MSA Educator Spotlight: Geoffrey Zahn

MSA Educator Spotlight: Geoffrey Zahn

Photo Credit: Dr. Klara Scharnagl

1. What is your name and how long have you been teaching mycology?

Geoffrey Zahn. I’ve been teaching mycology for about 5 years.

2. What is the title of your mycology-focused course and what is the level of your course?

My course, simply called “Mycology”, is for undergrad majors. Utah Valley University is a predominately undergraduate institution without a biology grad program, but I try to make this course a small taste of grad school for the students.

3. What is your favorite activity taught in this course and what is the goal of this activity?

I teach mycology as a course-based undergrad research experience (CURE) where the entire semester is dedicated to group research projects. So, my favorite thing about teaching it is that every semester is different. At the beginning of the class, students sign up in groups and pick from a list of broad research topics about fungi. Then we go through experimental design and they write proposals for internal funding. They spend the rest of the semester actually doing research. I have heard the sort of teaching I do described as “just-in-time-lessons.” As the teams progress in their projects, they inevitably encounter subjects they need to know about. So, I have a “stash” of short lessons about a variety of topics, like how to calculate statistical power, how to identify fungal phyla microscopically, how to do PCR, or the basics of hyphal growth, for example.

The goals of teaching the course this way are to:

1) introduce undergrad research to add many students as possible;

2) engineer a direct link between mycological topics and their real-world questions; and

3) engage students in mycology so that they actually care about what they’re learning.

They also get to see a microcosm of how scientific research happens. They do background research, find a gap in knowledge, design an experiment, secure funding, do the work and interpret and share their results. It’s research, and so the projects aren’t always completed by the end of the semester, but students still learn a lot and some have come back to finish their projects on their own time the next semester!

As an example of the sorts of questions they’re researching, this semester we have four team projects going on in class: 1) host specificity and effectiveness of commercial mycorrhizal powders; 2) how do priority effects and plant chemistry change community structure in wood decomposition; 3) evolutionary recovery of alcohol tolerance in ADH mutant yeast; and 4) the role of mammals in urban fungal dispersal. So, there’s always variety and I never get bored!

4. How is this activity assessed (exam, essay rubric, other)? In other words, how do you know if it’s effective?

At the end of the semester, students give poster presentations, open to the student body, detailing their findings. Their posters and listening to them discuss their research with students and faculty serve as my assessment measures. When I witness my students who, at the beginning of the semester know nothing about mycology or how to do research, excitedly describing what they discovered to the public and describing terms like Agaricomycota, Spitzenkörpor, or endophyte, I know that learning happened.

5. What advice would you give to someone who is new to teaching a mycology-focused course or who is looking to update their previously taught mycology-focused course?

Incorporate research wherever possible. This CURE approach may not be feasible for large course sections or non-majors, but letting students have ownership of a project means student buy-in and enthusiasm for learning.

6. Would you be willing to share materials related to this activity with the MSA community? (All are available on the MSA website.)

    1. Mycology Research Proposal Activity (PDF)
    2. Online Mycology Course Page
    3. Online Mycology “From Home” Resource Page