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Biography
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Eric J. Simon

Interview

[2003]

Eric J. Simon, Assistant Professor of Biology at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, joins Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece as co-author of both versions of Essential Biology. He teaches introductory biology to both majors and non-majors, and upper-level biology courses in genetics, microbiology, and molecular biology. Dr. Simon earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Harvard University and is currently working toward an M.S.Ed. degree in Educational Psychology. Dr. Simon received an M.A. in Biology and a B.A. in Biology and Computer Science from Wesleyan University.

BC | You're working on a pretty famous team. Tell us what it's like to collaborate with Neil Campbell and Jane Reece.

ES | At first, it was fairly intimidating. After all, they are the preeminent authors in the field of introductory biology – it's hard not to feel inadequate! I felt as if I had been called up from college ball right to a starting job with the Yankees. But it has also been a wonderful learning experience. Neil and Jane have taught me to work towards a level of care and attention to detail in my writing that I had never considered before. Neil has taught me to pay scrupulous attention to the details of the science, to make sure that every sentence is as accurate as it can be and reflects the latest thinking in the field. And Jane has taught me to consider what students might infer from my writing. I am very grateful to Neil and Jane for all they've taught me, and I am honored to be working with such masters.

BC | You bring a real passion to teaching non-majors biology. Why do you enjoy teaching this course so much?

ES | It's true – I do love to teach non-majors biology, it is my favorite course in the curriculum. I've always loved to teach it for several reasons. First, it is such an exciting field, and there has never been a better time to teach biology. The relevance and importance of the subject is obvious to even the most jaded student. I really enjoy the wide range of experiences and viewpoints that students from different majors bring to the class. It makes for lively discussion. Perhaps most of all, I really enjoy taking students with very low expectations of the course ("Ugh! Not science!") and capturing their interest, showing them the relevance of the course content, and making them appreciate and enjoy the study of life. When you connect with a student who was dreading the experience ahead of time, you have gained their attention and appreciation for life.

BC | How have your experiences as a teacher affected your writing?

ES | My experiences as a teacher are the foundation for my writing – I could not do the latter without the former. I've been lucky enough to teach at least one section of non-majors introductory biology every semester since I completed graduate school. There are many difficult content concepts – the methods of DNA technology, for example ? that took many, many tries in the classroom before I finally taught them adequately. The classroom environment constantly challenges an instructor to think about the best way to communicate concepts. My writing directly reflects these classroom experiences.

BC | Essential Biology and Essential Biology with Physiology emphasize the practical relevance of biology to everyday life. How do you make this point in your writing and teaching?

ES | We are so lucky, as biology teachers, to be living in such a vibrant time for our field. In both the book and the classroom, I never want my audience to be wondering "Why are we learning this?" Teaching non-majors introductory biology is all about making connections – to current events, to popular culture, to the students' lives, to the instructor?s life, and to biology's core themes (such as evolution and the scientific method). I try to make such connections at least once every ten minutes when I lecture, and at least once during every two-page spread as an author. In Essential Biology and Essential Biology with Physiology, such connections are made using the chapter-opening fun facts, the Biology and Society opening story, the Evolution Connection that closes each chapter, the multimedia materials that support each chapter, and through myriad small ways throughout each chapter. My goal is that every student/reader will be constantly aware of the relevance of the material to their own lives.

BC | Who in your field has influenced you the most? How?

ES | As a person interested in science education, I have been influenced by many wonderful teaching mentors. The first was my AP Biology teacher in high school. I had several wonderful teachers in college. In graduate school, I was particular influenced by Jim Davis, Senior Instructor in Chemistry at Harvard University. Jim had a true enthusiasm for his subject and a dedication to teaching that was truly inspirational. I was also influenced strongly by Mitch Rabinowitz of Fordham University's Graduate School of Education, who taught me to consider issues of cognitive psychology and design in my teaching and writing.

BC | What do you see as being the greatest challenges for professors teaching the non-majors course? Do you find yourself and your colleagues struggling with the amount of material that needs to be covered?

ES | I see two related challenges facing non-majors instructors. The first falls under "What to teach?" We are in the midst of an information explosion in our field, and it is doubly hard to decide what to cover when you have students for only one semester. Most instructors have to make trade-offs about what areas will get more or less coverage. The second challenge is "How to teach?" For many years, the non-majors course was taught as a watered-down version of the majors course. But more recently, instructors have realized that non-majors should be taught differently – that they require clear demonstrations of relevance, while at the same time need more grounding in biology?s core themes. The biggest challenge facing biology professors today is how to cover the right material in the right way – after all, for most of these students, we are their only exposure to the field!


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