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Prof. David Eichinger earns multiple awards for promoting biology education



Biology education Prof. David Eichinger stands in front of some recent awards and honors.

Whether they are Education or Biological Sciences majors, Prof. David Eichinger has helped ensure his field’s future by helping train hundreds of future biology teachers throughout his almost 25 years at Purdue.

With a joint appointment in the College of Science and the College of Education, Eichinger teaches biology classes for Education majors and education classes for Biological Sciences majors. However, he doesn’t see separation in these classes. He is always wearing biology and education hats, often at the same time.

Eichinger’s strong work brought him several honors and distinctions in recent years: He was surprised with a Murphy Award, the highest teaching award at Purdue, in the spring and in 2013, he was entered into the pages of the Purdue Book of Great Teachers. In September, Eichinger was named a Purdue Teaching Academy Fellow.

Teaching future biology teachers takes broad knowledge of the field as well as keeping tabs on education trends and technological advancements. Eichinger has seen a lot in his decades at Purdue and he is looking forward to what happens next.

Question: What have you been doing the last few years to garner so many awards and honors?

Answer: Part of what I’ve been doing is working specifically with a biology course for the elementary education majors. It’s two semesters: It’s Biology 205 and 206. I’ve put a lot of time and effort to tailor this course -- the content, the format, the teaching style, the staff -- to meet the needs of the particular group of students. And they are a particular group of students: elementary education majors. This is the target audience for the courses. It’s figuring out relevant topics future elementary teachers would not only need to know but possibly use in their own classroom.

Finding the appropriate format of the course, we do four hours of laboratory and one hour of lecture a week, which is different than the typical science course in the arrangement of the lab and lecture hours. I think it’s really appropriate that we put a lot more emphasis on the laboratory component. That’s the place where the majority of the teaching and learning actually occurs rather than the lecture hall. Not that lecture doesn’t have its place but especially for future teachers, we want them to learn content by doing the content. I think they’re not only going to better understand it themselves but they will be able to teach it in the future. …

Another course that I teach is an education course for future biology high school teachers. They are majors in our biology department. … I teach a teaching methods class for them.

Q: Was biology education your background before coming to Purdue?

A: I was a biology major as an undergraduate. I went to Colgate University, which is a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I joined the Peace Corps. I was a high school biology and chemistry teacher in what used to be Zaire. It’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I spent almost six years working with the Peace Corps both teaching at the schools and preparing other teachers to go out into the schools. That’s where I really got my introduction to the world of teaching science. I had no formal teaching preparation as part of my undergraduate program. It was strictly a biology degree but I always thought about the Peace Corps and thought “I really love biology and I love to talk about biology.” I thought I could do that in a professional way, to take a shot at biology teaching. It helped me clarify that biology education is something I like to do and that ultimately led me to come to Purdue and take this faculty position.

Q: Aside from technological advancements, how has biology education changed in your time at Purdue?

A: The whole idea of standardized tests and content standards that help to organize what the teachers teach. Those standards also serve a role of contributing to the accountability of teachers in a sense that if you were a high school principal and I was a biology teacher in your school, I will need to document for you how my lessons and units I’m teaching are addressing Indiana and national science standards. You as a school principal are held accountable for making sure your teaching staff is doing what they are supposed to be doing in terms of teaching content. …

When I started here in 1991, there wasn’t that kind of emphasis on standards. There weren’t any national science education standards then. There were state standards. … We now have had two different sets of national science standards. They have become much more important influences on what teachers teach and also the way they teach. Every lesson must correlate to certain standards.

That’s not an all-bad thing. I think it is good that professionals are held accountable but along with those standards comes standardized tests and the way they are helping drive what’s taught and then assessing the effectiveness of teachers based on students’ scores on those standardized tests. …

Our new teachers have to know about this because once they step out of Purdue and once they step into a fulltime job they are going to be evaluated using these kinds of systems.

Q: What kind of labs do your elementary education students learn?

A: We use a lot of common household items as we’re doing laboratory activities. In that way I hope those laboratory activities will help our students learn more biology at Purdue but also that they have a model of an activity that they can take away from Purdue when they start their fulltime teaching. They can use that model and adjust it as they see fit.

Q: What’s an example of these lab activities that can be repurposed in the students’ future classrooms?

A: One of them we have going right now in the lab is the model ecosystem activity. It’s a nine-week experiment. They design, build and observe an aquarium tank that is a split aquarium and terrarium. They add plants and animals to it, and they make predictions to what they think will happen in the aquarium and terrarium parts as far as the animal growth, plant growth, animal interactions and the physical environment.

Q: What was your reaction in winning a Murphy Award this year?

A: I’m very honored to be recognized with a Murphy Award. Ever since I came here, I’ve heard about the Murphy. Not that it was a goal of mine to receive it, but I always thought of it as the gold standard. Murphy recipients are obviously doing something right with their teaching on-campus.

Eichinger with students

Eichinger helps teaching assistants Alaina Keene (left) and Shey Irvin (right).

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