BIMS

Tag: small college science

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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Pooling Resources, Creating Opportunities

by gwilson on Mar.23, 2009, under A Day in the Life..., Projects, Students

endospore21This spring, Dr. Paul Pyenta has his Biochemistry II students diverging from the normal course of lab exercises.  In doing so, he is accomplishing three things:  teaching the techniques and knowledge of the course in a new and engaging way, giving his students exposure to how research is done, and keeping his personal involvement in research going.

About two years ago, a conversation between Pyenta and two Biology faculty exposed a problem he was equipped to tackle.  Drs Wilson and Benoit are microbiologists who study the spores of Bacillus thuringiensis.  Bt, as it is called, is mostly known for its production of a toxin that is selectively toxic for the larvae of several damaging insect pests.  During Wilson’s doctoral research, an interesting observation was made – the spores made in the soil seem better suited to survival in insects, and the spores made in insects seem better suited to survival in the soil.  This has spurred a desire to study the ecology of the organism more closely, and led Benoit to propose an experiment to follow the fate of individual spores through susceptible and non-susceptible insects.  But, with Bt spores so small, no convenient way was available to do the experiment.

Enter Dr. Pyenta.  In conversation, it was decided that spores and cells expressing green fluorescent protein (gfp) could be used to follow the spores through the insect. Only problem – no appropriate gfp-containing Bt strains existed.  All previous cloning of gfp in Bt was done to follow the presence of the crystal protein in nature, in genetically modified foods and the like.  Their discussion led to a proposal - Pyenta proposed that his lab could clone the gfp gene into Bt so that a visible marker was present to detect the fate of spores.

The cloning work has been conducted for the past two years by undergraduate students doing independent research for Pyenta.  It has gone slowly, as many quirks make cloning into Bt not possible by use of traditional methods commonly used.  Progress made so far has moved the project to the point where students in his Biochem II lab are equipped to use the lessons learned to tackle the project this semester.  In doing this, students get to see how the skills and knowledge of their regular course can actually be put into action on a real research project. 

One of the frustrations science faculty face at small colleges is finding time to remain active in research.  Expecting similar productivity to that achieved when one was a member of a research team working full-time on a project funded by a national agency is foolishness.  Instead, faculty must find creative ways to keep their skills up, perform experiments in economical and efficient ways, and use available resources wisely.  Dr. Pyenta is accomplishing these things by teaching his course through involving students in his research (instead of relying on a bunch of unrelated and seemingly random canned exercises leading nowhere), by conducting the work within the parameters of his normal teaching load, and by pooling resources through collaboration with other faculty on a project of common interest.

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