Tag: science education

Programs Worth Keeping

by gwilson on Oct.19, 2012, under Program

IMG_0359I’ve heard it said that the best way to become immortal is to become an academic program.  Once instituted, they can never be eliminated – the politics become too heated to consider such a fate, no matter the common sense of such a decision.  I think that is one of the great weaknesses of academic institutions – the tendency to let history and tradition interfere with market realities and the needs for the future.  We should spend more time listening to the futurists who tell us the most sought-after jobs of the next 20 years (the sweet spot of our graduates’ careers) are not even on our radar screen today.  How can old programs focused on old job descriptions and unaware of any of this possibly be preparing students to be agile and versatile graduates?

But we may be entering a time where dropping ineffective academic programs will be more common.  The backlash against rising tuition costs and student debt, and the decreased funding for higher education from state and federal sources will cause many institutions to ask which programs are worth paying for and which can be eliminated to make limited bucks go farther.  We are already seeing many colleges and universities scaling back on the programs they offer, and the trend is bound to only grow!  How can we make our programs those that are “worth keeping” in an atmosphere of cuts and reductions?

I have some ideas on what we should be doing to shape our programs to be programs worth keeping, should our institutions ever find themselves in the position to need to rethink their programs.  So here are some qualities I believe are central to programs worth keeping…

1. Programs worth keeping can attract students.  It makes no sense for a college to deliver a major nobody wants.  Go into any store in town and ask to purchase a slide rule or a 5.25″ floppy disk.  Those were hot items at one time.  That time is long gone.  Are you clinging to what was important to you instead of what is important to potential students?  Our programs have to offer relevant programs of obvious value to the student or they will not attract students.  How can a college justify keeping a program with more faculty than majors?  So why not look at what futurists say about where job growth is headed and realize the importance of preparing our students to enter one of these fields?  Talk to Admissions Counselors to see what programs high-schoolers are asking about?  Consider modifying their programs to attract new students?  And a program better be good at selling its value!  Any program that cannot drum up excitement in prospective students will soon snuff out whatever excitement they brought to campus as freshmen.  Good programs have a product with value and they know how to build enthusiasm for potential (and current) customers.  Programs that are expendable don’t get this point.  If you are the rare individual who happens to wander into their “store” wanting their rare and unpopular product, they will serve you (who initiates the actions here?).  But these programs are not centering their time and energy on the future and promotion of their products!  Want to know why BIMS is one of the programs recruiting the most freshmen every year?  It is because we shaped our program to focus on the sweet-spot of future job growth and thus have something to sell that has value.  And we sell an approach to education that is refreshing and new and proven to be successful.

2. Programs worth keeping take risks. Show me any successful person and I will show you someone who has taken a risk and succeeded. If you ask them, they will also tell you there were plenty of setbacks along the way.  Perseverance and learning from mistakes turns risk into a growth opportunity leading to success.  Too often, faculty will tell students there is one right way of doing things and penalize them for finding another route to the same end.  That is just plain foolish.  Nobody makes a new discovery by following the same tried and true paths.  The two most important words for success are, “What if…”  We should encourage our students to “boldly go where no man has gone before…”   Don’t just tolerate risk – encourage it!  Let them take risks in the safety of our labs under our supervision.  They take ownership, find pride in the results, and occasionally make a discovery that proves to be more important than they could have guessed.  This is a foundational reason we do open-ended research in our normal BIMS classes.  We are cultivating an environment for risk-taking, where it is rewarded instead of being punished.  Contrast this attitude to one where those students thinking “outside the box” or taking a bit longer to master a concept are summarily dismissed as “not being suited to a career in science”.  Which program is more likely to cultivate a generation of world-changers?

3. Programs worth keeping can demonstrate success.  I think a lot of programs are more “Wizard of Oz” than anything else.  Lots of animation and smoke and mirrors – plenty of activity with very little substance to show for their work.  At the end of the day, what has a program accomplished?  Are graduates more likely to pursue and be successful in graduate programs or professional schools or discipline-related employment?  Or do they abandon science?  Ask faculty teaching undergraduates at many colleges around the country where there graduates are, and more than likely they can point to the success of a handful of their stars.  They tend to equate the success of a few with the success of the program.  At McMurry, our BIMS program can tell you where every BIMS graduate has gone and is doing.  Granted, the number is small for the young program.  But we know the importance in tracking every graduate, using feedback to help shape and improve our major.  So far, our graduates have entered medical school, physician’s assistant programs, and graduate programs, or they are in the application process to do so.  The success we have seen (and can relate to anyone interested) proves this program is more than satisfying its purpose of preparing graduates for lives in the biomedical sciences.  Programs not interested in such work or unwilling to expend the effort will have a hard time proving the quality of their effort.  And it makes one wonder whether they are programs worth keeping.

4. Programs worth keeping teach the process of using skills of the major to accomplish something.  It was interesting to hear from a researcher friend at a professional school of his experience hiring a technician for his lab.  He said he had applicants with high gpas and degrees from major universities who looked great on paper but who couldn’t do anything in the lab.  Knowledge level was high, but skills level was nonexistent.  Why?  Too many programs believe filling a head with facts equates to readying someone for the workforce.   At McMurry, we want our graduates to be able to tell their prospective  bosses (or graduate advisors or professional school admissions committees) what they can DO as well as what they know.  Ever sequence a gene?  Yes, as part of my senior capstone project.  (vs. No, but I know the theory behind the process).  Ever  do a Western blot? Yes, as part of my senior capstone project. (vs. We did it once during my Molecular Biology lab).  Our students should know both theory and practice; not just theory.  Want evidence?  Take a look at their senior capstone presentation!  How does your program stack up in this way?

5. Programs worth keeping establish a master-apprentice relationship.  Finally, we believe it is important to build a professional working relationship with every student in the BIMS program.  That is why a senior capstone project is required of each student.  Often, we find that there are students who did not distinguish themselves as outstanding in traditional courses but who are found by their faculty mentor to have exceptional instinct and aptitude for research.  This would have gone undiscovered if not for the capstone research with faculty.  Big schools will sometimes encourage their selected star students to work as technicians in their research labs – supervised by graduate students or post-docs.  We don’t have graduate students or post-docs, so we have the great pleasure of allowing our students to step up into those roles for a deeper and more complete involvement in a research project.  Our students are research designers, hands-on technicians, data analyzers, and project presenters all rolled into one.  They experience all facets of research from thought expressed on whiteboard to poster presented at scientific meeting.  Every step is modeled and overseen by a faculty supervisor teaching those lessons not found in any textbook.  Hard to argue that this is not a better research experience!  We hear often from graduates in professional school or grad school that their classmates from other colleges are intimidated by faculty and have difficulty approaching them when troubles arise.  Not our students, who understand what it means to have a healthy, respectful, and productive professional relationship with faculty.  Such extraordinary experiences make these programs worth keeping – more value-added time is spent shaping students for future success than is commonly encountered.  Campus programs that do not follow this path and prepare students in this way seem to be short-changing their students.

And so there you have it.  Five qualities that lead to programs worth keeping.  May your programs grow to adopt them!

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Our Guiding Principles – Part 1

by gwilson on Jul.13, 2012, under Program

addicted to mediocritySo 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.

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Are You Fun Enough for a 5th Grader?

by gwilson on Apr.20, 2011, under A Day in the Life...

jeff_3People around the world have been drawn to Jeff Foxworthy’s game show – Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? The game show puts a lone individual at the mercy of a group of bright and talented 5th graders and challenges them to answer common questions any 5th grader should have seen at some point in their brief educational career.  Truth be told, we all want to know we’re smarter than a 12 year old and we all want our rising generation to be smart and capable, ready to face the problems 20 years that we’ve not solved today.

You may recall that last semester the students in BIMS 1300 Intro to Scientific Research created games as their final project, a way to demonstrate how the skills and methods of science are commonly encountered when playing typical board games.  This semester, the stakes were raised by asking four teams in the BIMS 1300 class to create games for 5th graders.  McMurry’s 5th Grade Science & Math Magnet Class students (the “McMagnets”) were asked about their favorite games and what they would like to see in a new game.  Those responses are helping to guide the BIMS teams in the creation of their games.  These are the preliminary ideas under construction:

  • Germ-a-lot.  This board game features home castles, moats and draw bridges, an Ogre, and catapults used to knock down your opponent.  Players roll the dice and navigate along a path between swamp and forest as they answer questions and collect chances to shoot at their opponents with a catapult.  Last player standing wins.  The Germ-a-lot title plays off of Camelot and the fact that plagues and other germ-centered elements of the game make this a title a logical choice.
  • The Pyramid.  Though one might consider the Egyptian version, this game will center on Central American/Mexican pyramids in a jungle setting.  As this game concept only emerged two days ago, the directions and ending of game play still are in their formative stages.  However, there will be a journey along the game board through jungle and hazards before players reach the 3-D pyramid with pitfalls.  They will have to collect equipment for the journey along the way and scale the pyramid to win the game.  One unique feature is the concept of partners having to cooperate and help one another so that both can reach the summit and win the game.
  • Junior High.  This clever game allows students to make choices and move through their junior high years.  At each fork in the road is a decision point where good or bad decisions await the player.  Players must choose friends and activities through their school year, and can use the occasion of each new school year to make changes and adjust who they are and what they do.  Should prove to be a great learning tool for guiding young players to make smart choices.
  • Body Building.  Players roll dice to move their tokens around a game board shaped like the human body.  Depending on the color of space landed on, the player must answer a question in one of several science categories (the McMagnet teacher’s science book is being used as the source for questions).  Get it right and you get to pull a Jenga block out of the tower in the middle of the board and use it to begin building your own tower.  The person who makes the tower fall automatically loses, while the other player with the tallest tower at that time wins the game.

So, four very different and interesting games, filled with dimension, tactile activities, right choices, science knowledge, and all-around fun.  I’ll report back on these when we see how they turn out.  AND, I’ll post the commercials for the games each team is making as part of their final submission.  Yes, BIMS is more fun than it has to be! :)

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