Incoming: Brian White from the University of Massachusetts, USA
Brian White is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Since August 2017, he has been on a sabbatical at the University of Bordeaux working on the project “Supporting Active Learning in STEM* Classrooms”.
As Professors White’s stay comes to an end, he tells us about his experience here helping faculty members add research-based pedagogies to their classrooms as well as teaching classes in English and biology.
Why did you apply for a Visiting Scholar position at the University of Bordeaux?
I have enjoyed a long and productive working relationship with Sophie Javerzat, Professor of Genetics at the University of Bordeaux. For the past 10 years, we have collaborated online, by e-mail and Skype, on a variety of educational projects. When I had the opportunity for a sabbatical in 2017-2018, I was eager to use my skills and experience to help other teachers in a new environment. I therefore asked Sophie if she would host my project and the answer was an immediate yes!
What work have you accomplished so far and what are your remaining objectives?
I have carried out workshops and collaborated with faculty one-on-one and in small groups to help them to adopt research-based educational methods. There have been many studies in the US and elsewhere that show the value of active learning: where students use or apply the material as they learn it rather than simply absorbing it. I have also taught classes in English Language and an advanced-level undergraduate course for Biology majors called “Simulating Life” where students build agent-based computer simulations of biological phenomena (see picture above). I plan to conduct more workshops with other faculty members, present my experiences to others at UBx and, perhaps when back home, publish some of my findings here.
What are your impressions of the University of Bordeaux, the people, the city?
I love it all. The university is full of excellent faculty, committed to educating students who are earnest, bright and hardworking. I’ve enjoyed getting to know both staff and students, hearing their stories and plans. Bordeaux is a beautiful city and culturally, the “Bordelais” people have proved to be very welcoming. I have learned to navigate the town and can get everywhere by foot or tram. Of course, the food and wine are above and beyond what I expected. In addition to being a biologist, I am also a musician and have had the pleasure of playing in various clubs in town as well as attending dance performances at the Grand Theatre. My family has visited several times during my stay here and we’ve enjoyed Saint Emilion, Lascaux, Paris, and Rocamadour - it will be very hard to leave!
What have you learned from your international experience here?
Coming from the US, I really appreciate the way the government looks after its citizens - all of them, rich and poor. There is much the US could learn about university education from the French - most notably, it’s low cost. On the other hand, the European practice of a student’s grade depending entirely on a single exam given at the end of the term, is not, in my opinion, the most effective way to help them learn. I have been working with faculty to try to give students feedback during the term – within the constraints of a busy French university…
My French is slowly but surely improving. I can understand quite a bit, and am able to speak a lot more than when I arrived. Fortunately however, I can do all of my teaching in English! From a culinary perspective, I’m learning how to cook duck, what wines to buy, and what all the cool vegetables and cheeses are at the Marché des Capucins.
*Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics