It was through helping others learn that Alexandra Hamilton ’15 learned something new about herself.
Hamilton has composed a series of online study guides for high school students studying biology, and in the process, she shared how she discovered the pleasures of teaching.
So while she has her sights set on medical school after college, she is leaving the door open to teaching.
A neuroscience and behavior major who is also on the pre-med track, Hamilton’s study guides grew out of the notes she took in class as a high school student, and she hopes to share with students from all around the word the systems and mechanisms behind life and nature. Hamilton spent over a year editing and shaping her notes before she was ready to share them.
“That’s something that I will have to explore but it is something that I have realized: that I do enjoy working with students,” she said.
Available for free and paid viewing on her website, her electronic study guides teach the fundamentals that anyone seeking to study biology at a post-secondary level needs to know.
Hailing from Kingston, Jamaica, where schools follow the British educational model, Hamilton completed secondary school when she was sixteen. Rather than go directly to college, however, she decided to spend two years at an American boarding school. She spent junior and senior year at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, where one of her classes was Advanced Placement Biology.
As Hamilton shared, those who have taken AP Bio can attest to the class’s difficulty and the rigor it demands of its students. The syllabus is thorough and intensive, and students across the country spend months preparing for the yearly exams in May.
The class’s textbook didn’t make it easier either, according to Hamilton.
“It was literally a ten-pound, thick textbook that cost $200 or $300,” she said. “It was so hard to study from it because all the literature was so scientific that you had to read through a paragraph three-or-four times before you could understand it.”
Hamilton’s lessons condense the material, cutting down the technical jargon and exorbitant prices. “It acts as a study guide without the weight of the textbook,“ she said.
Her website, Hamilton explained, is divided into four topics: molecules and cells, hereditary evolution, organisms and populations, and plants and animals. Each topic is broken up into several subtopics.
In this manner, a student with a question about the difference between mitosis and meiosis can navigate to the “Molecules and Cells” page on the website, open the study guide on the cell cycle and flip to page seven.
Hamilton received the maximum score of 5 on the AP exam, which she credits to her note-taking skills.
“I take really, really intense notes,” she said, laughing. In her year-long AP Bio class, Hamilton described how she came to each class with her laptop. Not only would she type out notes, but also organize lecture materials into different subjects and accompany them with pictures and diagrams she found online. Hamilton said that her master guide that contains all the study guide chapters collected in one word document is roughly 400-pages-long.
Originally Hamilton had envisioned using her notes to publish a book, but last summer she decided to create a website instead (http://www.biologysmartreview.squarespace.com/).
She said, “I figured I would go ahead and make it available to students for free so that they can use it now and I can always get to the publishing later.”
Hamilton spent the past winter break creating her site using the free website builder and host Squarespace.com. Biology Smart Review launched in January, five months before students were scheduled to take the APs in May.
Her note-taking skills have continued to help Hamilton in other classes. Hamilton is a New York State certified EMT and a lab assistant for the skills portion of the EMT class offered at Vassar. A study guide for the EMT certification test is also available on Biology Smart Review.
Students can view the guides for free on the website. Originally, they could also pay $10 to download and print out the lessons, however, Hamilton said she changed her mind about charging money. Her main goals are not financial.
“The money isn’t really my focus. Students are using it and that’s fine. If there were only two students using it I would still have it up there for them to use,” she said.
Hamilton shared that after the first two months or so she had made more than $500 from her website. Recently, she has decided to refund all the students who payed to download the guides.
Michael McAloon was Hamilton’s teacher at the Taft School. He taught her in three classes, including advanced biology. He can still recall his first interaction with Hamilton.
“I first met [Hamilton] when she came up to me after the first day of class and said she wanted to drop because she wasn’t good at biology. I said no, and I think we’re both glad I did,” he wrote in an email.
McAloon also remembered seeing Hamilton’s instinct for teaching.
He wrote, “[Hamilton] was always doing extra work and would then share it with other students. I remember she was always concerned for her peers, especially ones struggling in class.”
The study guide isn’t designed solely for students studying for the APs. Right now, Hamilton said that the person she is helping is her 16-year-old sister who is busy studying for her International General Certificate of Secondary Education exam in Jamaica.
Her sister has been sharing it with her classmates and teachers.
“I’ve gotten great feedback, especially from teachers, which is really surprising and exciting,” said Hamilton. “I think it says a lot that they share it with their students, and I think that that is what makes me most happy.”