Author Archives: Kayla Palmer

My First Run at Teaching an Integrated Physiology Course: Lessons Learned

One of the primary factors that attracted me to my current position, a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Biology at a small teaching-intensive liberal arts college, was the fact that my new department gave me the freedom to update and, in the end, completely overhaul the existing Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) curriculum. This position allowed great academic freedom, especially to a new professor, and department support for trying new teaching strategies and activities was, and still is, very high. So as a new entrant into the field of physiology education, and as someone who is interested in pedagogical research, this opportunity and level of freedom excited me.

My predecessor, while a fantastic educator, had built the year-long A&P sequence in the traditional form of one to two weeks on a specific topic (e.g. histology, the skeletal system, or the respiratory system) and an exam every so often that combined the previously covered topics. Both the topics covered and the exams could very much stand on their own, and were more like separate units. This course design was exactly the way I took the A&P course, longer ago than I care to admit, although at a different institution. In fact, most of my college courses were taught this way. And while that may be appropriate for some fields, the more I was reading and learning about teaching A&P the more I was starting to convince myself that I wanted teach A&P in an integrated fashion as soon as I got the chance.

So here I was, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newly minted Assistant Professor of Biology, with the academic freedom to teach A&P in the best way that I saw fit. One important thing to note: this course sequence (A&P I and II) is an upper-division junior and senior level course at my college, and class sizes are very small (20-24 students) allowing for maximum time for interaction, questions, and instructor guidance both in lecture and lab. (That latter point is key, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.)

I entered the 2017-2018 academic year with a brand-new, shiny, exciting, and most importantly, integrated A&P course plan and a lot of enthusiasm. Along the way I took meticulous notes on what worked, what didn’t work, and the areas that needed improvement. Now in the 2018-2019 academic year I’m teaching this integrated course sequence for the second time, all while taking those same meticulous notes and comparing student feedback. Below I’ve compiled what I deem (so far) to be some of the most important lessons that I learned along the way:

 1) Use an integrative textbook.

This I was fortunate to do from the start. While this is an A&P course (not just P), I decided to use Physiology: An Integrated Approach by Dee U. Silverthorn as my primary text. Not only is the book already designed to be used in an integrative fashion, but there is ample introductory material which can be used to remind students of previous course material that they need to know (see lesson #2 below) and there are entire chapters dedicated to the integration of multiple systems (e.g. exercise). The assessment questions in the text are also well organized and progressive in nature and can be assigned as homework for practice or pre-reading assignments. Anatomy information, such as the specifics of the skeletal system and joints, muscles, histology, etc., was supplemented through the use of models and other reference material in hands-on lab activities.

2) Start building and assessing students’ A&P knowledge from the ground up, and build incrementally.

There are two important parts to this lesson: A) previous course knowledge that is applicable to this upper-division A&P course, and B) the new A&P material itself.

In my initial run of the course I made the mistake of starting out at a bit too advanced of a content level. I assumed more knowledge was retained from previous courses by the students than actually was. I learned very quickly that I needed to take a step back, but not too far. Instead of re-teaching introductory chemistry, biology, and physics, I took the opportunity to remind them of the relevant key principles (e.g. law of mass action) and then pointed them to pages in the text or provide additional material where they could review.

I applied this same philosophy as we progressed through new material. Lower-order Bloom’s principles should be assessed and mastered first, before progressing to the higher-order skills for each new section. In my second iteration of the course I implemented low-stakes (completion-based grade) homework assignments to be completed before the class or lab period, which were aimed to get a head-start on the lower-order skills. Then in class we reviewed these questions within the lecture or lab and added on with more advanced questions and/or activities. This format of pre-class homework was very well received by the students, and even though it is more work for them, they said that it encouraged them to keep up with the reading and stay-on track in the class. As the class progressed, I added in more advanced homework problems that integrated material from previous chapters. Obviously, if you are going to teach in an integrated fashion then you will need to assess the students in the same way, but a slow-build up to that level and ample low-stakes practice is key.

3) Create a detailed course outline, and then be prepared to change it.

This lesson holds true for just about any course, but I found it especially true for an integrated A&P course. As an instructor, not only did I need to be well versed in A&P, but I also needed to see the big picture and connect concepts and ideas both during the initial course construction and as the course progressed. I went into the course with an idea of what I wanted (and needed) to cover and during the course students helped guide what topics they struggled with and/or what they wanted to learn more about. So while still sticking to covering the basics of a course, I was still able to dive a bit deeper into other topics (such as exercise) per student interest. This also helped boost motivation for student learning when they feel they have some agency in the material.

Another aspect of the lesson is the addition of what I call “flex days”. Students will find this style of teaching and learning challenging and some will need more time and practice with the material. I found it very helpful to add in a “flex day” within each unit where no new material was covered, but instead time was dedicated to answering questions and additional practice with the concepts. If a full class day can’t be dedicated, even 30 minutes can be put to great use and the students really appreciate the extra time and practice.

 

4) Constantly remind your students of the new course format.

Students will want to revert back to what they are comfortable with and what has worked for them in the past. They will forget that information needs to be retained and applied later in the course. I found that I needed to constantly remind students that their “cram and forget” method will not serve them well in this course. But, simply telling them is not enough, so I allowed for practice problems both in and outside of class that revisited “older” material and prepared them for the unit exams with integrative questions which combined information from different chapters. I even listed the textbook chapters at the end of the question so that they would know where to find the material if needed.

Along with this, I found that tying material back to central themes in physiology (e.g. structure-function, homeostasis, etc.) also helped the students connect material. I am fortunate that the entry level biology courses at this college teach using the Vision and Change terminology, so the basic themes are not new to them, making integration at least on that level a bit more approachable.

 

5) Solicit student feedback.

Students love to be heard and they love to know that their input matters. And in the design of a new course I want to know what is working and what is not. I may think something is working, but the students may think otherwise. Blank notecards are my best friend in this instance. I simply have a stack at the side of the room and students can or cannot fill them out and drop them in a box. I often ask a specific question and solicit their input after an activity or particularly challenging topic. Of course, the second part of this step is actually reading and taking their input seriously. I’ve often made some last minute changes or revisited some material based on anonymous student feedback, which also ties back to lesson #3.

 

6) Be prepared to spend a lot of time with students outside of the classroom.

Some students are great about speaking up in class and asking questions. Other students are more comfortable asking questions outside of class time. And of course, I found that students of both flavors will think that they know a particular concept, and then find out, usually on an exam, that they do not (but that is probably not unique to an integrative course). So, after the first exam I reached out to every student inviting them to meet with me one-on-one. In these meetings we went through not only the details of the exam, but study skills. Every student needed to be reminded and encouraged to study a little bit every day or at least every other day to maximize retention and success. This also helped create an open-door policy with students who needed and wanted more assistance, increasing their comfort level with coming to office hours and asking for help.

 

As you may have inferred, teaching this type of course takes a lot of time. I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t necessarily mentally or physically prepared for the amount of time it took to design and run this course, especially in my first year of teaching, but I made it work and I learned a lot. During this process I often discussed course ideas with department colleagues and A&P instructors at other universities. I perused valuable online resources (such as LifeSciTRC.org and the PECOP Blog) for inspiration and guidance. I also found that I spent a lot of time reflecting on just about every lecture, activity, and lab to ensure that the content connections were accurate, applicable, and obtainable by the students. And while I know that the course still has a ways to go, I am confident in the solid foundation I have laid for a real integrative A&P course. And, just as I am doing now with its second iteration, each run will be modified and improved as needed to maximize student learning and success, and that is what makes me even more excited!

Now I turn the conversation over to the MANY seasoned educators that read this blog. Do you have experience designing and teaching an integrated A&P course? What advice do you have for those, like me, that are just starting this journey? Please share!

Jennifer Ann Stokes is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Centenary College in Shreveport, LA. She received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Following a Postdoctoral Fellowship in respiratory physiology at UCSD, Jennifer spent a year at Beloit College (Beloit, WI) as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology to expand her teaching background and pursue a teaching career at a primarily undergraduate university. Now at Centenary College, Jennifer teaches Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II (using an integrative approach), Nutritional Physiology, Medical Terminology, and Psychopharmacology. Jennifer is also actively engaged with undergraduates in basic science research (www.stokeslab.com) and in her free time enjoys cycling, hiking, and yoga.
Graduate Student Ambassadors: An APS Effort to Increase Involvement in Professional Societies

The Graduate Student Ambassador (GSA) program was organized by the American Physiological Society’s (APS) Trainee Advisory Committee in 2015. The goal of the program is to train graduate students to act as liaisons between APS and local undergraduate and graduate students. GSAs visit schools in their local area to share their experiences as graduate students, discuss physiology careers and the benefits of an APS membership, and encourage students to consider becoming a member of APS. The program has a unique, symbiotic relationship in that GSAs learn valuable outreach, public speaking, and leadership skills, while APS receives promotion of their awards, programs, and memberships. One particular goal of the GSA program is to recruit and retain individuals from under-represented communities. This is the aim that attracted me to the program.

 

As a first-generation college student, I was raised in a very low socioeconomic background. My exposure to careers was limited and like countless other young girls, I grew up with a short supply of role models who looked like me. While most of my public school teachers were female, the science labs and principal’s offices were considered masculine domains. In my mind, a scientist was that image we all remember of the mad chemist brewing his potions in a lab, hair all in disarray. Although I got the messy hair right, I couldn’t picture myself as this version of a scientist. I didn’t know anything about college because nobody in my life had ever been to one. I certainly didn’t know what a Ph.D. was at the time. By luck and happenstance, I wound up at the University of Kentucky for my undergraduate studies as a nontraditional student following community college. UK is a Research 1 institution, so I was exposed to the scientific method from the start. However, looking back, I’ve always wondered what if I had attended a different university? Would I have ever found my niche in research? And, thus, is the goal of the GSA program: to expose students to careers in research and promulgate the ways in which APS can assist them in these pursuits.

 

When I first got wind of the new GSA program, I was quick to apply. From the beginning, I was excited by the prospect of sharing my experiences as a graduate student with undergraduates. I knew I wanted to visit less research-intensive universities and try to reach under-represented students, first-generation college students, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. I recognized the need for diversity in STEM and wanted to contribute to efforts being made to increase it. According to the National Science Foundation, while blacks and Hispanics constitute 36% of the US resident population ages 18-24, they only represent 17% of enrolled graduate students. There is even less representation at the level of doctorate holders (Figure 3). Ethnic and cultural representations in science do not match their share in the US population. However, it is absolutely essential to the growth of STEM to sample from all groups of people.

 

Science is meant to be an objective process, but much of science has been shaped by individuals of a similar background. This not only halts progress but can actually hurt it. For example, the standard medical treatment for breast cancer used to be radical mastectomies. It wasn’t until female voices were welcomed that alternative treatments were implemented—treatments that allowed women to keep their breasts and have been shown to be just as, if not more, effective. Progress was made because of a different perspective. The same is true of drug development, our understanding of sex differences in cardiovascular disease, even air-bag design which was initially tailored to a man’s height and thus not as effective for women. A diverse and inclusive program can promote widely applicable and lifelong learning so that historically under-represented groups can contribute to future breakthroughs with a new perspective. If fields are not diverse and inclusive, we are not cultivating potential but instead losing talent.

 

Berea College, the first coeducational and interracial college in the south, is an example of an ongoing effort to increase inclusion. This school, located in Berea, Kentucky, is a 4-year university that offers a tuition-free education to every single student. They enroll academically promising, economically challenged students from every state in the U.S. and 60 other countries. Over one third of their student population are of color, 8% are international, and 70% are from the Appalachian region and Kentucky. They are inclusive regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, race, citizenship status, etc. Despite not being a research intensive university, they have an excellent science program with a newly built Natural Sciences and Health building featuring state-of-the-art teaching laboratory equipment. They also encourage students to participate in the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network, a program designed to support undergraduate students in biomedical research, promote collaboration, and improve access to biomedical facilities.

 

I wanted to visit Berea to share my experiences as a graduate student, discuss the different career paths within physiology, and provide interested students with information about beneficial awards and programs offered through APS. Many of the students I spoke with didn’t know much about graduate school or obtaining a Ph.D. They seemed intrigued by my experience as a teaching assistant to fund my program. Berea College offers a unique work program at their school where students work as part of their tuition-free enrollment. Some act as teaching assistants in their courses, giving these students the experience they need to enter a funded graduate program with a teaching component. A lot of the students didn’t realize, though, that you could simply apply to a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree—they thought you needed to obtain a master’s degree first. Most of the students were particularly interested in the undergraduate summer research programs offered through APS, such as the STRIDE fellowship. They wanted to know more about the Porter Physiology Development Fellowship for graduate students. I was also very excited to share with them the Martin Frank Diversity Travel Fellowship Award to attend the Experimental Biology conference.

 

I had a meaningful and productive visit to Berea College. My next step will be visiting a local community college, another area where efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are progressing. Community colleges are also an excellent place to reach nontraditional students, such as myself. These students sometimes transfer to larger universities to finish their bachelor’s degree, but being a transfer student often doesn’t allow for exposure to research as an undergraduate. I hope to encourage these students to pursue careers in physiology.

 

If you’re interested in contributing to this mission, consider applying to become a GSA. The position is a 2 year term and requires you to attend Experimental Biology each year of your term. The applications for 2019 are currently under review.

 

References

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.

 

Chelsea C. Weaver is a fourth year PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky where she studies hypertensive pregnancy disorders in African Green Monkeys. She has served as a teaching assistant for Principles of Genetics and Animal Physiology for undergraduates. She also guest-lectured for graduate level Advanced Physiology courses. Chelsea is interested in pursuing a postdoctoral position in STEM education research in K-16 upon graduation.