Tag: science pedagogy
Well, a surprise for this year is the first edition of the McMurry Fantasy Microbiology League competition for high school students. Last spring, I met with two of the specialists at the Region 14 Education Service Center to discuss my lament that there is no regional science fair for the students in the 44 school districts of our area (For those from outside Texas, our state is divided into regions and a service center is provided for each region to facilitate enrichment and support for public education). In our conversation, we came up with the idea of providing an alternate enrichment opportunity based on a software simulation used for teaching microbiology. What if we set up a fantasy league of teams composed of high school students who competed to identify simulated bacteria? What if we came up with some amazing prizes to give to competitors and their teachers/coaches and their schools? We are proud to announce that this is officially a “go” and teams will be able to sign up later this month to represent their schools and win big prizes.
Intuitive Systems Inc. agreed to provide the software for the competition. VirtualUnknown(TM) Microbiology (VUMIE) is used in colleges, nursing schools, and even dental and medical programs around the world to provide students with a reasonable substitute for working with bacteria in a wet lab to allow for practice in developing microbiology skills. Fantasy Microbiology League competitors will get unknown bacteria weekly and will work to submit an ID that is fast, accurate, and efficient. Points are earned for these three premiums and lost when they are not achieved. Each week, a team plays defense by prohibiting the use of a test of their choosing by their opponent. And each week, The Commissioner will announce a “Hail Mary” twist that will earn bonus points if successfully completed. Winners from head-to-head competition will advance to the playoffs along with wildcard teams based on total points earned. The VUMIE Bowl will be held on McMurry’s campus on February 10, 2017. Prizes will include scholarships for winners, GoPro cameras/Fitbits and other prizes for final teams and coaches, scientific equipment and the VUMIE trophy for the winning school, and plenty of Swag for all participants. Thank you sponsors for making this happen!
I tell my students all the time, if your science classes aren’t fun, something’s wrong. The subject matter is fascinating and exciting and awe-inspiring. And if we are clever in how we approach it, we can make it more “game” than “work”. Students in this competition will learn valuable lessons about aseptic technique, critical reasoning in choosing tests and interpreting results, and will see how being careful and thoughtful and precise in their work can lead to big rewards. But I’ll bet the way they describe it all is “fun”.
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.