The first class Bryan Dewsbury taught was an ecology lab, filled with FIU undergraduates who dreamed of one thing — becoming doctors. He asked them the simple, yet complex question, why? They all wanted to help others. Many also mentioned economic mobility.
What those students shared made Dewsbury clearly see how culture, economic mobility and equity are tied to what happens in the classroom — a realization that informed his teaching practice and changed the trajectory of his career. Now, an FIU associate professor of biology and principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program, Dewsbury wants to shift teaching practices in STEM classrooms across the country, so that every student has the same chance at success.
His unique approach is rooted in human connection. He's not here to simply teach subjects. He’s here to teach students.
Dewsbury recently published a study in the academic journal PLOS ONE examining five years of data on inclusive, active learning approaches in an introductory biology class. The results revealed all students benefitted and earned higher grades, especially Black students who are most negatively impacted by the traditional model of teaching.
“You have to assume every student has the potential to be excellent,” Dewsbury said. “Readiness varies. Potential is a whole different thing. Everyone has it.”
A new philosophy centered on student success
Dewsbury started out as a graduate teaching assistant at FIU, then an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) after graduation. Now, he’s back at FIU.
Dewsbury's former students describe him in many ways. Dedicated. Intentional. Pioneering. Committed.
Lizmaylin Ramos was a first-generation college student when she enrolled in his introductory biology course at URI. Gateway courses can be blockades, disproportionately impacting underrepresented minorities and women in STEM, like Ramos. But she recalls how Dewsbury treated science like storytelling. When he explained how the kidneys function, it was reminiscent of the way her family told stories.
“His class was unlike any other and prepared me for a career as a scientist,” said Ramos, now a neuroscience Ph.D. student at Brown University. “Dr. Dewsbury doesn’t teach a subject, he teaches students.”
Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, the son of a pastor, Dewsbury learned early the importance of paying attention to other people. He says his teaching style was influenced a lot by his upbringing.
“No one is just a student with an ID number, but an individual with dreams, goals and challenges,” Dewsbury said. “A central part of how I teach is by listening to who is in front of me and getting to know them.”
Getting to know the students in the first class he taught, he learned they had experiences in common. When Dewsbury was that teaching assistant at FIU standing in front of a class full of pre-med students, he was also a student. Working toward his Ph.D., he wanted to study the ecology and economy of seagrasses and believed he was on a path to a career full of field research. He was among the first in his family to go to college. An international student. And pursuing a career in science while being historically underrepresented in STEM.
The more he listened to the students, though, the more he knew he belonged in the classroom — and could play a role in reshaping education.
“As professors, we get trained to talk about a subject, but I quickly learned students are seeing something different. They see a gateway to whole new life,” Dewsbury said.
Jasmin Qyyum, an undergraduate in Dewsbury’s first class at FIU, saw higher education as a path to a good future. It was also a scary endeavor where she felt the pressures to live up to what she thought society and her family expected of her.
“College can be difficult to navigate,” said Qyyum. “Dr. Dewsbury helped make that world a little less scary. I’ve never had a professor, mentor or leader care as much for his students. I owe much of my career choices to him.”
Today, Qyyum’s a cardiac nurse at Baptist Hospital and a teacher of anatomy and physiology. She admits she probably doesn’t fit an average career profile but says that’s fine with her. Dewsbury was her role model, showing it’s possible to pave your own unique path.
Leaving assumptions at the door
At URI, his innovative practices took the historically high D, F, and withdrawal (DFW) rate for introductory biology from 30 percent down to around 6 percent.
It all started with building an ecosystem of support. Changing “office hours” to “student hours” was one of the first things he did. A walk down the hallway to a professor’s office is like a walk down Green Mile, Dewsbury joked. Instead of making his students come to his office, he brings the office to them — like scheduling meetings for after class.
Early interventions are also important. Early in the semester, he meets with students who may be struggling. If they get a low score on a first exam, he doesn’t believe that is indicative on how they’ll do on the final exam. If everyone has the potential to do well, interventions should be a turning point, he said.
Leading the change
Today, Dewsbury’s happy to be back at FIU, where he has the flexibility to innovate and create new ways to teach. As associate director of the STEM Transformation Institute, he’s part of a network of educators working to improving outcomes and expanding opportunities for underrepresented minorities.
“If higher education wants things to be different, we need a different model of what it means to be a faculty member,” he said. “This is about being a part of change.”
What keeps going is the belief this change is possible — and what remains his motivation is the students. Nothing will replace the power of a student’s voice, Dewsbury says.
Those voices of Dewsbury’s students share one message. Humanity in teaching is life-changing.
“If I could tell Dr. Dewsbury one thing it would be thank you,” Qyyum said. “Thank you for reviving my passion, making me question, giving me the confidence I needed. I’m lucky to have been able to watch you grow and actually practice what you preach.”