Teaching Biology 101 (to adults)

Teaching Biology 101I just got the teaching schedule for Spring, so I decided to follow up on last week’s post by putting, under the fold, a series of short posts I wrote when I taught the last time, musing about teaching in general and teaching biology to adults in particular. These are really a running commentary on the course. The actual lecture notes are here:
Biology and the Scientific Method
Lab 1
Cell Structure
Protein Synthesis: Transcription and Translation
Cell-Cell Interactions
Cell Division and DNA Replication
Lab 2
From Two Cells To Many: Cell Differentiation and Embryonic Development
From Genes To Traits: How Genotype Affects Phenotype
From Genes To Species: A Primer on Evolution
What Creatures Do: Animal Behavior
Organisms In Time and Space: Ecology
Lab 3
Origin of Biological Diversity
Evolution of Biological Diversity
Current Biological Diversity
Lab 4
Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology
Physiology: Regulation and Control
Physiology: Coordinated Response

Teaching Biology without Evolution… (May 01, 2006)
…is like teaching English without verbs.
What is left are nouns and adjectives.
DNA, enzyme, long bone, ductus arteriosus, pretty bird.
Rote memorization.
The reason why my (adult education) students are afraid of and bored with science to begin with.
I am starting my biology lectures tomorrow. I have no control over the syllabus. The pages and chapters on evolution were removed from the syllabus.
Sorry, but I am starting with evolution tomorrow night.
I cannot speak English without verbs.
On the Scientific Method in Biology (May 07, 2006)
I have turned the first part of my last week’s lecture into a blog post over on The Magic School Bus.
The course I am teaching is Introduction to Life Science (this is a science requirement for non-science majors at an accelerated adult education program at a community college).
I started out the lecture by describing the six-second student evaluation experiment, which takes more than six seconds to explain, and voiced my hope that they will keep that in mind and evaluate me on the whole experience, not just the initial impressions. After going over the syllabus and rules, I gave a four-part lecture. As we meet only eight times, four hours each, I have to break up each meeting into chewable blocks of time. This time, all foru blocks were filled with me lecturing, but I told them that as the course progresses, there will be more and more participation by them, and less and less talking by me.
The blogpost/summary linked above is not a transcript of the lecture. It is also more than just a series of bulleted points to be memorized. It also does not contain all the examples, details, anecdotes, jokes, veering off on tangents, answering students’ questions etc., nor does it contain all the graphics, including those drawn on the whiteboard over the course of the lecture.
It also is a somewhat unusual presentation of the scientific method, particularly at such a low level of science education. Please go read it and let me know what you think.
I will post the next three parts of the lecture (on cell organelles, on transcription and translation, and on cell-cell communication) soon.
Next lecture is tomorrow (Monday night), so, some time during the next week, I will post the notes from that lecture as well.
Update: I have now posted the summary of the second part of the first lecture: Cell Structure
Update 2: I have now posted the summary of the third part of the first lecture: Protein Synthesis: Transcription and Translation
Update 3: I have now posted the summary of the fourth part of the first lecture:Cell-Cell Interactions
Teaching the bare bones of Biology (May 15, 2006)
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.
How I Taught Evolution Last Week (May 17, 2006)
If you want to know, read my lecture notes: From Genes To Species: A Primer on Evolution
After that lecture, I showed my students an old movie featuring Steve Jones describing his research on snails. That tape is so ancient. If you know of something better, newer, please let me know so I can buy it. If it discusses multiple evidences of evolution, e.g., fossils, genetics, comparative anatomy, lab and field experiments, etc, even better. If it has an evo-devo slant, even better. If it has a hint of Developmental Systems Theory in it, I really, really want the tape (or DVD).
Teaching Update (May 18, 2006)
Teaching the third lecture was really fun. We now all know each other, students are much more relaxed and willing to interrupt with comments and questions. Also, after the second lecture, everyone was aware that we have no Creationist nutjobs in class, so we could all proceed to talk about evolution as much as we wanted – and let me tell you – they wanted to! It is exciting to them.
We started the class with students’ brief reports on articles they have picked. One read about the electric fish – both the production of electricity and the sensory perception of the electrical fields; one talked about the cognitive abilities of Portia spiders; another one on the longevity of turtles and a possible connection to the telomerase hypothesis of ageing; next one talked about an article on Anosognosia (the opposite of phantom limb phenomenon, i.e., the limb is there but the brain does not register it); and one talked about land iguanas of Galapagos and their habit of laying eggs in a volcanic crater, etc..
All of the topics provoked nice long discussions, often involving evolutionary/adaptive questions. The last one picked an article by Stephen Jay Gould on abuses of Darwinism. That discussion was the longest and obviously the most interesting to them. We discussed Social Darwinism, eugenics, Creationism, Sociobiology/Evolutionary Psychology and the Bell Curve debate. This was something that they could definitely relate to – something that affects their lives as citizens of this country in the midst of culture wars.
After such a wonderful breaking of the ice, I gave a lecture on behavioral biology which is always fun for everyone because I can talk about sex, sex and some more sex for an hour. Then, after a break, I gave another lecture on ecology (all of it in one hour!), which I heavily tied to the evolution lecture of the previous week. Finally, we watched a cool little movie about co-evolution between flowers and insect pollinators, with heavy emphasis on orchids that cheat and deceive the insects.
I’ll post the notes from the behavior and ecology lectures tomorrow on The Magic School Bus. Next week, we move on to a more taxonomic approach, covering bacteria, protista, plants and animals in less than four hours. That’s going to be fun!
Teaching Update… (May 22, 2006)
I have posted my lecture notes on Behavior and Ecology….
Yet another teaching update: mid-term (May 23, 2006)
On Saturday, I taught the Third Lab which went pretty much the same as the last time around, except that this group is so good! They know their animal phyla already!
The bacteria and fungi from the samples from their fingers did not grow (old agar on the plates, I bet), so we did it again with fresh agar and we’ll look at the results next time.
The description of leaf stomata as “two Lima beans facing each other” is great for teaching middle school, but it is not exactly a good description. I finally, after many years, realized this and also realized that I am teaching adults, almost all of them parents! So, I told them exactly how it looks like under the microscope – like a vagina (actually vulva, to be anatomically correct). As soon as I told them that, all of them easily found the stomata on their slides.
Last night I taught the fourth lecture. According to the syllabus, I was supposed to drone on about classification of bacteria, and protista, and fungi, and plants, and animals. Bo-rr-ing! So, I did it…five to ten minutes each at the end of the lecture, only as a Coda, perhaps as a brief showcase of examples of diversity.
The lecture itself (and I will post the lecture notes as soon as I finish them) was about the way diversity arises. Thus I talked about the Origin of Life on Earth. I talked about our mental inability to fathom how long 4 billion years really are (and showed them this great animation to illustrate the idea).
Then I drew Gould’s “left wall of complexity” graph on the board, and spent some time discussing the evolution of complexity and the blindness of evolution. I talked about the way evolution does not have complexity as a goal, and the way greater complexity can actually make an organism less fit, while a reduction of complexity can turn an organism into a lean, mean evolving machine (or an efficient parasite). This discussion was essential for the next part of the lecture…
….because I discussed the old and new ideas about the early evolution of life and the relationship between Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya (and dismissed briefly, never to mention the terms again – the division into Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes, and the division into six Kingdoms). Of course, I had to mention endosymbiosis as a mechanism as well, but secondary simplification of Bacteria and Archea figures big in the most recent notions about the early evolution of unicellular organisms.
Then I spent the bulk of the lecture talking about the mechanisms by which diversity arises, thus repeating somewhat my evolution lecture of two weeks back, combining it with what I taught about development and the genotype-phenotype mapping, and using PZ’s overview of Hox genes and bat development (given as handouts the previous week) to introduce the notion of a developmental toolkit and the greater importance of combinatorics of genes over the sequence of genes. I mentioned (and they love it when they hear about brand new findings in an introductory class) that Cnidarians do not have Hox genes and what that means. And I pounced on the similarities between genes/genomes in widely diverse organisms.
I explained how evolution of adaptation and evolution of diversity go hand in hand. I talked about six ways a genome can change and what it means for evolution of diversity: mutation, rearrangement, gene duplication, chromosome duplication, genome duplication and lateral transfer (both between unicellular organisms and, via viral carriers, between all organisms).
Then, I talked a little bit about the discipline of systematics and how cladistics works. I compared the old morphology-only methods of classification to modern genome-based methods and briefly discussed viruses.
Then, in the end, I spent a little bit of time on each of the major groups, starting with Bacteria, stressing that not all of them are pathogens and dicsussing at length the importance of the bacterial flora in our intestines, using the ecological concepts (e.g., succession) to explain how our intestine is an ecosystem.
For Archea, of course I had to explain what Deinococcus radiodurans is all about and I mentioned that it is only very recently that any Archaean has been implicated in any human pathology, and then only as an enabler, not really a pathogen itself.
I spent even less time on Protists, Fungi and Plants, summarizing only the basics of morphology, taxonomy and evolutionary trends (e.g., from gametophyte to sporophyte dominance in plants).
I spent more time on Animals, though, going into some detail into major transitions in the evolution of animals, e.g., evolution of tissues, evolution of movement, evolution of symmetry (first radial, later bilateral), evolution of psuedocoelom and coelom, the difference between Protostomes and Deuterostomes, and the evolution of segmentation.
When talking about Chordates, I talked about the most recent ideas about their origin, some cute details about lancelets, hagfish, lampreys and fish, about the invasion of land and Tiktaalik, about amphibian and reptilian adaptations to land, about Dinosaurs and the origin of birds, and about evolution of mammals. I told cute stories about the Platypus and the marsupials and the evolution of placenta and mammary glands.
I talked also about some specific cases of recent rearrangements in taxonomy, including the evolution of whales, the relationship between elephants and hyraxes, between Carnivores and Pinnipedieans (seals, etc.) and between rodents and rabbits.
Thanks to science blogs, I am up to date on the most current thinking in all areas of biology, not just in my specialty. It is so cool to talk about such stuff to students in intro classes – they feel privileged to be let in on the secrets of the scientists’ kabal! And hopefully, they will click on the links I sent them and become readers of science blogs, get hooked and keep their interest in biology long after the class is over.
Next week is their first exam, followed by four lectures in Human Anatomy and Physiology, which I am going to turn into something more like “Comparative, Evolutionary and Ecological Physiology with the Human Example as a Starting Point”. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes over the next four weeks.
Previously on this topic:
Teaching Biology To Adults
Teaching Biology without Evolution…
On the Scientific Method in Biology
Teaching the bare bones of Biology
How I Taught Evolution Last Week
Teaching Update
Lecture Notes:
Biology and the Scientific Method
Cell Structure
Protein Synthesis: Transcription and Translation
Cell-Cell Interactions
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
From Genes To Species: A Primer on Evolution
What Creatures Do: Animal Behavior
Organisms In Time and Space: Ecology
Lab Notes:
Teaching Biology Lab – Week 1
Teaching Biology Lab – Week 2
Teaching Biology Lab – Week 3
Teaching Biology Lab – Week 4
Teaching Update (June 05, 2006)
You may remember that two weeks ago I taught about diversity. The lecture notes are finally online, in three parts:
Origin of Biological Diversity
Evolution of Biological Diversity
Current Biological Diversity
Please leave comments over there. Nobody can know every detail of every area of biology, so please let me know if I am telling my students any lies.
Then last week I taught a brief intro to Anatomy and Physiology (lecture notes still to come). I also gave them the first exam. It looked big, hard and imposing, but once they started reading carefully, they realized that the questions were taken straight out of my lectures.
I spent many hours designing that exam, making sure that the questions are as clear as possible. Only once I had to give partial credit – answers were either completely correct or completely incorrect, which tells me that my questions were unambigious enough.
Since I have not taught the lecture portion of the course for a couple of years, I was a little nervous about the way I designed the exam – was it going to be too easy or too difficult. It turns out it was just right. The grades were evenly distributed between 61% and 101% (yes, there was a bonus question worth up to 5%).
Last Saturday I also wrapped up the Lab for this term. It went pretty much the same as the last time I taught it, except that this group is so good – no mixing up of evolution and development!
Interestingly, in the lab I have students who are currently taking the lecture with me and others who are taking the lecture with the other guy. Obviously, the other guy is making it easier (what is that- middle-school lavel? How can it possibly be any easier?!), but my students appear much more excited about biology – they feel like they are actually learning something relevant.
Teaching Update (June 17, 2006)
My class is nearing the end. On Monday, the students are giving presentations on human organ systems, doing student evaluations, and doing the final exam. This means that I have finished lecturing! I have posted last three lectures on my new blog:
Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology
Physiology: Regulation and Control
Physiology: Coordinated Response


20 responses to “Teaching Biology 101 (to adults)

  1. Teaching Biology without Evolution is like …
    … teaching math without 2.
    … teaching chemistry and not mentioning atoms.
    … teaching history without using dates.

  2. “Teaching Biology without Evolution is like teaching English without verbs…what’s left are nouns and adjectives.”
    I love this–love it! I’m using it today in class. Like you, I am teaching intro bio, and the syllabus was imposed on me: “cover chapters 1-9, except Ch. 2” Chapter 2 is an early glance at evolution and ecology…sorry, I’m making time for both (it’s far, far less important that my students understand Gibbs free energy!!!!)
    (Dave S.–your examples are well-intentioned but you missed most of the point.)

  3. Teaching Biology without Evolution is like …
    … teaching math without the number theory.
    … teaching chemistry without the periodic system.
    … teaching history without the social context for the dates and facts.

  4. Hey! Summer is coming and I`m going to be kicked out from the University. I`m a final year biology student from Romania and I don`t have money to pay my school tax. Please help. http://schooltaxsos.wordpress.com/

  5. Pingback: BIO101 – Biology and the Scientific Method « A Blog Around The Clock

  6. Pingback: BIO101 – Cell Structure « A Blog Around The Clock

  7. Pingback: A Blog Around The Clock

  8. Pingback: BIO101 – Protein Synthesis: Transcription and Translation « A Blog Around The Clock

  9. Pingback: BIO101: Cell-Cell Interactions | A Blog Around The Clock

  10. Pingback: BIO101 – From One Cell To Two: Cell Division and DNA Replication | A Blog Around The Clock

  11. Pingback: BIO101 – From Two Cells To Many: Cell Differentiation and Embryonic Development | A Blog Around The Clock

  12. Pingback: BIO101 – From Genes To Traits: How Genotype Affects Phenotype | A Blog Around The Clock

  13. Pingback: BIO101 – What Creatures Do: Animal Behavior | A Blog Around The Clock

  14. Pingback: BIO101 – Organisms In Time and Space: Ecology | A Blog Around The Clock

  15. Pingback: BIO101 – Origin of Biological Diversity | A Blog Around The Clock

  16. Pingback: BIO101 – Evolution of Biological Diversity | A Blog Around The Clock

  17. Pingback: BIO101 – Current Biological Diversity | A Blog Around The Clock

  18. Pingback: BIO101 – Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology | A Blog Around The Clock

  19. Pingback: BIO101 – Physiology: Coordinated Response | A Blog Around The Clock

  20. Pingback: BIO101 – Physiology: Regulation and Control | A Blog Around The Clock