The Classroom Innovator

Illustration by Adam Cruft

If you have the idea that courses in various science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are boring and dry, let us introduce you to Mike Gustin. An accomplished researcher in the fields of molecular genetics and cell biology, Gustin is perhaps best known as an innovative teacher who thinks deeply about student learning. “I’m constantly viewing teaching as a type of problem-solving — to not only think about how students learn, but also how they engage with the material,” he said. Gustin’s teaching honors are numerous: He has received the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching so many times that he’s now retired from the competition, and he was selected as a Piper Professor by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation in 2017. We recruited fellow Rice biologist Scott Solomon to interview Gustin about what he’s learned in the classroom.

It’s not because of the buildings — it’s really about a connection with a professor and student. Rice has an advantage over some institutions in that it’s one of the top research universities, but it’s also one of the smallest. Smaller means you can be slightly more agile in changing what you do in the classroom. If you have an idea, you can talk to people, and they’re generally supportive. I’ve always felt like the chairs and the deans above them have been super supportive of whatever I’ve thought about doing in terms of experimentation or going in a new direction.

I’m teaching an interdisciplinary class called Monster [BIOC 368: Conceiving and Misconceiving the Monstrous in Fiction and in Art, in Medicine and in Bioscience] with Deborah Harter from classical and European studies. I’m teaching this as a bioscientist. I wanted it to be totally a discussion-based class. I did not want to stand up there and lecture them about things related to evolutionary theory, infectious disease or disorders of sexual development. I wanted to have provocative readings to discuss — a mixture of science, personal story and literature.

With science, we know there’s an objective reality out there — at least we think that’s the case — so we’re trying to discover that. But in a discussion situation, do you start off with the facts as we know them, or do you have discussions? I find myself varying between different types of discussion and seeing how they’re working.

As a teacher, you’re trying to get students to walk away from the class having engaged a body of knowledge or way of thinking. But the emotional component of a learning environment is — I don’t want to say it is equally weighted to learning, but it’s in there. I’m excited about what I’m talking about, and I hope that’s infectious.   

Students have crazily busy lives. It’s affected me in all the courses I teach. I feel like if you don’t demand the time from your students, they don’t do the assignment. They will get to it, some way or another, if you demand that they do it. It is a competitive environment for students’ time, and you have to be demanding at some level.

As an associate at Wiess College, I’m entitled to eat lunch at any of the colleges. So in my large Introductory Biology class, one way to get to know students is to invite them to have lunch with me at their college! So every semester, for the last five or 10 years, I eat lunch with my students at the different colleges. The freedom of having a faculty associate affiliation allows me to do that, and it’s a more connected experience rather than some random faculty member from some academic discipline sitting at a table with a bunch of students from wherever. If we’re all connected through a course, it makes a lot of sense.

I also find that when I meet people in small groups or individually, sometimes I’ll ask them questions about their other courses. How’s that work? What do they do there? I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in other courses at Rice, and how do those fit with students who are taking them? So if I run into students whom I’m advising, maybe I can give them advice about what level of preparation is required. Which things are particularly problematic? It’s a way that I can be a more valuable mentor to people.

I’m thinking a lot about mindsets. Whether or not you have a “growth mindset” versus a fixed or “performance mindset” affects you as you’re moving through professional life. No one wants to fail, but the reality is that a lot of times things don’t go so well. How you react to that is affected by your view of yourself and processes — like working hard versus being called “smart” a lot. The latter promotes a fixed or performance mindset and affects your ability to rebound from failure. I think that’s a really interesting area.

The way I’ve incorporated this mindset idea into my teaching is I track people’s grades during the semester. At the end of this semester, as I do every semester I teach the Intro Bio class, I will send a note to people whose grades have steadily gotten better. In the email, I say something like, “You’ve worked hard, and it shows.” Oftentimes they’ll send back a fairly wordy email talking about all the things they did and expressing appreciation that I acknowledged their hard work. Praising and reinforcing the process is a big deal.

I think the idea is that when you’re teaching, you’re not only teaching, but you’re also learning all the time. There are two types of learning. One is the subject material — I’ve always wanted it to be very fluid. I don’t want to look at and say the same stuff. I want to bring in new materials that keep my brain alive. I’m definitely a seeker of novelty. The other type of learning is how to engage the class too. So both of those are kind of challenging. I don’t hit a plateau. I keep learning. I keep trying to find out new cool things.

— Interview conducted by Scott Solomon, associate teaching professor in the Department of BioSciences.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and format.