Tag: science pedagogy
An interesting thing has happened this fall in Dr. Benoit’s BIOL 1301 Unicellular Organisms class. Among the usual collection of freshmen starting on their journey through university-level science courses is a handful of upperclass students from other majors who are in it to broaden their horizons. Though the material may cover topics well below their level of preparation and experience, students are finding the approach taken by Dr. B is opening their eyes to seeing old things in new ways.
One of the strengths of a student-centered approach to teaching is the focus on finding ways the material can be presented using examples and terms that are approachable to an 18-year old. Too often, college faculty muddy the water by using terminology and theoretical conventions that are common knowledge to their peers but not interesting to students and not helpful toward novice understanding. For instance, in describing the importance of attachment between pathogen and host it would be easy to focus in on binding energy and protein conformation and specificity and such. Bacterial virulence stemming from the presence of capsular material could center on how immunologically unreactive capsules tend to be and how host-pathogen binding can be interrupted. Young students simply don’t have the frame of reference to make this meaningful. So, instead Dr. B uses the example of an individual trying to pick up a wet watermelon seed to give a visual image of the difficulty phagocytic cells can have in binding to, engulfing, and destroying foreign invaders. With that mental image to guide understanding, he can go on to explain how those more detailed elements of understanding are logical.
In my own classes, I do something similar. Today was a discussion on enterotoxins. We began with real-life examples. The hamburger I ate in the Tech snack bar the morning of Steve Hickerson’s masters’ defense, and how that led to a Campylobacter infection sending me to the hospital. Why was I so sick, and why were my symptoms “logical” formed the basis for presenting the lesson. We talked about cholera toxin binding to adenylate cyclase to turn on ion pumps, sending ions flooding into the gut lumen. We talked about the forces of movement through membranes and how water would rush out of cells to try to equalize ion concentrations on both sides of the gut lining. Result – diarrhea. I emphasized for the umpteenth time how hydrophobic/hydrophilic interactions, equilibria, and the second law of thermodynamics all make this logical – chemistry and physics are important to how life works! We discussed where ions and water would come from to replenish supplies lost from the gut lining – the blood. The result? drop in blood pressure from fluid loss and ion imbalances causing cardiac arrhythmia. Suddenly, the bacterial exotoxin is not just causing diarrhea but now is life-threatening, and the progression of cause and effect makes perfect sense to them. And we ended the discussion by talking about the millions of children around the world that die each year from diarrhea. What a difference we can make by helping villages find safe water supplies and putting our knowledge of microbiology to work!
Our job in BIMS is not to fill students with facts and build unrelated skills. Such an attitude and approach results in a more combative approach by students to learning. Retention of knowledge is poor, enthusiasm for the subject wanes, and students leave the class wondering what they learned of practical value. Instead, BIMS seeks to use a different approach and gain a different outcome. We personalize our approach to make it accessible and interesting, and to maximize the knowledge transfer taking place. Students thrive in this environment and our classes are perceived as being easier, more approachable, more useful – when all we are doing is packaging the same material in new, more palatable ways.
So back to Dr. B’s class… What a great compliment it is when students from other majors tell you they understand their own disciplines better having sat through your course. They see our approach as not only maximizing knowledge transfer in BIMS but also in clarifying their own fields, helping connect the dots, removing the clouds of professor-ese to make that which was theoretical and unapproachable now understandable, practical, and useful for their education. Not a bad outcome!
In January 2007, McMurry’s President, Dr. John Russell, charted out a bold plan for McMurry’s future. The plan is called Vision 2023 and calls for McMurry to become a regional leader in science education and science teacher preparation. A central component of this vision was the call for curricular and pedagogical innovation, and the provision of spaces and resources in support of these changes. The text of President Russell’s presentation can be found at: http://www.mcm.edu/newsite/web/univ_relations/univ_update.htm
The first major step in transforming spaces for innovation in teaching and research is not far away. McMurry science faculty have been invited to participate in a competition this August to propose renovated spaces to enable curricular and pedagogical innovation. Teams of faculty from a variety of departments are readying their concepts of what McMurry lab spaces might look like for supporting exciting new ways of teaching and learning. Judging the competition will be board members, cabinet members and others who will match the vision for science spaces with Dr. Russell’s vision for the future. The winning proposal will be funded with renovation anticipated to start next summer. The other proposals will provide ideas for Advancement to use in soliciting funds for support of the sciences. A recap of the competition and overview of each proposal will be the topic of a future entry on this page.
So what will a successful proposal look like? It will call for new ways of teaching that are research-rich and skills-laden, and ask for formation of spaces that enable these changes. It will focus on what a McMurry graduate should know and have the ability to do to be successful in the workforce and professions of 2023. It will broaden research opportunities for faculty and their students so that students are citizens of science rather than tourists. It takes a first bold step on the journey from the past perspectives of science and spaces where they are taught into science for tomorrow’s student and professional in an ever-changing world.
Okay, 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.