So those who know about the BIMS program fall into two camps – those who “get it” – understand our philosophy and approach to education – and those who “don’t get it” - can’t see how our approach can possibly create an educated and skilled graduate. I thought I’d take some time this summer to explain our guiding principles and how they provide the context for why we do what we do and why we believe the outcome is superior to that obtained by an historic and typical college biology program.
For some perspective on how our program differs from the expected college biology degree program, we invite you to review our “About BIMS” page and the program structure found on the “Downloads” page. You will see that our approach is skills-based, experience-laden, and “just-in-time” rather than “just-in-case” as to content. In our archives for this page are articles written concerning the way technology has forever changed education – content, delivery, and expectations – and why we believe our approach works in concert with “the new student” rather than in opposition. In our labs we approach teaching by engaging students in research, expecting them to apply what they learn to solve real problems. Student and faculty engage in a master and apprentice relationship to learn and explore together. Education should be a joint effort, not a battle of wills between student and faculty. And so with this in mind, I’d like to explore in greater depth some of the guiding principles for how projects are selected for students to work on as they learn and prepare for a life of productive and rewarding employment.
In this first installment, we’ll look at the first guiding principle:
“Good enough isn’t good enough”.
We live in a society where some believe half the effort is “just showing up”. We are in many ways, as Francis Schaeffer states, “addicted to mediocrity”. Our society often equates casual familiarity with expertise, sort of like taking a tour of Europe and professing to be an expert on the area. That mindset permeates incoming college students, who too often believe a desire to be a doctor or scientist trumps the need for hard work, specific training, and sweat equity.
BIMS is fighting that tendency by pushing our students to do more than “show up”. We expect their very best effort to become citizens of science, to have a working knowledge and passion for learning that translates into excellence and proficiency. To equip our students for significance in science, we can expect nothing less. That is why our program is more than facts and dates and exposure to wetlab experience. It is experience-laden, research-rich, content in context for the purpose of building excitement and excellence in our next generation of world-changers.
We are nearing the end of the spring semester at McMurry, and every course is experiencing the “crunch” that comes from too much left to do and to little time left for its accomplishment. The BIMS program being in its infancy, we have had to settle for minor successes in most every class. Sorting through the problems and issues associated with implementing a new approach to teaching has left us a bit disappointed while also very encouraged.
The Chlamydomonas races our freshman students were working on will have to be modified somewhat. Isolation of the organisms from natural sources, culturing them, their purification, and selection of the fastest strains was not as straightforward as we’d hoped. Too much light here, too few nutrients there, and we end up refocusing the course on how best to grow the “wee beasties”. The final projects in Microbiology have been compacted into only two weeks due to overruns in previous experiments done by the class (the growth curve experiment previously reported, among them). No doubt there will be some excellent projects still (one survey of produce items for Salmonella shows some promising early results, and another focused on how tobacco products influence bacterial growth and mutation looks to be very well designed). The cancer research being done in the senior capstone course has been toned down a bit due to problems with culturing the cancer cells (as chronicled previously). As a result, the DNA sequencing that was planned may now be modified into a less ambitious project.
Are we disappointed? Yes. Are we discouraged? No. Like research itself, the establishment of a new program or protocol is frequently a learning experience where adaptations and modifications are the norm. In spite of the setbacks, much is being learned. Faculty are learning our strengths and limitations and are sure this time next year the results we report will be exciting and interesting. Students have experienced the “high” that comes from putting ideas to the test to find truth about nature. More than one has expressed greater excitement and interest in research as a future. As one put it, “If you don’t stop making science so much fun, I may decide I don’t want to go to medical school afterall!”
The greatest discovery of all this semester has been that our discovery-based approach in a research-rich and skills-laden environment works to engage students and deliver courses effectively to eager and willing and excited students. We are encouraged about the future of the program and its impact on our students.