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.
As we take a few days off from school for Thanksgiving, the faculty and students of McMurry’s Biomedical Science program wish to say “thanks”…
…for an administration that supports risk-taking in academic programs. Without risk, there is no reward. Without risk, few moments of greatness ever occur. Without risk, we settle for average.
…for an administration that understands when not everything works as planned in the first attempt. We have seen some parts of the new program that have not worked out as well as intended. Fear of such failures would cripple faculty at other schools and prevent the try from ever happening. Those minor failures would be seen as cause for abandoning a new approach by some colleges. Here, our administration supports us and understands something professed by the great design firm IDEO: “Fail often so you can succeed sooner!”
…for a faculty comfortable with doing things differently from the way they were taught. Lecture on theory and memorizing facts in lecture, then disconnected techniques and exercises in lab to “support” lecture is the approach that formed our heritage. We’re blessed with faculty who see a better approach to connecting with students to engage them in science and give them lasting skills and knowledge.
…for students who tolerate uncertainty and change on the fly as an expected part of their learning experience. In the three semesters of the BIMS program, courses rarely look at the end like the syllabus suggested they might. Our students have seen the fluidity and uncertainty and flexibility of research firsthand. We are thankful for students who see this as an adventure in learning rather than as a broken contract or distraction.
—for a university where faith and science are not enemies at war for a person’s mind. Our faculty are comfortable in their love for science and love for their Savior. We hope this spills over to our students and encourages them to pursue their quest for understanding of the natural and supernatural world.
So, on behalf of the faculty of McMurry’s BIMS program – have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend. We have MUCH to be thankful for!
Welcome 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.