Here’s what makes a great teacher - News @ Northeastern
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Here’s what makes a great teacher

May 1, 2018 - Denise Garcia, Sadeleer Research Faculty Associate Professor of International Security and Negotiation in the Department of Political Science and the International Affairs Program and Assistant Professor James Monaghan pose for portraits. Left photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University. Right photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University.

The passion that drives James Monaghan is tissue regeneration; for Denise Garcia, it’s international diplomacy. While their disciplines couldn’t be more different, what earned them the 2018 University Excellence in Teaching Award is what they have in common—a passion for students on both the academic and human level. 

“I take it very seriously,” said Garcia. “I imagine that each class is a time I will have with the student that I will never come again.”

“I imagine that each class is a time I will have with the student that I will never come again.”

Denise Garcia associate professor of international affairs

While conducting their own world-class research, both Monaghan and Garcia take the time needed to know their students as people and guide them into the future as scholars. That may seem like an obvious part of the job, but it takes a special talent to make it real.

Why is there always a line of eager students whenever Garcia has office hours? Why do Monahan’s students—even as undergraduates—publish as first authors in scholarly scientific journals? Why, in both cases, do their courses routinely fill up within an hour of being posted?

There’s no simple answer, but a few examples begin to tell the story.

The butterfly children

“To me the key to student engagement is relevance,” said Monaghan, assistant professor of biology whose research is devoted to organ and limb regeneration.

“I’m fortunate because I teach a field that’s changing so rapidly it’s not possible to use a text book,” he said. “My students are learning directly from the latest primary research.”

For example, to teach students the fundamentals of stem cell research this spring, Monaghan used an article in Sciencethat had been published just a few months earlier and the scientific paperit was based on. The subject was a genetic defect that prevents the human skin from gluing properly to the underlying tissue.

“The children who suffer from this ailment have blisters all over their skin and the sores won’t heal properly,” said Monaghan. “They rarely survive beyond their teens. They’re known as the ‘butterfly children’ because their skin is as fragile as a butterfly wing.”

The paper Monaghan used in class details how scientists saved the life of a German boy using the latest advances in gene editing. They cultured stem cells from the boy’s skin, genetically altered them so that they would function properly, and then grafted the new cells back onto the boy’s body.

“They replaced almost all of his skin,” said Monaghan. “By studying this research, my students not only learned the fundamentals of stem cell biology, they saw how it can be put to use to saves lives. It’s super relevant.” 

The jigsaw method

Monaghan earns praise as a passionate lecturer and tireless mentor as he works beside his students in the lab. But one of his primary goals is to teach students how to analyze and synthesize complex primary research because this is a skill they will need both as graduate students and future scientists.

To make this daunting task manageable for students, Monaghan uses an innovative classroom technique known as the jigsaw method. It’s a technique designed to foster discussion and understanding by repeatedly remixing small groups.

First, he organizes students into groups of five and assigns each member a different portion of the scientific paper to analyze for homework. During the next class, he remixes the groups so that all the students who read the same section are in the same group. These groups discuss their section and plan a strategy for relating its significance to others. Now Monaghan reorganizes the groups back to their original configuration so that each has one member for each section. These groups discuss how all the sections fit together. For the portion of the period, he holds a full-class discussion of the study and its significance.

“I’ve found that this strategy opens up a classroom to discussion, both in the small groups and in the final discussion,” said Monaghan. “Overall, it has been one of the most important advances in my courses for me as an instructor and for the students.”

“I’ve had several students who were first authors on published papers while they were still undergraduates.”

James Monaghan assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience

Monaghan’s teaching methods have produced remarkable student outcomes. Not only do his students get accepted to top medical and doctoral programs, some make their mark on the scientific world before they graduate.

“I’ve had several students who were first authors on published papers while they were still undergraduates,” said Monahan. “Tyler Jensen (who received a degree in biochemistry in 2017) was first author on a paper that demonstrated that Axolotl salamanders can regenerate their lungs. No one knew that before. Two other students, Matthew Nguyen and Pankhuri Singhal (both of whom received degrees in behavioral science in 2017) were first and second authors on a paper that showed how a limb knows what to regenerate.”

An unconventional classroom

For 10 years now, Garcia has brought several dozen students to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, for a six-week class on international diplomacy. Third-year student Francesca Batault—who is majoring in politics, philosophy, and economicsp—was one of those students.

“The classroom was the United Nations Library, while our ‘professors’ were ambassadors, think tank experts, and humanitarian workers,” she said. “Professor Garcia gives students a unique insider perspective to the elite world of international diplomacy.”

Garcia—associate professor of political science and international affairs—is uniquely positioned to provide students with this kind of insider knowledge. She has developed an international reputation for her research on military drones while publishing numerous articles in Foreign Affairsand among other publications. She is a research fellowat the Nobel Peace Institute in Oslo, and serves as vice chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. Her research has taken her to five continents.

In spite of her globe-trotting schedule, Garcia remains one of the most accessible teachers on campus. She has a unique approach to student relationships—pushing them academically, nudging them out of their comfort zones, and serving as their biggest cheerleader.

Professor Garcia is a brilliant teacher because of her dedication to her students,” said Batault. “She takes the time to know and understand each of her students individually and encourages them to go beyond what they believe they are capable of. She is truly phenomenal.”

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