The “Evolutionary” Teaching Style of Assistant Professor Brandon Sinn

Posted Jan 27, 2023

Each year, Otterbein honors outstanding full- and part-time faculty who contribute so much to the Otterbein community both in and outside the classroom.   

Assistant Professor Brandon Sinn, Department Biology and Earth Science, received the New Teacher of the Year Full Time Faculty Award. He is a botanist whose research leverages molecular and morphological techniques to answer questions central to our understanding of the diversification of lineages and their evolutionary relationships, the transfer of genetic material between distantly related organisms, conservation, and organellar genome evolution.  

We reached out to Sinn to learn more. 

How would you describe your teaching style? 

I like to think that my style could be best described as a student-centered approach that is somewhat Socratic, supported by interaction and discussion. I select content and design activities and discussions to head off misconceptions and to challenge preconceived notions. I do my best to think of analogies and topical intersections, which frankly I find to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching.  

In particular, I focus on introducing examples that incorporate material students have encountered in other courses and the popular and scientific press; my hope is that this helps students to gain confidence through familiarity and makes the integrative nature of scientific inquiry and discovery more apparent.   

For example, rather than provide a simple answer to a student’s question, I most often reply with a broad question that I craft to guide the student and class to the answer of their original inquiry by way of their own, and often collective, logic. I then try to expand slightly beyond the scope of the original question and tie it into recent research and other relevant material. Watching a group of students reasoning their way to the collective discovery of the mechanics underlying a difficult concept is super cool and rewarding. 

What inspires you to teach? 

A cycle that is centered on students and research. Connecting with students is energizing, conducting and publishing research keeps me fresh, and seeing the surprise and questions that students have when engaging with new findings that challenge what they’ve learned so far keeps me inspired to keep the cycle going. 

What do you hope your student take from your classes? 

Increased confidence, a better understanding of the content, and the recognition that the more you are exposed to, the more you realize there is to learn. I directly address societal intersections in each course, and I hope that doing so helps students to navigate the veracity of racist, divisive, and misleading claims that they will encounter throughout their lives – a good understanding of evolution, ecology, and/or genetics can often provide needed clarity. 

Why are you passionate about the subjects you teach? 

Easy, selfish answer – they are what I have always enjoyed thinking and talking about the most.  

What is your favorite class to teach? 

Tie between Evolution and Molecular Evolution – both of which students know the least about when enrolling in the course but have the most preconceived notions of (compared to my other courses).  

What do you think students get from Otterbein faculty that they can’t get anywhere else? 

Focused attention and support in an environment that still provides the space to grow academically and socially. For example, students in my lab get to work on the same exciting scientific questions that they could at much larger universities, while still enjoying the benefit of having small class sizes and close-knit relationships with their professors.  

What is one lesson you want students to carry with them not related to the subject matter? 

That they should challenge the way that they see the world, every day – that they challenge what they think and revise if necessary! I hope that they see that pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone while exploring concepts and the world itself is a rewarding way to live their lives.