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

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Outline:

Introduction

Introductory Biology Series at Agnes Scott

Introductory Neuroscience Series at Agnes Scott

Upper Level Science Electives

Summary

 

 

 

Introduction

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. 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 career options in the future.

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.

 

Introductory Biology Series at Agnes Scott

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.

The Biology Department spent 2 years working on a new introductory series, BIO 110: Integrative Biology I & BIO 111: Integrative Biology II. 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. 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.

In 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 also track the concepts and competencies throughout the semester to ensure we are covering each of them.

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 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 content 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.

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 ecology. During my second year teaching BIO 110 (Fall 2015), I flipped a few of the lectures in my section. I selected 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.

To assess BIO 110, we examine 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.

 

Introductory Neuroscience Series at Agnes Scott

The Neuroscience faculty concluded, based on current educational research in Neuroscience introductory classes, that the introductory series needed to focus on skills first and content second.

  • Design an experiment, analyze the results, draw conclusions, and report on the research both with scientific writing and an oral presentation.
  • Critically read and evaluate scientific literature.
  • Utilize effective teamwork to problem solve in an inquiry-based research lab.

For both courses in the Introductory Neuroscience series, we have students read primary literature, present primary literature, design experiments based on primary literature and work in teams to develop novel experiments. For both courses, pre and post assessment of the content will be measured as well as a assessment of scientific writing by comparing an initial draft without feedback to the final draft after several rounds of feedback from the professor and peers.

In Fall 2016, Dr. Dutton and myself co-taught the first semester of the introductory neuroscience series (BIO/PSY 250). We have divided up the lecture material based on our own expertise. 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. Reflecting on best practices for the lectures and the assignments as well as the lab design has held both of us responsible for continuing to better our own teaching 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 teach our own lab sections with inquiry based research. 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. Often times, students have to adjust to the fact that the science experiments do not always follow the plan in the syllabus or that they may already be familiar with the technique but not the question. The process is rewarding but requires a lot of explanation. From this very first lab period, it is evident that the students enjoy creating the hypothesis and setting the direction for what they will explore during the semester.  They take part in other aspects of research throughout the semester – writing up their results, presenting scientific data, and working with their lab research group. These research experiences allow students to determine if their future career plans should/could include research as part of their job description. These experiences also equip students with skills necessary to be competitive for summer experiences in research.

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.

For the first time, this Spring (Spring 2018), I will co-teach the second semester of introductory neuroscience (BIO/PSY 251) with Dr. Blatchley. To that end, Dr. Blatchley and myself will be developing the second semester to focus on reading primary literature, designing experiments, communicating science effectively (both written and oral), and effect teamwork.

 

Agnes Scott Upper Level Science Classes

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.

During my time here at Agnes Scott, I have taught several upper level classes: BIO 216 (previously BIO 316), BIO 330 Diseases of the Nervous System, BIO 492: A Senior Seminar in Learning and Memory, BIO 440 Mentored Research, and BIO 410 Independent Study in Endosomal trafficking in Rett Syndrome, BIO 490 Senior Honor Thesis.

I focus on several scientific skills that will aid students in future scientific careers through the course material in my upper level classes.

1.     Read Primary Literature. The first is the ability to read scientific literature critically. Each week, students have to read primary literature related to the lecture topic.

2.     Present Primary Literature. With this primary literature, I also select groups to present the papers to help students develop scientific communication.

3.     Write Scientifically. The final project in my upper levels is a writing project. In the past, some of the projects have been grant proposals styled after an NIH grant, scientific manuscripts or a review article where the students explore the topic but from a novel perspective. Two of these reviews have been published in peer-reviewed journals. One of the reviews is under review. One of the reviews that was published was added to and became a book chapter! (Hyperlinks to the publications can be found here.)

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. We focus on primary literature and how different molecular biology techniques are utilized in a wide-variety of disciplines to explore multiple problems that are major burdens on 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 molecular biology, I teach with a flipped classroom. As homework, students listen 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 the lab associated with BIO 216 (was BIO 316) Molecular Biology, I guide students to develop unique, open-ended questions that we explore through the semester. 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. 

In BIO 330, Diseases of the Nervous System, the students lead much of the discussion and we use a Google Outline of the chapter material to guide the discussion. Each student must contribute to the outline and must lead that portion of the discussion. Students also have primary literature assignments and writing assignments.

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In BIO 492, a Senior Seminar, the first time I taught this I focused on learning and memory. The second time I taught Senior seminar, 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.

I teach several mentored research experiences (BIO 380, BIO 410, BIO 440 and BIO 490) so far to a total of 24 students (at least one semester each academic year since my first semester here at Agnes). These are open-ended hypothesis based experiments exploring my own research. These experiences have culminated in publications and students gaining the experience necessary for successful careers. More information on these experiences can be found here.

To assess my upper level classes, I am measure scientific writing skills. 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

As I progress in my career, I firmly believe that experiences like the inquiry based lab research are necessary for students to understand their own personal strengths and identify potential career options they may not have considered. These experiences also equip students with skills that are necessary in any career – critical thinking, polished presentation skills, enhanced scientific writing ability, knowledge application, understanding scientific literature, and effective teamwork strategies. Because lab work in an inquiry based setting can impart these skills, inquiry based research in labs associated with science classes will remain a high priority for me.

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, adapting 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 hypothesis 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.