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Behind the scenes with Andrew Bouwma, biology instructor

Andrew Bouwma sits next to a large fishtank that glows fluorescent blue.

Andrew Bouwma is the son of a high school biology teacher, which helped him gain a love of the natural world at an early age and steered him down his own path to teaching biology.

By Tyler Hansen
Dec. 27, 2016

In 2015, Oregon State University began offering biology lab courses online complete with a 3D microscope, thanks in large part to the tireless work of biology instructor Andrew Bouwma. In 2016, Bouwma and his partners on the project reaped the rewards of their efforts. Bouwma and fellow instructor Genevieve Weber received a teaching innovation award from OSU in April. Then in October, the groundbreaking biology lab series won a national award from Eduventures for its creative use of technology. (And that’s to say nothing of how the biology courses have benefited OSU’s online learners.) Bouwma came to Oregon State’s Department of Integrative Biology from the University of Kentucky in 2012. His teaching interests include evolutionary biology, ecology and animal behavior. He holds a B.S. in Biology from Calvin College, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison he earned an M.S. in Entomology and a joint Ph.D. in Entomology and Zoology. 

Briefly describe your role as an Ecampus instructor.

“My role is to be a facilitator of learning, while the role of my online students is to build their own learning through steady and consistent engagement in the coursework. To be an effective facilitator of my online students’ learning, I must do whatever I can to both optimize student engagement and understanding.

“To maintain engagement, it’s my job to troubleshoot technological problems students may have with course materials, and provide timely feedback about common issues on course discussion boards.

“To facilitate understanding, I encourage students to ask questions if they are not grasping something, I provide detailed explanations to students who contact me with conceptual questions, and I (or my TAs) provide extensive feedback on assignments and exams.”

Why did you decide to study and teach biology?

“My father was a high school biology teacher who instilled a love of the natural world in me from the time I was a toddler. I always imagined myself teaching biology at some level because of the influence of my father. I went to graduate school and pursued research in tropical biology, ultimately, because I wanted to teach biology at the college level.”

Briefly tell us about any research projects you’re working on.

“I have a 100 percent instruction position at this time, so my research time is limited. However, I am currently working on a paper that presents a curriculum for teaching latitudinal and elevational biodiversity gradients to college students.”

You played a major role in developing biology courses that students can take entirely online – complete with a 3D microscope. How has this changed the way you teach?

“This has been an effective tool in my teaching, since it allows me to give my students more realistic assignments in cell biology, which I believe improves student engagement. Most valuable to my students is the detailed lesson on microscope techniques that it provides, which they will find useful when asked to use a real microscope.”

“In my experience, the best way to connect with my students is by being very active on course discussion boards, so that students know that I am there with them, and that I am ready to drop in when help is needed.”

What do you see as the primary benefits of learning online?

“In Ecampus courses, students must play an active role in their own learning, every week. This differs from many on-campus lecture courses, where students can get away with being somewhat less engaged with the material for periods of time between exams. Research has shown that long-lasting learning develops best for most people as a result of a ‘slow and steady’ approach, rather than the ‘cram for the exam’ strategy.

“An additional, obvious benefit is that online classes can be taken off campus at times allowed by family and work schedules.”

How do you build a genuine connection with students who, in many cases, you’ll never meet in person?

“In my experience, the best way to connect with my students is by being very active on course discussion boards, so that students know that I am there with them, and that I am ready to drop in when help is needed. I also try to use humor, whenever possible. Students are generally appreciative for this attention, and this helps to build rapport.

“It’s also important to respond in a timely manner to emailed questions. I have some students who continue to contact me several quarters after taking my class, which confirms to me that I have been effective in connecting to my students during the term.”

What’s the best advice you can give to Ecampus students?

“My best advice is to try to work ahead. If your assignments are due on Sunday evening, it’s best to read through them on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday to ensure that you know how much time you have to set aside for the week’s work, and if there are any obvious gaps in your understanding. Too many online students wait until Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon to start on assignments due Sunday evening, and then it is usually too late to get help from your instructor if needed.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“My favorite activities outside of work are listening to live music, keeping marine aquariums (I’m currently trying to breed seahorses), hiking in the Pacific Northwest, and spending time with my wife and daughter.”

If you had to create a soundtrack for your life, what’s the first song on the list?

“The first song would be ‘Paradise’ by John Prine. I often wonder whether the natural beauty I experienced in my childhood will still be there when my daughter is an adult and has children of her own. One of my most important jobs as a science teacher is to provide students in my courses with an accessible, compelling, up-to-date and science-based summary of the environmental challenges humanity currently faces.”

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