Tag: less is more

New Perspectives on Students – FINALE!

by gwilson on Jun.01, 2009, under Students

cc-ep-school-quicksand-0361Okay, the end, I promise!

So, how can a college science department change its curriculum and pedagogy to reach today’s students in a world where the challenges and issues make this more difficult than ever?  We believe the BIMS program at McMurry provides the template by which an effective program can be built.  I’ve outlined the key elements below.

1. Less is more.   Our overarching approach to our degree has two key ingredients.  First, we believe it is important to know key foundational principles very well, and the rest of what is important will be added along the way.  We  believe emphasizing just-in-time teaching instead of just-in-case teaching.

2. Build the program one brick at a time.  Teach well individual pieces of the curriculum within courses, teach well how the pieces fit together to build the product.  Unique and independent, while also interrelated and inseparable.  Courses do not represent the end of learning on any topic, but instead are new tools to be used for overall learning.  Bricks together are not a house; bricks deliberately placed in mortar based on an overall plan is how you do construction.

3. Engage the unknown.  The unknowable – that which is not found in a textbook – has to be the driving force for engaging student learning.  Why not use knowledge and skills students are acquiring to accomplish something?  We would not know how to teach this major without research-rich teaching.

4. Provide proof of your success.  Our intent is to build a three-pronged portfolio to demonstrate the quality of our graduates.  Each BIMS major will graduate with a digital portfolio, a biological portfolio, and competency testing results.

So, how do these four elements blend together in the BIMS program?  Here’s an overview:

The new BIMS major represents a move by McMurry to provide a new type of Biology graduate whose laboratory skills and experience in molecular biology prepare them for further education or entry into employment in fields requiring such preparation: biotechnology, forensic science, biomedical research, and others.  At the same time, the focus and depth of the degree provide exceptional training in preparation for many graduate and professional programs. The curriculum is centered in contemporary biology and human health. This applied biology training and education is a big step forward in preparing biology graduates with the knowledge and skills expected for biologists in 2023.

 1. As novel as the collection of courses, the true innovation in the BIMS curriculum lies in the teaching philosophy and strategies that will be used. BIMS pedagogy incorporates a new approach to teaching fundamental principles of Biology – “content in context”. Central to the pedagogy is “research-rich” teaching, which gives students investigative assignments in all courses and requires application of skills learned for the purpose of answering interesting research problems. Thus, BIMS courses teach content along with skills in the context of investigation, and reinforce the knowledge and skills through open-ended projects. Students learn to think like scientists and act like scientists by working like scientists.


2. Every required BIMS lecture course includes critical reasoning and analysis. Every required BIMS lab includes experimental design and an open-ended research project. In some instances these may employ model systems widely used by top science programs (yeast, Chlamydomonas, bacteria impacting human health, primary and transformed cell lines). There will be plenty of experience in identifying a problem, asking interesting questions, and applying knowledge and skills to find a solution. Required courses will have literature analysis, scientific writing components, and speaking expectations.


3. All required BIMS labs take the “content in context” approach. Techniques and content tie together logically, as is currently done in BIOL 3410 Microbiology lab: bacterial strains isolated and identified by students early in the semester become the experimental organisms used for teaching subsequent topics and skills. We see no advantage in using “canned exercises” in our labs to teach stand-alone techniques and concepts unrelated to one another when our more “real-world”, integrated approach can be used instead.

 4. The “content in context” approach will span pairs or series of courses, allowing projects begun in one course to be expanded upon in others. Mutants created in BIOL 3460 Genetics lab can be studied in Molecular & Cell Biology (MCB) Lab. Cell products separated in the MCB lab can be analyzed or modified later in the Advanced Bioscience Lab or the capstone course, for example. Such products and evidentiary artifacts become a “biological portfolio” demonstrating skills proficiency and providing starting materials for the next course taken. In this way, we demonstrate that courses connect with one another, techniques from many courses and disciplines may be needed to solve a research problem, and discoveries are often multi-stage processes taking place over time. This is how science is accomplished, and our students will experience science as it is done.  

 5. It will be important to introduce students to sophisticated equipment and techniques they will encounter when they graduate. Experience and skills that may be transferred to new environments as “newer and better” approaches are developed will be fostered. Emphasis will be placed on hands-on use of such instrumentation to insure all students can “think” and “do”.


6. Knowledge and skills proficiency will be a hallmark of this program, with students being required to pass biology content “qualifying” exams in BIMS 4000 before placement in their senior capstone project. These topical exams will be administered in their junior year with opportunities for re-takes until proficiency in subject areas across the spectrum of biological studies is demonstrated. Additionally, we will reinforce knowledge obtained by administering comprehensive finals in all required BIMS courses as a matter of policy.


7. We believe a hallmark of any quality program is use of evidence-driven decisions for program improvement. Evidence for assessment can be provided in a number of ways.

 a. Biological Portfolio. The labs central to the BIMS major are focused on generating biological products/artifacts typical of the research lab, whether microbial strains, mutants, proteins, nucleic acids, gels, sequences, or data. These various products can be graded based on their quality, purity, quantity, and/or accuracy, and thus provide a basis for judging successful acquisition of skills and knowledge. The use of the biological portfolio in multiple courses provides confirmation of proficiency of students in skills development, as the quality of products from one course impacts their usefulness in subsequent labs.

 b. Lab Data and Communication Portfolio. Students find themselves responsible for various reports, posters, presentations, and other forms of reporting for their classes, as such artifacts are expected for all courses required for the BIMS major. Besides grades for effectiveness of the communication techniques, these sources can also be used to probe their depth of knowledge and understanding at each course level and thus provide insight into their development. By identifying benchmarks for expectations at sophomore, junior, and senior classifications, the progress toward achieving serviceable skills can be assessed.


c. Fundamental Knowledge Assessment. Each student will take BIMS 4000 BIMS Junior Exam during their junior year, with subject tests over foundational biological principles. This functions as the equivalent of diagnostic qualifying exams for graduate students, revealing strengths and weaknesses that must be remedied for students to successfully complete their degree. Students may re-take these exams until they achieve passing scores. Results from these exams will be used to revise and strengthen the curricula of lower level courses (for instance, particularly problematic areas where the pass rates on first or second attempts are below average would emerge and provide ample evidence of the need for taking corrective measures). This exam might also serve as the baseline exam for BIMS students, given in the first year or again in their senior capstone course, along with the MFT in Biology. Such information would be important to assessing “value added”. To help prepare students for these subject tests, BIMS courses will adopt a policy requiring comprehensive exams for all required lecture courses.

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New Perspectives on Students – Part 4

by gwilson on May.27, 2009, under Students

yodaIf this were TV, I’d post a “cliff-hanger” and then not say another word on the subject until “next season”.  This isn’t TV. 

In my last post, I promised that I would resolve the issues covered so far:  the need to graduate more citizens with knowledge and interest in science and math, the crisis we see in STEM education, the changing student and stagnant faculty, and how technology has contributed to the problems observed.  I tried to convince you that there must be a better way to teach if we are ever going to reconnect with the students who are so quickly and unfairly dismissed as “not cut out for science”.  My promise was that this “finale” would chart out a new approach that we know works!  You’ll have to be the final judge on how I did.  And I must admit that, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, this solution will take two posts to fully explain in a convincing manner.

I have to preface the following by saying one major concession has to be made by faculty and programs to make this work.  It is to recognize that it is far better to know a few things well than everything poorly.  I’m afraid the curriculum for many a science course and major has turned out to be a mile wide (and growing rapidly) and an inch deep, totally unacceptable for providing a deep and abiding knowledge that works for a student in the world they will enter.  What is taught and how we teach represent the two prongs to building a successful science program.

So, how do we start?  Yoda would pop up right now and say:  “All is unknowable; unknowable is all!” 

“All is unknowable.”   We cannot know everything because scientific information is already too vast to master and increasing at a logarithmic rate.  So why does it make sense to perform intellectual hazing by starting today’s students off to do what we cannot do ourselves?  Why give students a taste of everything and call it a meal?  Today’s productive scientists limit themselves to deep knowledge in one area.  Generalists in any science discipline are not particularly useful individuals.  Their idea of “smarts” is Jeopardy knowledge that does not serve an employer, a profession, or an industry well.  A company could always save a paycheck by using technology to retrieve facts and figures 24/7.  Put your money instead into those who can use their brains to put their knowledge and skills to work.  General knowledge is helpful in critical thought, but it can never replace critical thought.  Never confuse the abilities of a general handyman with those of a skilled air conditioning expert.  Unless we limit the intended scope for our students and take them deep into the discipline, we are training them for obsolescence.

“Unknowable is all.”  Okay, for the Yoda-thing I had to say “unknowable” – but the better word choice would be “unknown”.  If we fix our educational eyes on what is not known instead of on what is already known, we will accomplish much more in engaging students and keeping the flow of bright minds into the STEM workforce.  Allow what is known to inform the search for what is not known – just as it is done in science – instead of letting what is known represent science.  Students thrive in such an environment.  Curiosity drives discovery, and discovery drives excitement.  Excitement drives motivation, and motivation drives success.  We must work on setting our bait well in order to reel in our prey.

Current science curricula and pedagogy at most schools miss the boat in this regard.  Typical programs fill their cafeteria trays with all sorts of delicious facts and figures and theories and such, and then take great offense when a student can’t eat it all.  “There’s no room in life science (or your discipline) for someone without an appetite for ___ (fill in the blank with anything – math, chemistry, genetics, physics, etc.)!”  Quite honestly, there IS room for folks with special skills and talents, even if they lack interest or success in ancillary areas.  We even approach our introductory survey courses as if the future of the world hung in the balance.  Too many faculty think EVERYTHING in a freshman course is foundational to a discipline… if so, why not just award the degree after the freshman year? 

In comparison to a completed house, a foundation is made of relatively few ingredients.  But they are put together carefully to build a strong base upon which to build.  You build on a foundation, but too many faculty believe the foundation and walls and roof and plumbing are inseparable and must be taught in Year 1.  Why not distill down to the fundamental principles the basics of our disciplines to provide the foundation, and then with these mastered by students go forward to use our knowledge to build our graduates intentionally by helping them explore where no man has gone before?  The foundations of a discipline move from being the end of education to becoming the means for education.  That doesn’t happen unless we acknowledge that the “unknowable/unknown is all”. 

What do I mean by “unknown” in all this?  I mean just that – the science yet to be discovered.  When we approach teaching our subject by engaging students in the pursuit of answers to new questions, we show them that science is a verb and not a noun.  We start them down the road to building useable knowledge by building curiosity, leading to motivation and success.  When we limit our focus to what’s important (rather than all that is known), and use pedagogy that engages the students in the act of discovery, we lay a foundation upon which subsequent courses will build highly-sought graduates who are effective problem solvers and productive scientists.  

So, let’s look at a new approach to education that is based on a better curriculum AND a better pedagogy.  I will outline this in the FINAL (I promise) installment.

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New Perspectives on Students – Part 3

by gwilson on May.20, 2009, under Students

07230266Welcome back!  I must have piqued your curiosity if you are  back to see how my third installment resolves this discussion about college students and good teaching.  If you’ll remember, in episode 1, I defined the problem with teaching in the sciences and the horrible disconnect between old ways of teaching and learning, and how important to national security and prosperity such a gap represented.  Our goal cannot be to weed out students in the sciences – it must be to find better ways to engage them and foster their success.  In episode 2, I made my case for the source of the problem being the way technology has forever changed the planet.  We often think of technology as being a wonderful thing for improving teaching.  My point is this is a double-edged sword.  That which is useful as a teaching tool is also responsible for the changes in students that make use of technology for teaching in old ways no better than teaching without it in old ways.  The issue in teaching is not technology or no technology – it is old teaching vs. new teaching.  Our approaches have to change to reach the 21st Century student.

Predator-prey relationships.  If you remember the cyclic nature of these relationships, you also remember that changes in the prey population necessitate changes in the predator population to keep pace or perish.  Our college world has changed irreparably, and we as college faculty can either adapt or go extinct.  The obvious changes in today’s college students have not been matched by a change in our teaching styles and expectations - students (our prey) represent the first population to change and faculty (the predators) are left in a perpetual game of “catch up”.  Millenial students provide the selective pressure that will dictate the direction of that natural selection.  

My BIMS colleague Tom Benoit has convinced me:  less is more when it comes to education.  Spend your time limiting and teaching to what is truly needed, and invest more time in helping them learn to be proficient in its use.  Abandon wholesale mastering and embrace effective management of information.  Nobody can master the information in any science field!  Just when you think you’re current, it is time for another 1000 life science journals to arrive in the mail.  It is better to do a few things well than many things poorly.  We can’t turn back the clock and expect students to go back to the old-school approach to education – the technology genie (and all of its ramifications) is out of the bottle.  The same can be said for the information explosion in any of our main science disciplines – keeping pace with change is not something possible for small college science programs.  But we can spend every semester trying to close the gap in that predator-prey curve by teaching in ways students learn, providing them with useful skills that match their abilities, and focusing on what is important to know and what we can let technology do about the rest.

The knee-jerk response to my assertion that technology is to blame for the huge chasm that has formed between the way we teach and the way students learn would be to think increasing use of technology on the professor’s part would be the way to increase motivation.  Fighting fire with fire!  That is not what I am saying or promoting.  I believe technology can help, but the answer is not in the tools used – it is in the approach taken.

The BIMS program at McMurry was carefully constructed to take a different approach in science education, one so radical that the knee-jerk reaction is it can never work.  We have every reason to believe it will.  We realized success hinged on having a great lure/bait with which to capture the attention of students.  We needed to “work the lure” to further draw students into becoming an active part of their “capture” as future scientists.  We knew we had to reduce the distractions that would scare off our prey.  Our goal was not to be great teachers, it was to have students become great learners (as Tom Benoit says “A day spent learning is a day lost of lecturing!”).  As we began to solidify our approach to the degree we were constructing, we realized we were on to something.  Though in its infancy, the program shows signs of taking the disenchantment and boredom so many first year college students experience in science majors and replacing it with a fun, engaging, and highly successful alternative.  In Part 4, I’ll lay out our philosophy and approach that forms the foundation for McMurry’s truly innovative curriculum and program in Biomedical Science.

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