2017 - Robert Sinclair

The Student Council would like to congratulate Professor Robert Sinclair, the first faculty member at OIST to receive the Students’ Choice Teaching Award, at today's teatime (16:00, Main Building, Restaurant Level).

Multiple students praised Sinclair's approach, which they said took their individual learning needs into consideration.

"Coming from a biology background I was a bit out of touch with maths," said Jigyasa Arora, who took a course with Sinclair in her first semester at OIST. The course filled in her math knowledge, she said, but also got her excited about the subject matter. "It was early in the morning but none of us fell asleep."

Takeshi Tabuchi-Yagui, another pupil of Sinclair's, agreed.

"Even when I thought I was 'just programming' I was subconsciously applying math concepts in my program," Tabuchi-Yagui said. "For somebody like me, whose field is not closely related to math (Experimental Biology), that was a huge eye-opener."

Perhaps even more importantly, Sinclair showed a dedication and eagerness to teach the fundamentals.

"He took time for the class and wanted to teach it," said Christina Ripken, who took two of Sinclair's math courses.

Others said their interactions with Sinclair had left a lasting impression.

"I met Dr Sinclair over an informal lunch at Grano," wrote Somesh Mohapatra, an intern with the Mikheyev Unit, "and that turned out to be one of the best discussions about life, universe and everything."


Teaching on the Edge

R. Sinclair, November 2017

The goal of teaching must be to facilitate learning, and it can only be effective if students are actively engaged. While students’ eyes give a vital measure of success or failure, what they cannot tell the teacher is what to do. I want to go through the approach I have developed over the past few years. The basic ideas are simple: try to keep everyone guessing what will happen next, and make sure that all students feel that their comments or questions will be welcome at any time. At a deeper level, I have been heavily influenced by Socrates and Wilhelm von Humboldt.

The first point I need to make is a feeling of “being on the edge” can easily be lost if the teacher simply delivers a message according to some pre-arranged plan or following a textbook. I try to enter every class with some goal, and having thought about several possible ways of reaching it as well as connections to topics of interest to the students (making use of the recent literature), but without having made any meticulous plans. The result is that the students sense that I am uncertain about what steps to take, and this can help to keep them guessing what will happen next. Indeed, it is best if the students take the lead role in proposing concrete steps. For this to be effective, students must believe that they have something to contribute, but there will always be students who know more about any specific topic, and the challenge is to allow them to express themselves while also encouraging others to join in. For this reason, I try to steer the conversation away from topics only a few know well, sometimes as a form of juggling, letting the focus shift continually, so everyone has a chance to contribute. Fortunately, this changing focus adds to the feeling of unpredictability I try to achieve.

Is that all? For an entertainer, it can be, but for a teacher it cannot. The goal is for the students to learn something. What they learn is only in part determined by what happens in class, so I can not be sure that students will learn what I planned to teach them. If not, I can try again next time, but I am never disappointed if the students have learned something I did not intend. If they leave class with the knowledge that they learned something, and the pride that goes with knowing that they contributed, I believe that they will tend to look forward to the next class, which has value in itself.

To be a little more concrete, imagine that the goal of a class is to show the students the beautiful view from a mountain peak. One could of course simply show them a postcard, or even describe in detail why the view is beautiful, but I prefer to begin the class some distance away, perhaps in a forest on the side of the mountain. Can the students find the peak themselves? Often, they can, and this tends to create lasting memories. I have been very fortunate to have been in classes where a period of silence is followed by students realising the answer to a complex problem one after the other and letting out a series of “Aaah!”s in the process. Those are the times I am most satisfied as a teacher. To return to the forest near the mountain peak, it is possible to guide the discussion by asking questions about the immediate surroundings. Yes, there are trees, but does the ground have a slope? What could that mean? Would it be more interesting to go up or down, or even climb up a tree to see further? Additional questions from students enrich the discussion.

Some may be wondering why I have not mentioned that I have been teaching mathematics, and why I have not listed any particular equations, skills or mathematical methods that I want to teach. The reason is that I try to prepare students to be able to work in an interdisciplinary research environment, where the greatest challenges lie not in “How do I do this?” but rather “Why should I do this, rather than that?” and “What would I do with any answer I get from doing this?”. I hope they will learn to question and communicate well. Since the courses I have taught have been aimed at students with life-science backgrounds, I have tried to make use of very recent papers in high profile journals which contain some mathematical aspect. In this way, it is possible to begin a class with a general discussion of the context of the paper, and then move gently towards the mathematical component, with an emphasis on the connection between the mathematics and the biology. The truth is that I have been teaching the interdisciplinary part of mathematical biology, i.e. the part that is neither entirely mathematical nor entirely biological, but is the link between them. In my own research, I have always found this to be the most difficult part. My teaching has been inseparable from my research, and both have benefitted from each other.

Finally, I understand that some students who have attended my classes will see little match between what I have written here and what I did in class. The reason is that each group of students has its own mixture of backgrounds and interests, and I have always tried to adapt to them. A teacher should put students first at all times, even if it means parting with one’s favourite teaching methods. This is perhaps what it means to teach on the edge.