Smith to mentor JAX postdoc about active learning techniques

A professor at the University of Maine and a postdoctoral researcher at The Jackson Laboratory have been awarded a fellowship geared at promoting active learning techniques to improve biology education.

Michelle Smith, an assistant professor in UMaine’s School of Biology and Ecology, and Christopher Baker, a genetics researcher at The Jackson Laboratory, earned a Promoting Active Learning & Mentoring (PALM) Fellowship that connects postdoctoral fellows with mentors who are experts in active learning techniques.

Smith is an expert. She’s regularly invited by colleges nationwide to share her research about active learning. In 2013, she became principal investigator on four projects and co-principal investigator on another, all aimed at improving science instruction and assessments nationwide.

She also is a co-principal investigator on a newly awarded $1.9 million National Science Foundation grant to improve STEM teacher preparation and retention in rural high-needs districts.

In one study, she and collaborators found that students in undergraduate science, engineering and mathematics classes that incorporated active learning techniques were 1.5 times more likely to pass than those in traditional lecture-format classes.

And they found those in active learning sections earned grades nearly one-half a standard deviation higher, or, for example, a B rather than a B-, than students listening to a lecturer.

At The Jackson Laboratory, Baker conducts research to understand the process that generates new genetic variation in sexually reproducing organisms.

Smith and Baker met at a course at The Jackson Laboratory called The Whole Scientist that provides scientists with training in several areas, including teaching, grant-writing, ethics, entrepreneurship and communication.

For the fellowship, they’ll collaborate on a classroom unit on genetic recombination. In late March, Baker will teach the topic to students in Smith’s genetics course using active-learning techniques such as clickers and peer discussion.

The collaboration, says Smith, is a win-win. Baker will gain hands-on experience using active learning strategies as well as feedback and guidance.

Smith and her students will benefit from Baker’s up-to-the minute research knowledge on the topic of recombination and genetic variation.

Several partners, including the Genetics Society of America, support this fellowship; Smith and Baker are both members of GSA.

“The current literature shows that current and future college instructors can learn more about active learning and get the support and constructive feedback they need if they participate in long-term mentoring opportunities,” Smith says.

“I am appreciative to the PALM network and societies such as the GSA for having the vision to support these types of initiatives.”

This is the first year the award has been presented. Three mentor/mentee pairs were chosen.

To learn more about Smith, visit To learn more about Baker, visit