BIMS

Tag: teaching innovation

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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Making Something from Nothing

by gwilson on Mar.28, 2009, under Projects

neg5The approach to teaching Microbiology labs at McMurry is really an exercise in making something from nothing.  This next week my BIOL 3410 students will be conducting growth curves of bacteria.  That is nothing unusual for students in a course like this.  However, my McMurry students have been challenged with creating their own broth media from scratch using kitchen items.  The competition pits groups against one another to come up with a medium that will support the growth of microbes.  We prepared on broths on Thursday, first step being to make sure their clear broths will survive autoclaving.  It is always fun to see what they come up with – this semester one group found the fluid from a can of tuna fish doesn’t make a clear broth as well as an extract from boiled spinach and potato.  SlimFast didn’t work so well, creating an opaque medium unsuitable for our study.  Another group found a protein supplement and vitamin water made a very nice medium.  Tuesday and Wednesday the games begin!

The organisms they will use are another exercise in making something from nothing, as they are the natural isolates (Staphylococci and enteric organisms) my students collected, purified, and identified earlier in the course.  Each group will try their medium with six of the cocci and six enterics, following growth spectrophotometrically.  Then the results will be pooled to see whose medium maximized the growth for the greatest number of bacteria.  All groups will report their results in the form of research posters that will adorn our walls for the remainder of the semester.  Winner gets an automatic advantage on their poster grade.

I could have given each group an organism and made their medium for them.  But what would my students have learned about the chemistry and content of media by doing that?  What would they have learned about the distribution of microbes in nature and the thought that goes into identifying them if I had given them cultures from our stock collection?  If you can get as much “bang for your buck” making something from nothing, why not make learning fun and relevant?

There is a way of teaching that brings deeper learning, the fun of competition, and the satisfaction of accomplishment in demonstrating mastery of skills and knowledge through problem-solving.  It is called discovery-based learning.  We do that through research-rich teaching.  McMurry’s BIMS program is committed to doing more to bring the science out of students – just putting science into students is not enough!

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