At the University of Minnesota, we teach a large physiology lecture/lab class directed at nursing and other allied health focused students. Around week 12 or 13 of a 14-week semester, we host a lab exercise we call “Project Day.” In this lab, students choose a learning objective, from one of the class sessions previously during the semester, and develop a way to teach this learning objective to their student peers. Students can make a poster, a work of art or a model. They can compose a song, write a poem or record a video. The sky is the limit as long as the project relates to a course objective, emphasizes physiology rather than anatomy and demonstrates a good faith effort.
After more than 15 years of project days, I have experienced an amazing variety of topics and approaches. I heard about the cardiac cycle in a song called “It’s how your heart works” sung by the Lady Lub Dubs. Cookies can be primary and secondary active transport proteins and M & Ms can be Na and K ions. A beaded bracelet can illustrate the phases of the menstrual cycle. Students can learn about renal physiology by playing a game called “Kidney Land.” Lady Gaga’s song, “Poker Face”, can be turned into a parody about the SRY gene. Pipe cleaners can be converted into contractile apparatus. Beer caps can be calcium ions. The functions of the autonomic nervous system can be dramatized in a play in which Mr. Sympathetic and Mrs. Parasympathetic are in divorce court because they cannot agree on anything.
Over the years, what I have enjoyed the most were the poster presentations. A song or a video can be a one-way performance but the posters spark interactions. Students stand by their posters during half the class, the TAs and the faculty circulate around the lab rooms. At the half way point we call “Switch” and the second half of students present as the first presenters circulate. The beauty of project day is the conversations sparked by all those posters. Conversations about the difference between negative and positive feedback, the difference between skeletal and smooth muscle, the difference between graded potentials and action potentials and the difference between steroid and peptide hormones.
During Project Day, the lab is brimming with enthusiastic questions.
· Do both cardiac and skeletal muscles have troponin?
· Can you help me understand why norepinephrine stimulates the heart but inhibits the intestines?
· When does the menstrual cycle go from negative feedback to positive feedback?
· Why do you need a bigger stimulus during the relative refractory period?
· Are you telling me that T3 works just like the steroids? How did I not know that?
As I circulated through the lab, I often asked, “why did you choose this topic?”
Sometimes students would say, “I picked this topic because I already knew it and felt confident about it”. Through my smile, I felt a twinge of sadness that the student decided to play it safe. More often, a student would say, “Well because I didn’t understand it and I wanted to.” Or they might say, “I got this wrong on the last exam and I want to make sure I get it right on the final.”
My next question was, “Do you understand it now?” A beaming smile would show me their answer.
At the end of the lab, we ask the students to engage in a metacognition exercise. After viewing the posters and other projects we ask, “Can you list three concepts that are still “muddy” for you? Are there three concepts that you realize you need to study more for the final?” We ask the students to write down those three concepts and then we ask them to promise that they will intentionally include those three concepts in their studying for the cumulative final exam.
During the Spring of 2020, we suddenly had to switch gears. The students submitted videos or PowerPoint slides of their projects. They were posted on the learning management site and students were invited to view them. Unfortunately, Project Day was not the same. We were missing a vital component……….the conversation!
What will we do this semester? We are going to ask the students to make a poster and take a picture of it or craft a poster from one power point slide to present on Zoom (https://zoom.us/). The students will be sent to breakout rooms and given the ability to share their posters. TA will be assigned to break out rooms to coordinate the poster presentations of the students. We are thinking about groups of 8-10 students. With 5-minute presentations and 5 minutes of questions for each poster, it should take 40-50 minutes. We will scramble the groups and have them present again. We will grade based on a simple rubric: did it address a learning objective, did it emphasize physiology, was it a good faith effort.
I can imagine that a poster session in zoom breakout sessions could lend themselves to a number of presentation types. Students could present on famous physiologists, on their own lab work or on a pathophysiologic application of a physiologic concept. Instructors could adjust their grading rubrics accordingly to meet their specific learning outcomes.
This activity would not have to be done synchronously either. Students could record a 5-minute presentation of their poster using a software called Flipgrid (https://info.flipgrid.com/). Students could upload their poster into Flipgrid, record their video and view the videos of others. This software then permits students to post a video response or question. Students could post a video, comment on 4 other videos and then return to record follow up videos, answering the questions of their peers about their own projects. This would make a great final project in a lab or a class.
Synchronous or asynchronous, the important element is that student poster sessions get students talking. As our friend Mary Pat Wenderoth often says, “The students who are doing the talking are the students who are doing the learning.”