Philosophy of Science Education

 “You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.

~Clay P. Bedford

 

Science education should create curiosity in a student, and thus, create life-long students who think critically and actively engage in the challenges of their generation. Each well-planned science class and research lab should answer questions and in doing so, create even more questions and excite the mind in the process. Science is dynamic and requires a variety of tools and approaches to better understand a topic; science education is not any different.  Requiring rote memorization does not reflect the nature, excitement and curiosity of scientific discovery.  Conversely, student-centered learning using varied teaching methods, assessments, and activities in the classroom and lab is an effective way to build and maintain students’ curiosity in biology. 

Further, actively engaging students in a research program challenges students to develop scientific thinking, a skill that can transfer to any area of study. The ability to apply the scientific method is a skill set sought by leaders in a variety of fields, not just in science. By teaching all students to apply the scientific method to a proposed question, we are training them to be critical thinkers and confident leaders. This approach to science education is my opportunity to positively influence undergraduate students who may or may not continue in a career in science.

In particular, biology offers a platform from which to discuss many global challenges. Should we use GMO’s to extinguish poverty? By creating super viruses, are we arming terrorists? What is Ebola? What is sustainable energy? And the list goes on. Through biology education, we begin to engage students on topics they will likely face again in their lifetime: aging parents/grandparents, addictive behaviors, sexual behavior, thinking and memory, how we learn, mood disorders, and diseases that have a burden on our health care system. Classes in biology at the undergraduate level enhance the education of the students and shape them into deep thinkers, impacting our world for the better.

 

Agnes Scott Laboratory Experiences

Open-ended, project-based labs are challenging to write and prepare for undergraduates. To mimic a real-world science experiment for an undergraduate in short, understandable experiments that can be carried out with our equipment, is a massive undertaking. First, students must be given the background for a specific project, then led to ask some questions that can be tested during the 3 hour lab time each week. This type of lab, a true research experience, is the best education for our students. Students learn how to apply the scientific method in order to answer a question through research experience.

Research experience is necessary for all of our students, whether it is a requirement for their career path or to gain the skill necessary for success in the work force. Research develops a students’ ability to think critically and apply the scientific method. It also helps to engage the students in the learning process.

Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that when students have small research projects on a definable question, their understanding of the scientific process and critical thinking skills are greatly enhanced. The earlier we can engage students in research, the better their educational experience and the more informed a decision they can make about school options in the future. If students are more informed earlier on in their career, they will be have more choices and can better prepare themselves for the path they want to continue.

Because of this, in the science upper levels that I teach, my labs are inquiry based research experiences. In the labs associated with my classes for BIO 250 Foundations in Neuroscience I and BIO 216 (was BIO 316) Molecular Biology, I guide students to develop unique, open-ended questions that we explore through the semester. For these classes, we do not use a prescribed experiment from a textbook with a known outcome. We develop our own questions with unknown outcomes. As I continue to teach labs here at Agnes, I will continue to develop labs that utilize an open-ended approach, preparing students for real-world problem solving. Open-ended questions engage the students who take ownership over their project, strengthen the student’s critical thinking and leadership skills, and deepen the student’s understanding of science. More information on these experiences can be found here.

The Biology department considered a separate, 200 level class to give students research experience. In the end, we decided it would be easier for each faculty to incorporate inquiry based research in the upper level classes where it was appropriate. I will continue to work with other faculty in the Biology department and in the Neuroscience Program to share the successful and less successful aspects of inquiry based labs. As I have worked with other faculty, reflecting on my teaching practices, and listening to what other faculty have tried, I have improved the inquiry based research experiences that I offer with my classes.

 

Agnes Scott Upper Level Science Classes

 During my time here at Agnes Scott, I have taught several upper level classes: BIO/PSY 250 Foundations in Neuroscience I, BIO 330 Diseases of the Nervous System, BIO 492: A Senior Seminar in Learning and Memory, several BIO 410s Independent study in Endosomal trafficking in Rett Syndrome, BIO 490 Senior Honor Thesis, and BIO 216 (was BIO 316) Molecular Biology.

In my interview process, I was asked about what class I would like to create. I had anticipated this question and developed a class and a syllabus for Diseases of the Nervous System (BIO 330) for the interview and talked about the class with fellow Neuroscience faculty, Dr. Karen Thompson. After my contract was signed, I was able to provide a description to the department chair of the class, which was approved by the faculty before my contract even started. In the fall of my first year, I taught BIO 330. In this class, we examine several diseases that affect the Nervous System and then we examine the neurobiological theories behind these diseases. I focus on several scientific skills I want to develop in students through this material. The first is the ability to read scientific literature critically. Each week, students have to read primary literature to understand the current research for the diseases covered in class to give us a better understanding of different research approaches and current theories for the underlying biology of the disease. With this primary literature, I also select groups to present the papers to help students develop scientific communication. Finally, the final project in this class is to write a review on one of the diseases we cover, but with a novel bent. Through this process, students wrestle with different ideas, determine what already existed in the published realm, and begin writing a review of the disorder. Two of these reviews have been published in peer-reviewed journals. One of the reviews is in review. One of the reviews that was published was added to and became a book chapter!

Book Chapters

R. Frank, K. Edwards, J. Larimore. Chapter 19: Yoga and Pilates as Methods of Symptom Management in Multiple Sclerosis in: Watson RR, Killgore WDS, eds., Nutrition and Lifestyle in Neurological Autoimmune Diseases: Multiple Sclerosis. San Diego: Academic Press, 2017. Pp 189-194

 

Manuscripts in Peer-Reviewed Journals

Van Derveer A and Larimore J. Mood disorders, suicide, and the impact of social media. Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. In Review.

Frank R and Larimore J. Yoga as a Method of Symptom Management in Multiple Sclerosis. Frontiers in Neurodegeneration, 30 April 2015 | http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2015.00133.

 Olivia Bello, Kelsey Blair, Christopher Chapleau and Jennifer L. Larimore. Is memantine a potential therapeutic for Rett Syndrome? Frontiers in Neurosciene. December 2013.

 

In Spring 2014, I taught Molecular Biology (BIO 216 and BIO 316) for the first time. This is a class that has been offered by the biology department. This class focuses on molecular biology techniques and how to utilize molecular biology to design an experiment. Because my post-doctoral fellowship at Emory used molecular biology techniques to answer neurodevelopmental questions, I took the class in a different direction. We have been focused on primary literature and how different techniques are utilized in a wide-variety of disciplines to explore multiple problems that are major burdens on our society. This past year, I incorporated more social and ethical implications of molecular biology research. The students engaged eagerly in the class activities that explored the connections between society and the science we were studying.

In Fall 2016, Dr. Dutton and myself co-taught the first semester of the introductory neuroscience series (BIO/PSY 250). We teach our own lab sections with inquiry based research. We have divided up the lecture material based on our own expertise. Beautifully, we are experts in separate fields of neuroscience. Co-teaching the lectures gives students access to both of the biology faculty members who serve the neuroscience program, allows us to increase the number of students enrolled in the class, and allows lecture material to be taught by the resident expert in that area. With an increase in the number of neuroscience majors, the demand for the neuroscience introductory series, and the retirement of Dr. Karen Thompson who contributed to teaching this series, the neuroscience program decided that co-teaching would allow us to accommodate the need while maintaining high academic standards in the classroom. Working with Dr. Dutton to develop the class was one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching an upper level science class at Agnes. Reflecting on best practices for the lectures and the assignments as well as the lab design has held both of responsible for continuing to better our practice. In the future, Dr. Dutton and myself plan on co-teaching this class. We have already made adjustments and improvements to this class as I know we will in the future. We both strive to offer the best academic experience in order to better the science skills of our students and because of that, I know that we will be making adjustments and improvements each time we teach this class.

In BIO/PSY 250, students are introduced to many heavy neuroscience topics. In the past, I have thought it would be helpful to have a “cliff notes” version of their introductory text book. To that end, during my pre-tenure leave, I wrote a book entitled “Neuroscience Basics: A guide to the Brain’s involvement in Everyday Activities” which was published by Academic Press. It is a short book written in non-jargon language to help anyone understand basic functions of the brain. The process of writing the book was very rewarding and allowed me reflection on my own personal teaching.

The Independent Studies (380s, 410’s and 440’s) and Senior Thesis’ (490’s) that I have done have been to include students in research. Students are assigned readings on the background topics of the lab and assigned a lab project that requires independent thinking and creative problem-solving ideas to steer the experiments we do in lab. More information on the research projects can be found in my philosophy of research. Much of the work that has resulted from these research projects has resulted in a peer-reviewed primary article.

In BIO 492, a Senior Seminar, the first time I taught this I focused on learning and memory. The second time I taught Senior seminary, we focused on the various aspects of addiction. Last year, I taught a senior seminar on the scientific discoveries of the women who have won the Nobel Prize in a STEM field. Each senior seminar is different and constructed in a way to engage the students in higher order learning and further develop scientific skills, such as reading scientific literature and polished scientific communication.

 

 

Upper Level Content

 In all my upper levels, we have minimal power points that seek to engage the students during the lecture. With less on the screen (or even nothing) students are more apt to engage in the lecture. Some students aren’t fond of this approach. For those students, I try to ensure that they are still able to grasp the content and make it clear where they can find additional information if necessary. In Molecular Biology, I teach with a flipped classroom, so the power points won’t be part of class time. As homework, students will be listening to the lectures about various molecular biology techniques and then come to class ready to apply those new techniques to case studies or debates I have developed. Students have to complete a set of questions about the reading and the recorded lecture to guide them through the important points. I also review the lecture at the start of the lecture hour in case students have any questions. The flipped classroom is always met with mixed reviews. Some students would prefer a more standard lecture. Most of the skeptical students appreciate the flipped classroom set up when they study for the first test and realize they can review by listening to my lecture as many times as they would like. The flipped classroom will always be a point of contention with some students, however, it is a great equalizer for the students and is an effective way to teach Molecular Biology.

In my upper levels, I give frequent quizzes over the lecture material to keep students on task. On the first day of class, I explain about how memory works in our brain and how we can help our brain remember. In order for the brain to form a memory, the brain has to encounter the material multiple times. In order for the memory to be consolidated from short-term to long-term memory, this process requires sleep. This does not include cramming. While students do not necessarily enjoy the frequency of the quizzes, the majority of the students are grateful for the accountability.

 In my upper level classes, I focus on the skills that will take our Science Scotties further in any career they pursue. As science is constantly evolving into deeper understanding of the natural world, the material I teach may be dated by the time students enroll in graduate school or medical school. The content is not nearly as important as the competencies I can teach the students. Because of this, I focus my assignments in all my upper level classes on developing the skills that will carry any science major further in their career: scientific writing, scientific literacy, and applying the scientific method.

 One such assignment is the grant project in which students write a grant according to the National Institutes of Health grant guidelines. No matter what students choose as their career, many science careers require some form of grant writing. This skill requires technical writing, finding and reading current literature, and assimilating all the information into a coherent flow of background and experimental ideas. Students must also generate a hypothesis based on current knowledge. This assignment also ties into their ability to think scientifically and use the scientific method to solve a problem.

Another assignment given in my upper levels classes is weekly readings assigned from primary literature articles on the topic we are covering in class. This assignment accomplishes many goals. First and foremost, it gives students practice reading primary literature, which will be a part of any science career. Second, it highlights the relevant nature of what we are covering in our class lectures. Third, it enhances the student’s ability to analyze figures and data, which also enhance the quality of the figures and data they themselves turn in. And finally, it helps students to understand the style of writing they will need for their grant project. Reading primary literature gives them a weekly example of different ways to approach scientific writing. To ensure that all the students understand the main points of the literature, we go over the primary literature in class. This allows for questions, filling in gaps of understanding, and discussion of the relevance or interpretation of the data.

Also in my upper levels, whether it was part of an assignment or a test, I give what I call “design an experiment” question, taking students to higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. This assignment also helps them develop the skills they need to be able to write the grant at the end of the semester. Students have to take some information they know from class or from their reading material, some information that I give them in the question, and based on that, students have to define a testable scientific question. From that question, they have to design an appropriate scientific experiment to test their question and define the predictions of their experiment. Students have to include the controls they think are appropriate. It is challenging, but trains them to think critically and scientifically.

For the first time, this Spring (Spring 2018), I will co-teach the second semester of introductory neuroscience (BIO/PSY 251) with Dr. Blatchley. The Neuroscience program continues to grow and our introductory series requires multiple sections of the labs in order to accommodate the students. We will each teach our own lab sections, but, we will teach the lectures that are in our own specialties, similar to how Dr. Dutton and I teach the first semester of the series (BIO/PSY 250). This will be a new prep for both Dr. Blatchley and myself. The Neuroscience faculty, based on current educational research, concluded that the introductory series needed to focus on skills first and content second. To that end, Dr. Blatchley and myself will be developing the second semester to focus on reading primary literature, designing experiments, communicating science effectively, and effect teamwork.

I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching the upper level science classes in my schedule. They are challenging and highly rewarding. The material covered in my upper levels is well suited for me based on my training and experience. Much of my upper level content is based on current research published in academic journals demonstrating that competencies are more important than strict memorization of content. As science and science education are ever changing, I am committed to understanding the evidence based best practices of science education and incorporating those into my classroom.

 

 

Introductory Biology Series at Agnes Scott

 Also during my time at Agnes Scott, I have taught in the introductory series. Prior to the Fall 2014, the introductory Biology series included BIO 191, BIO 192, and BIO 210. In Fall 2012 and Fall 2013, I taught BIO 210 Scientific Inquiry and Communication and in Spring 2014, I taught BIO 192 Genetics and Molecular Biology – the molecular biology portion.

In BIO 210 Scientific Inquiry and Communication and in BIO 192 Genetics and Molecular Biology (classes for science majors), my goal was to create skill sets that would be helpful in upper level science classes. In BIO 210 Scientific Inquiry and Communication, the assignments included a poster presentation as well as article reading and case studies to examine the reliability of data and data sources. In BIO 192 Genetics and Molecular Biology, assignments included finding current articles in news sources regarding DNA and our society, quizzes to hold students accountable to their studying, and some group work interpreting primary literature articles. They also had to do a group lab report, similar to how a lab group in the real world would work together to publish a paper. These assignments were important for competency development and will be discussed below in light of the new BIO 110.

The Biology Department has spent the past 2 years working on a new introductory series that combines BIO 210 Scientific Inquiry and Communication into the two brand new introductory classes, BIO 110: Integrative Biology I & BIO 111: Integrative Biology II. Creating this new series is akin to pregnancy and childbirth. The work to develop these new classes has been intense and time consuming. It has also been exciting and encouraging to invest time and energy into something we know to be necessary and better for our students.

As the introductory biology classes stood prior to Fall 2014, the classes were heavy in content, which resulted in some students dropping a science major and did not encourage non-majors to consider biology to fulfill a distributional requirement. Introductory series classes should be about the concepts and not heavy content. These new classes are based on some key competencies and key concepts published by the National Science Foundation in a document called “Vision and Change” which examines undergraduate biology education. By focusing on key competencies and key concepts, the heavier content is left for the upper levels. This fall in the new BIO 110, we reminded students each lecture what the core concepts and competencies of the course were, and, at the end of each lecture, we asked them to identify concepts and competencies in that specific lecture material. We kept track of the concepts and competencies to ensure that they were well distributed throughout the semester.

Concepts: 1. Evolution 2. Structure and Function 3. Information flow, exchange, and storage 4. Pathways and transformations of energy and matter and 5. Systems

Competencies: 1. Ability to apply the process of science 2. Ability to use quantitative reasoning 3. Ability to use modeling and simulation 4. Ability to tap into the interdisciplinary nature of science 5. Ability to communicate and collaborate with other disciplines and 6. Ability to understand the relationship between science and society

By incorporating some of the important assignments of BIO 210 into our new BIO 110 and BIO 111, we are able to tie in the important assignments with some of the biology we are teaching, giving the assignments more meaning. One example is that in BIO 210, students had to create a poster for a presentation, similar to the posters presented at SpARC. Students often struggled with this assignment because it was not tied to research or a lab that they were currently conducting. To incorporate the poster assignment, students in BIO 110 presented a poster of their lab data for the semester at the very end of their first semester. This assignment went well and students learned how to create a poster and present a poster.

In BIO 210, students learned how to search for scientific articles, how to break down a scientific article, and how to identify the scientific method. In BIO 110, these assignments were part of the class as a way to introduce the background for our lab experience. By introducing these skills first, and in the setting with relevant content, our goal is that students will learn how to search the scientific literature in order to educate themselves on the background to a science question throughout their education.

By focusing on important competencies and over-arching concepts, the content was reduced and we focus on scientific thinking and analytical skills that better serve our students. It is the goal of this new series to provide a better introduction to biology for our majors, the Pre-Med Post-Bacs, and to the non-majors as well. Many of our traditional Scotties are just beginning their college career when they take the introductory series, so a focus on concepts and competencies is appropriate. This is hard on our Pre-Med Post-Bacs who need a focus on the details that will be covered on the MCAT. To this end, our new series will include a separate section for the Pre-Med-Post-Bacs.

This new series is an excellent way for every student, including our non-majors, to approach and enjoy science. In one of my sections BIO 110, 75% of the students in that section were non-majors. I found that section engaged with the material both in lecture and lab. They were involved in discussions, received the material well, and performed well in the class.

During the first year of BIO 110 (Fall 2014), I wrote the lab material based on a lab used at another institution and I wrote the majority of the lectures that were used for that class ranging from lectures on genetics to evolution and population interactions. During my second year teaching BIO 110 (Fall 2015), I flipped a few of the lectures in my section. I focused on lectures that contained content that was harder for our students. Due to the success of that flipped model, in my third year (Fall 2016), I recorded all the lectures to be used for BIO 110. I worked with Dr. Dutton to develop hands-on activities that would reinforce the lecture material in an applied way. In early August 2016, Dr. Tsunekage and Dr. Levin joined the BIO 110. They offered contributions to hands on activities. Dr. Tsunekage redeveloped the lab into a fantastic experience for the students. After my third year teaching BIO 110 (Fall 2016), I worked with faculty in the Biology department to develop the materials used in BIO 110 Fall 2017, even though I am not teaching that class this year.

I had the task of organizing the faculty who taught BIO 110 from the first semester it was offered through this past Fall (Fall 2016). Because there are multiple sections of this class, the materials being taught, the activities being used, and the tests given need to be as similar as possible. This is necessary to ensure that all the students taking BIO 110 are ready for the next semester, BIO 111. It is also necessary to ensure that all the students have an engaging experience to retain them within the STEM fields. We held weekly meetings with agendas to ensure that all faculty were on the same page, that tasks were being completed in a timely manner, and that everyone was contributing. Because that was not always the case, extra work fell on my shoulders. I believe in the BIO 110 experience and how it can shape a STEM student, so the extra work was tolerable because I want BIO 110 to be an amazing introductory series that rivals any liberal arts introductory biology class.

 

Agnes Scott Science Class Assessment

Each member of the biology faculty teaches at least one section of the introductory biology. For BIO 110, we examined the students’ ability to apply the scientific method. This is a critical skill set that truly does develop leaders in all fields of study. To this end, in BIO 110, we give the students a scenario and ask them to design an experiment within the first week of classes. We compare this to the experiment they design at the end of the semester to see how their scientific thinking has progressed. We expect student’s experiences in lab and assignments in class will increase their ability to develop a scientific experiment. We use a common rubric so we can compare the students across all sections and professors.

In the previous introductory series in BIO 210, again taught by multiple professors, we had an assignment given the first week and then again at the end of the class. Students were asked to critique a scientific article. A standard rubric was given for this. The assessment was used to determine if students had grown in their ability to think critically about science. Assignments in the class, class discussions, and class experiences were aimed at deepening the student’s critical thinking skills.

In my upper level classes, I am looking at scientific writing skills. For Molecular Biology and Diseases of the Nervous System I look at 2 formats for scientific writing. I do this because both of these classes serve 3 science majors and therefore most of these students have varied goals and backgrounds. One skill they will all need no matter what their career path is, is the ability to write logically and clearly as a scientist. The pre-assessment is an early draft of a part of the writing assignment and the post-assessment is the final draft. They receive feedback on their initial draft. To improve their writing through the semester, we discuss various class assignments, we highlight examples of good and not good scientific writing, and students are able to make appointments to talk about their specific assignment. For both of these classes, I have seen consistent improvement in the scientific writing for 85% or more of the class.

 

Summary

My classroom goals are to continue to educate our students in a respectful and engaging classroom. My classes engage the curious nature of students. I seek to remain dynamic and fluid, evolving with the ever-changing knowledge of the scientific world. I also strive to provide our students with life-long tools; technical writing, ability to work in groups, forming testable questions from multiple background sources, solid study habits, and the ability to read technical papers. My classroom goals are to use the exciting nature of science to ignite curiosity in our students, creating a life-long student who will think critically about global problems and engage in the challenges that are present in our world.