A Michelangelo of Teachers

Bruce Jackson’s approach to education can serve as an example for us all, write John Mateja and Arlene Lieberman.

September 22, 2017
Bruce Jackson

In 2015, the Council on Undergraduate Research and the Goldwater Foundation bestowed its faculty mentor award upon Bruce Addison Jackson, because his outstanding method of mentoring had produced an exceptional number of Goldwater Scholars, one of the nation’s most prestigious undergraduate science, engineering and mathematics awards. A year later, this remarkable educator went to sleep and did not awaken. While this article is a tribute to him and his life’s work, we also want to share some of his educational insights in hopes they encourage other people in higher education to rethink what is possible.

More than anything, Jackson showed us is that education excellence can occur in any setting -- and that students can rise above their life circumstances and past academic history when someone believes in them.

Jackson served as chair of the biotechnology and forensic DNA science department at Massachusetts Bay Community College from 1993 until his death. His students were not the educational elite -- far from it. Among the Goldwater Scholars whom Jackson mentored were seven single mothers, seven high school dropouts with GEDS, two homeless students and a 48-year-old mother with five children. Their educations did not end with an associate degree from MassBay -- which, for students coming from these backgrounds, would have been a remarkable achievement in itself. They went on to four-year programs at institutions like the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (the 48-year old mother of five), Boston University and Brandeis University and then to Ph.D. programs at Brown University, Yale University and Edinburgh University in Scotland. Today, such MassBay graduates are leading academic, industry and government scientists.

What educational approaches did Jackson take that can inform us all?

Unlocking brilliance. Jackson’s teaching philosophy was both simple and elegant. When once asked by a reporter, “If you had a theme song for your program, what would it be?” Jackson answered, “It would be the refrain from the 1974 song ‘Tin Man’ by the rock group America: ‘But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have.’” He didn’t believe in conferring brilliance on his students; he believed in revealing the brilliance that they already had. As such, pontification from the lectern was held to a minimum. Rather, Jackson immersed them, in his words, “in challenging and relevant biological research from the first day that they arrived in the biotechnology department at MassBay Community College, and almost every day for two consecutive years thereafter.”

Immersion in research. Jackson’s instructional approach differed significantly from what you find in most academic institutions. In the traditional introductory STEM classroom, a student receives the course syllabus on the first day, and after a few brief questions, the lecture begins. In contrast, on their first day of Jackson’s class, students were assigned a personal laboratory bench space, a set of pipettes, a lab coat and a variety of standard research equipment, most or none of which the students had ever seen before. As those students had no laboratory skills, this could have been a recipe for disaster. But it was not.

Examples of student projects included, among numerous others: 1) the genetic identification of unknown species of ornamental fish from an isolated tributary of the Amazon River, 2) an investigation of the mechanisms of evolution that allow insect-borne pathogens to persist in human populations and 3) associated with MassBay’s marine biotechnology program, studies of the impact of ash-borne heavy metals emitted by the island of Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano on the surrounding coral ecosystem.

As Jackson would describe in his mentorship statement for the 2015 faculty mentor award, “This extensive research experience confers on scholars advanced scientific skills and the development of those human attributes that drive science: perseverance, imagination, resilience, resourcefulness, discernment and passionate allure for shedding light on what is not known.”

Peer guidance. Jackson did not have postdocs, graduate students or a lab technician to help him. For that matter, as he was at a community college, he didn’t even have junior- and senior-level undergraduate majors to help train his first-year students. He used what he had, and what he had were his upper-level biotechnology majors, who were generally sophomores. Those students served as peer mentors who helped Jackson “personally initiate the guided immersion of new students in the program into the department’s ongoing scientific research.”

The advanced students served as coaches, confidants and methods-development facilitators for the novice students. Of course, both the mentees and mentors benefited from the arrangement. What the peer mentors had not learned or did not fully understand from their first year, they now had to understand to be able to explain to their mentees. Jackson clearly believed in the old adage “You don’t understand the material until you have to teach it.” In addition, the mentors developed skills that would serve them well in their careers. They would then also become propagators of his mentoring philosophy.

Jackson further enhanced the peer mentor-mentee relationship by pairing, whenever possible, students who had similar life experiences -- for example, single mothers with single mothers, veterans with veterans, former high school dropouts with high school dropouts and so on. He found that the peer mentoring relationship was enhanced because “new students most readily emulate the best qualities of someone who is like them.”

Developing self-confidence. Jackson also stated in his award nomination statement that “nontraditional students rarely, if ever, have been entrusted with responsibility, and lack the self-confidence that is required to be an effective scientific investigator.” He overcame that lack of self-confidence by assigning students “weighty responsibilities” from the outset, always telling them that he had every confidence that they would be successful. Carolyn Kahn Lanzkron, a 2013 Goldwater Scholar, describes Jackson’s way of always raising the bar. “Being Dr. Jackson’s student is not a painless experience,” Lanzkron said. “However, the pain is that of growth and of being stretched. From the moment I entered the program, Dr. Jackson presented me with one seemingly impossible challenge after another. Many of these were far outside the boundaries of the rigorous academic requirement of the biotechnology program.”

How weighty were the responsibilities? Most professors would probably not assign to novice students tasks that their laboratory’s research relied upon. That was not the case in Jackson’s lab. Jackson would, for example, regularly assign new biotechnology students the responsibility for maintaining critical cell lines or calibrating sensitive and expensive equipment. He did not even give the students a recipe by which to perform a task but provided them with the freedom to perform it with a different approach than he himself had used.

Over the years, he found that this conveyance of critical responsibilities “fostered greater confidence in new students to be more willing to recognize the depth and breadth of their own intellect and pursue greater goals.” Of her experience in Jackson’s program, 2016 Goldwater Scholar Stacy Okada observed, “Bruce had a way of placing ridiculous expectations on us. And then we surprised ourselves by finding that we could meet them. This became our new norm. He made us stronger, smarter, tougher and, in many cases, more whole.”

Striving for national recognition. Jackson also understood that his students would, given their backgrounds, question whether or not they were “good enough.” Certainly they would see that they could demonstrate that they were “good enough” in Jackson’s lab, but would they believe that they were “good enough” beyond the walls of the community college? Were they competitive at the national level? In 1993, he decided to nominate his students for a scholarship recently created by the U.S. Congress named for the retiring Senator Barry Goldwater. This prestigious award recognizes the nation’s most outstanding undergraduate science, engineering and mathematics talent. Jackson knew he would be putting his community college sophomores up against sophomores and juniors from schools like the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Stanford University.

Jackson did not have to wait long for his first student to be named a Goldwater Scholar. In 1996, Brenda Tierney became the first in a parade of Goldwater awardees. While other institutions may have more Goldwater Scholars, no other single faculty member has come close to the 21 scholars and one honorable mention that Jackson had between 1996 and 2017.

“When our students come here, we tell them we expect them to take their place among the best and the brightest. We want our program to be transformative,” Jackson would say. Such were his aspirations for his students. He would take them over to the biotechnology department’s Goldwater Wall of Fame and recite a bit of each student’s story: the student who walked from Guatemala to the United States, the student who came to America on top of a train, the student abandoned at a train station in China, the student who was a single parent of five, the student with autism spectrum disorder, the student who had been homeless -- and so many others.

Jackson was a sculptor who, like Michelangelo, knew exactly where to chisel away at the excess to reveal the masterpiece within. In 2011, President Obama presented him with the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for his work with his students.

The key takeaway? There’s nothing in the approach Jackson used to educate students that can’t be replicated by any faculty member at any institution in the country. He did not teach at one of the nation’s elite institutions. He did not have a light teaching load. He did not have generous financial support. He did not have graduate teaching assistants. And he did not have the best prepared students. What he did have was faith in his students and a desire for his students’ educational experience to be transformative.

Suhaily Penix, who received a Goldwater honorable mention in 2015, may have best summed up what Jackson did for his students when she says, “Meeting Dr. Jackson was an event that forever changed my life. It was the initial ripple in my life. He believed in me before I believed in myself. It is because of him that I am at Wellesley College, it is because of him that I will go to grad school and it is because of him that I even believe that I can do these things! I have never had anyone in my life believe in me like Dr. J believed in me.”

As educators, isn’t that what each of us should be trying to do for all our students?


John Mateja is president of the Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Arlene Lieberman is a senior consultant at the Education Alliance.

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