More Than Just A ‘No-Test Policy’: Bi Sci 003 Professor Aims To Teach Life Lessons
The first thing Dr. Christopher Uhl said to me upon entering his office was, “You know this isn’t going to be a typical encounter, right?”
I took his word for it. The office, though confined to a small space, was cluttered with lengthy books, manila folders, and carefully painted coffee mugs. Yet somehow it wasn’t the type of disorganization that you might typically think of — it was the sort of wonderful chaos that told you something truly unique had to be going on in here. The course Uhl teaches is no different.
When Dr. Uhl arrived at Penn State in 1982, the university assigned him to teach BiSci 003, an environmental science class within the university’s Biology department. He had never taught a science course before, but he prepared to do so by filling the students’ heads with facts, figures, and statistics.
When the end of the year arrived, however, he was hit with a startling realization: His students didn’t enjoy the class at all. “It was a smack across the face having to accept that what I thought was helpful and good was probably just the opposite,” Dr. Uhl told me. In that moment, he decided a major change needed to be made. Learning, he realized, is a two-way street; it involves not just spitting out facts, but truly seeing the other person more than anything else. He explained learning, in its ultimate form, is about questions just as much as it is about answers. Dr. Uhl believes this relationship exists both between the student and the professor, as well as between the student and his or her inner-self.
That moment of realization, though painful at first, was crucial for his future as an educator. “It’s when we realize we’re making mistakes that we create new opportunities,” he said. “It was absolutely pivotal.”
That was when Dr. Uhl formed the basis for the BiSci 003 we know today. He wanted to form the premise of the class around the idea students aren’t just coming to class, but taking a journey. The heart of the class involves a learning environment in which no tests are given; rather, students keep journals to record their thoughts, feelings, and experiences throughout the semester. Uhl invites students to explore these inner thoughts and share them out loud with the class. TAs help students during the large group lectures as well as during smaller lab sessions, held each week. The course focuses largely on the questions students harbor in regard to their own lives, as well as the environment around them.
“I’m very sensitive to not wanting to publicly shame or insult anyone,” Dr. Uhl said. “I want to create this culture of openness and acceptance and curiosity.”
Students often come to BiSci on the first day of the semester with notebook in hand, ready to jot down terms and definitions, and they leave quite surprised by what they discover. “Most people come into the course expecting it to be a regular environmental science course, but it’s unique because it’s all really based on inner work,” Dr. Uhl said. He touches on the idea that we can’t begin to fix the environment unless we fix ourselves first. And students don’t need that notebook, they have to make their own journals for the class out of different materials.
Upon learning context of the course, it’s not uncommon for students to have trouble wrapping their heads around the syllabus. College courses typically revolve around a student’s understanding of certain material, not their understanding of their inner-self. “One of the things that’s hard to grasp about BiSci is that we’ve been conditioned to think so little of our own ability to learn,” Dr. Uhl said. “We so underestimate the innate power that we have.”
As far as a typical day goes, as you could probably guess by now, there really isn’t one in BiSci 003. “It changes all the time,” Dr. Uhl said. “We’re always playing with new ideas.”
While the class material changes constantly, one fundamental idea remains the same: The class aims to show students what it means to fully live life as a human being. He encourages students to embrace whatever their life journeys may entail, anticipated or not. In general, Dr. Uhl strives to challenge students’ prior understanding of what it means to be successful.
“There’s this rampant notion that to be successful I have to be competent, I have to be diligent, I have to be responsible, I have to be doing all the time,” he closed his eyes as he reflected on this idea. “That’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe. But is that what it means to be human?”
Because of this belief, he pushes students to learn to trust above all else. “To the extent that we try to manage and control life, we’re arguing with the very premise of it,” Dr. Uhl stated. “Life is spontaneous, it’s generative. When we try to control that, we miss that experience of being fully alive.”
Despite teaching a class widely enjoyed by many, the professor acknowledged the fact that at a university as large as Penn State, it’s simply not possible to please everyone. This especially applies to the unique approach of this course, an approach which makes some students feel uncomfortable.
But Uhl isn’t afraid of students reacting negatively to his class, he knows it’s just part of the process. “I’d much prefer a negative reaction versus no reaction at all,” he responded. “Those students that are in the game, fighting it and reacting negatively — sometimes they benefit the most from the course out of anyone.”
In a class so unique, it’s easy to wonder exactly what is needed in order to succeed. Above all, Dr. Uhl wants students to remember that life is, in all forms, a story. Stories are what add value to life, and we have the ability to change the course of our own. We are innately, imperfectly, and beautifully human; as humans, we have choices.
“If students can just get a taste of that, they’ve succeeded in my book.”