UTSC Teaching Award recipient Jason Brown teaches students how to think like scientists

Prof. Jason Brown

When Jason Brown – assistant professor, teaching stream, in UTSC’s Department of Biological Sciences – entered grad school at Western University in London, Ontario, he would sit in seminars, nodding his head agreeably as speakers discussed their research findings. But then others would speak up with incisive questions: Was the experiment biased by how they conducted the research? Had they considered this other interpretation of their results? “I would think, ‘How could they even come up with these questions?’ All I was doing was accepting everything this person said as if it were God’s truth,” says Brown. “I realized that my undergrad training had not prepared me to be the critical thinker needed to be a successful graduate student and eventually an academic. I wanted to correct that. If I got into a position of teaching undergrads, I wanted to better prepare them.”
Brown recently won a UTSC Teaching Award in the Assistant Professors and Lecturers category – in part for cultivating critical-thinking skills in students. He eschews traditional memory-based tests in favour of Quercus quizzes and exams that push students to apply creative thought and higher-level analytical skills to their answers. A typical exam question, for example, includes a published finding followed by queries such as: “Are you surprised by this finding? How can it be explained by the principles you’ve learned?” When students apply their knowledge to real-life examples, the exam itself becomes an instrument for learning, he says. “It’s not just an evaluative tool, now it’s a learning tool because they think, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that I could apply this concept I learned in class in this other way, and now it helps to explain some phenomena we’ve never discussed.’ It leads to these little Eureka moments for students, which are so important in science. They can do it in the context of an exam.”
Brown’s teaching philosophy is centred on helping students shift to a scientific mindset. “It’s about trying to change the way the students think. I say to my students, a scientist is someone who looks at the world around them and tries to explain what they’re seeing based on what they know. And so that’s what you should be learning how to do as you progress through this program.”
Biology wasn’t an early passion that Brown pursued; rather, a series of small moments led him down the path. In Grade 10, his family bought their first computer, which came with a Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia on disc. Brown watched an animation on it about how DNA replication occurred, and recalls thinking: “‘This is really cool, how this whole process works to faithfully transmit my genes to the next generation.’” He adds, “It was just that wow factor that really caught my attention.” He applied for biology at university after doing well in a Grade 12 course, but adds: “I've just grown to become more and more in love with biology as time goes on.”
Brown’s first experience teaching was also a bit serendipitous. In his third year as a biology undergrad at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, he noticed a flyer seeking TAs for first-year labs and thought he’d give it a shot. “I looked forward to my week, to being in the laboratory working with these first-year students and helping them to really learn biology and get excited about it,” he says. After grad school, he taught at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, then accepted a part-time position at UTSC teaching animal physiology. He has taught 10 different courses in the past seven years. “I just kept embracing all these experiences,” he says. “The doors kept opening and I kept going through them.”
Over the past five years, Brown has been supervising fourth-year undergrad students who are researching plant aging. He and his students recently submitted their first paper for publication, and he hopes to consistently turn out papers from here on in. “I think carving out research space within this kind of teaching position has been a bit unique,” he says, noting that they aren’t working with a full-time researcher.
Brown is also in the midst of his first pedagogical study: He and Prof. Aarthi Ashok – teaching stream, Biological Sciences and Associate Chair, Teaching and Undergraduate Affairs – have created a poster project for second-year biology students. The idea is that students – who approach a topic from various biological perspectives to create a poster – learn to work as a team, communicate to a scientific audience, search literature and build literacy skills. Through surveys, Profs. Ashok and Brown are assessing if the project leads to an improvement in these abilities. The project is being run online this year, and they hope to conduct it in person next year to compare how it affects skill-building.
Brown’s biggest priority, however, remains focused on fostering the critical-thinking skills in students that he himself struggled to learn. “I really hope that students take away a mindset shift from my class. A lot of them do come back later and say, ‘I really started to change my approach to education because of you and I no longer see it as having to stay up all night memorizing things to do well on an exam, but rather me trying to learn how to be a scientist, to think concepts through.’ I really hope most students change the way they approach their education.”  – Stacey Gibson