I try to reinforce that while they may not know the breadth of jargon, they are fully equipped to think of any real-world scenario analytically. 

Addressing such concerns and answering the students’ queries about choices of courses was something I was not fully prepared for. I prepared myself by reading about the diversity of pedagogical methods across the world and how curriculums have been evolving in other parts of the world to incorporate the needs of today’s emerging problems whilst catering to internet-savvy students. 

Also, while I was thrilled about the diverse backgrounds of my students, the practical course was a challenge. It was not easy bringing them together to do experiments which involved teamwork. Since these students each take a variety of courses, they don’t have close ties between themselves. In addition to that, finding time to work on group projects was a challenge, and it took them a while to find solutions where they had to work outside the campus on field projects. Real-world research requires team effort and through the practical course, I was also trying to teach them how to work together on a research project. 

I did not succeed in my first attempt, where I asked the students to divide tasks between themselves. In this case, they simply failed to complete the practical as a group. This was largely a consequence of them being used to learning in isolation after-class (although the upside of this is that they are involved in more exploratory self-learning). In the next session, they devised ways to communicate amongst themselves and emerged as a successful group.

I have two undergraduates who are majoring in biology and two undergraduate students majoring in physics who have started to work on small research ideas independently. Their strength lies in their ability to think beyond biology and physics. While I want them to be involved in meaningful research, they struggle to find time and switching between different kinds of interesting things that they have on their plate has not been easy. Incorporating research work as part of a course where students spend the first half of their semester learning the theoretical concepts and the second half working in a related lab would be one way to avoid this struggle.

Like any other research university, we are assessed for our research, teaching and service. In the first semester, I put in more time for teaching alongside writing up grants and analysing data from my previous research. I recruited a research assistant and initiated the process of scouting for potential field sites where I can start my research on understanding how different floral features such as colour, shape, and size influence animals that interact with plants positively and negatively (such as herbivores that eat plant parts) in a semi-arid community. 

I have a fond memory of working with undergraduates from different disciplines during my time as a PhD student at IISER-Thiruvananthapuram. Learning to speak the distinct languages of different disciplines within the sciences was a challenge at that point in time. But that challenge now seems much smaller when I sit in a faculty meeting at Ashoka where the room has members from economics, anthropology, or performing arts. There is a newfound joy in knowing that you can take a problem, analyse it, find a comprehensive solution, and finally implement as well as communicate every aspect of it meaningfully, when the people in that room work together. 

One of the most important suggestions I have for those planning to be part of liberal arts universities is to understand the educational system well before joining. The rigour and demands in terms of research are no different from a traditional place but the emphasis on teaching is much more. Teaching and research with undergraduates is a crucial component of the system. 

I volunteered and learnt different pedagogical methods during my postdoctoral work at the University of Haifa, Israel where they have a training facility for teachers and this has been a beneficial experience. One can also prepare themselves by applying innovative pedagogical tools developed for teaching sciences. I constantly keep myself updated with new hands-on activities, interesting case studies, and innovative research articles that have multi-pronged approaches to address critical problems in the field.