Monday, May 15, 2006

Teaching the bare bones of Biology

Last Monday, I continued with my BIO101 lectures. And, just like I did the previous week, I am slowly writing and posting my lecture notes on The Magic School Bus.

You can find the first three portions of my last week's notes here:
From One Cell To Two: Cell Division and DNA Replication
From Two Cells To Many: Cell Differentiation and Embryonic Development
From Genes To Traits: How Genotype Affects Phenotype

The fourth portion, on evolution, is still in the works - I have to prepare for tonight's lecture #3 - on behavior and ecology - instead. I do not give my students the URL of my blog posts (or handouts). Instead, I save the posts as Word files and send them as e-mail attachments.

So far they like the notes. While they are also required to read the textbook chapters and the handouts AFTER the lecture, they appreciate the way I simplify the material and turn hundreds of pages of the textbook into just a few pages of notes.

Also, as much as I simplify the material, this does not mean I teach outdated ideas. I try to present the material with as up-to-date ideas as possible.

My strategy for teaching this course is actually very risky, but I found it works great for me and my students. I never use it when I teach a semester-long senior course in physiology, for instance, but it is perfect for this class - a super-accelerated, eight-week course in basic biology for adult non-majors. Their background knowledge is, for all practical purposes zero. They are afraid of science. The course is essentially at a high school level, or at least what high-school level should be if I had a say in the matter.

How is my strategy risky? I don't really prepare!

This means that I do not read the assigned chapter, I just glance at it for a couple of minutes to see what topics it covers. Then, while walking the dog or driving I make up the strategy of how and what to teach, what examples to use, which terms to mention and which ones not, what images to show and where to find them, etc., but I do not rehearse a lecture - I just think ABOUT it and plan its organization.

I know this is not for everyone, but I am a natural performer and, if I - a biologist - do not know something off the top of my head, then they do not need to know that either. These are just the very basics I am supposed to teach.

If I actually read the chapter beforehand, I would remind myself of too many cool details and I'll be tempted to swamp the students with stuff they really do not need to know. They'll read about them once they get to read the chapter, but they will not get paralyzed with the notion that they need to memorize all that stuff.

This makes them more relaxed. This makes my lectures much, MUCH better. And it gets the students to like biology and to learn it more easily.

I've been told by students that I am a master of simplifying complicated material. It is because I teach only what is forever stuck in my memory from years of studying and teaching. Everything superflous goes out the window. And that is perfectly fine for this kind of class. Science majors require much more preparation and a different approach to teaching.

At the same time, I am also teaching the lab, and it is going pretty much the same way as it did last time around.

This was the quickest time ever that someone figured out that corner pieces were missing in the popular jigsaw-puzzle exercise. It was a young mother of two who does puzzles at home all the time. I am a little surprised that she is the first student I had whose startegy is to find the corner pieces first, because that is my own strategy.

Also, due to her mastery of the skill, this is the first time that I had one team finish the puzzle much, much faster than the others. Her team then went over to help the other students work on their puzzles. That was a good teaching moment about modern science - how disparate areas of research, as they uncover more and more, may discover common ground and this may lead the practicioners to start collaborations, each bringing in a somewhat diferent backgroun, perspective and technical skills.

Update: The fourth part of the lecture, From Genes To Species: A Primer on Evolution, is now posted.

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