Category Archives: Course Design

Building bridges: Medical physiology teaching in China
Ryan Downey, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Co-Director, Graduate Physiology Program
Team Leader, Special Master’s Program in Physiology


Department Pharmacology and Physiology
Georgetown University Medical Center
Washington, D.C.

The Chinese Society of Pathophysiology hosted the 2019 Human Functional Experiment Teaching Seminar and the Second Human Physiology Experimental Teaching Training Course 25-27 October. Across two and a half days, educators from across China met at Jinzhou Medical University in the province of Liaoning to discuss and workshop the latest ideas in active learning and interactive teaching techniques. In many ways, especially in terms of the esteem in which this meeting is held by its attendees, this meeting was not dissimilar from the APS Institute on Teaching and Learning, which will hold its next biennial meeting this coming June in Minneapolis. For the 2019 meeting, the organizers decided to invite an international speaker, which is how I found myself on a plane headed to China. As part of my visit, not only did I get to attend the workshop hosted at Jinzhou Medical University, but also I was hosted by several of the meeting organizers at their home institutions to see their facilities. In this writeup, I will reflect on some of the observations that I made during the many different conversations that I had with the educators participating in the meeting.

The most common question that I got from my hosts was, “What kinds of technology do you use in your classrooms and labs and how do you use them?” What surprised me the most about this question wasn’t the actual question itself, but the perception that many of the educators at the meeting held that they were lagging behind in the implementation of using technologies as   teaching and learning tools. The large majority of teaching spaces that I visited were equipped with much the same technology as any classroom or lecture hall that I would find in an American university: computers, projectors, large-screen LCD displays, and power at every seat to accommodate student personal electronic devices. While there was the occasional technological oddity, such as a computer here or there that was still running Windows XP, the technology available to these educators was very much on par with the technology I would expect at any modern university, which is why I was surprised that the educators had the perception that they were behind in implementing different technologies. In my conversations with them, I discussed the use of audience response systems like iClicker and PollEverywhere as well as interactive elements like gamification through websites such as Kahoot!, but my emphasis in these conversations was exactly the same as I have with educators at home: we need to make sure that there is a sound pedagogical basis for any engagement we use with our students and that the technology doesn’t matter. I can use 3×5 colored  index cards to create an audience response system that functions as well as (or sometimes even better!) than clickers because no one has any problems with the WiFi while using a 3×5 card. The technology facilitates our instruction and should never drive it for the sake of itself.

A common thread of many discussions was the use of internet technologies in teaching. While there is much to be said about the limitations of the ‘Great Firewall’ of China and the amount of government regulation that occurs over their communications, it’s important to note how little these limitations affect the day-to-day activities of the majority of citizens. There are Chinese versions of almost every single internet convenience that we would take for granted that function at least as well as our American versions. Their social media system has grown to the point that many international users are engaging on their platforms. There are food delivery apps and the local taxi services have all signed on to a common routing system (at least in Beijing) that functions in a similar way to Uber or Lyft. In a side-by-side comparison between my phone and one of the other meeting participants, there is near feature parity on every aspect. From an educational standpoint, however, there are some notable differences. The lack of access to Wikipedia is a notable gap in a common open resource that many of us take for granted and there is not yet a Chinese equivalent that rivals the scope or depth that Wikipedia currently offers. Another key area in which internet access is limited is their access to scholarly journals. This lack of accessibility is two-fold, both in the access to journals because of restrictions on internet use as well as the common problem that we are already familiar with of journal articles being locked behind paywalls. The increasing move of journals to open access will remove some of these barriers to scholarly publications, but there are still many limits on the number and types of journal articles that educators and learners are allowed through Chinese internet systems.

The most common request that I received while attending the educators meeting was, “Tell me about the laboratories you use to teach physiology to your medical students.” I think this is the largest difference in teaching philosophy that I observed while in China. The teaching of physiology is heavily based on the use of animal models, where students are still conducting nerve conduction experiments with frogs, autonomic reflex modules with rabbits, and pharmacological studies in rats. These are all classic experiments that many of us would recognize, but that we rarely use anymore. One key area of the workshops were modules designed to replace some of these classic animal experiments with non-invasive human-based modules, such as measuring nerve conduction velocities using EMG. My response that the majority of our physiology teaching is now done through lecture only was met with a certain degree of skepticism from many of them because the use of labs is so prevalent throughout the entire country. Indeed, the dedication of resources such as integrated animal surgical stations runs well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per laboratory room set up, and to facilitate the entirety of students each year, there are multiple labs set up at each university. As the use of non-invasive human experiments expands, an equal amount of space and resources are being given to setting up new learning spaces with data acquisition systems and computers for this new task. In this area, I think that we have much to gain from our Chinese counterparts as many of the hardest concepts in physiology are more easily elucidated by giving students the space to self-discover in the lab while making physiological measurements to fully master ideas like ECG waves and action potential conduction.

Upon returning home, I have been asked by nearly everyone about my travel experiences, so I think it may be worth a brief mention here as well. I cannot overstate the importance of having a good VPN service setup on all of your electronic devices before traveling. Using a VPN, I had near-normal use of the internet, including Google and social media. My largest problem was actually trying to access local Chinese websites when my internet address looked like I was outside of the country. I have had good experience with NordVPN, but there are several other very good options for VPN service. Carrying toilet paper is a must. There are lots of public restrooms available everywhere in the city, but toilet paper is either not provided or available only using either social media check-ins or mobile payments. For drinking water, I traveled with both a Lifestraw bottle and a Grayl bottle. This gave me options for using local water sources and not having to rely on bottled water. The Lifestraw is far easier to use, but the Grayl bottle has a broader spectrum of things that are filtered out of the water, including viruses and heavy metals, which may be important depending on how far off the tourist track you get while traveling. My final tip is to download the language library for a translator app on your mobile device for offline use so that you can communicate with others on the streets. When interacting with vendors and others not fluent in English, it was common to use an app like Google Translate to type on my device, show them the translated results, and they would do the same in reverse from their mobile device.

One of the themes across the meeting was building bridges — bridges between educators, bridges between universities, bridges across the nation and internationally. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to participate in their meeting and contribute to their conversation on building interactive engagement and human-focused concepts into the teaching of physiology. Overall, the time that I spent talking to other educators was useful and fantastic. Everyone I met and interacted with is enthusiastic and excited about continuing to improve their teaching of physiology. I left the meeting with the same renewed energy that I often feel after returning from our ITL, ready to reinvest in my own teaching here at home.

Ryan Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Physiology at Georgetown University. As part of those duties, he is the Co-Director for the Master of Science in Physiology and a Team Leader for the Special Master’s Program in Physiology. He teaches cardiovascular and neuroscience in the graduate physiology courses. He received his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UT Southwestern Medical Center. His research interests are in the sympathetic control of cardiovascular function during exercise and in improving science pedagogy. When he’s not working, he is a certified scuba instructor and participates in triathlons

Using Quests to Engage and Elevate Laboratory Learning
Sarah Knight Marvar, PhD
American University

My students, like me, enjoy a challenge. Occasionally this challenge comes in the form of staying on track, using our lab time efficiently to achieve the learning outcomes and staying engaged with the material. There are specific topics that we cover in our undergraduate human anatomy and physiology course, such as the skeletal system, that had become a little dry over time. Classes occasionally included students sitting at desks looking disinterestedly at disarticulated bones glancing at their lab manual and then checking their phones. I felt that the students were not getting enough out of our laboratory time and weren’t nearly as excited as I was to be there!

With other faculty members I recently devised some new laboratory activities that include a series of quests that closely resemble a mental obstacle course, to try to encourage engagement with the material and make our learning more playful and memorable. There may also be some healthy competition along the way.

I teach an undergraduate two semester combined anatomy and physiology course, in which I lead both the lecture and laboratory portions. Students who are enrolled in this course are majoring in Biology, Neuroscience, Public Health and Health Promotions. Many of the enrolled students are destined for graduate school programs such as Medicine, Nursing, Physical Therapy, Physicians Assistant and PhD Programs. An example of the quest format we used recently in a bone laboratory is described here.

The Quests

The laboratory is set up with multiple quest stations that each represent a multi-step task on areas within the overarching laboratory topic. All of the tasks are designed to enable students to achieve the learning outcomes of the laboratory in an engaging way. The quest stations are designed to encourage the students to physically move around the laboratory in order to interact with other students, touch the exhibits, explore case studies, complete illustrations and build models. Each student begins with a quest guide which provides instructions and upon which they take notes, answer questions and complete drawings. Students move at their own pace and work in self-selected pairs or groups of three. They are able to ask for assistance at any stage of a quest from either of two faculty members present.   

Clinical case studies

Because of the students’ interest in patient care, we use clinical case studies as a major component of the obstacle course. X-ray images of a variety of pathological conditions as well as healthy individuals challenged students’ ability to identify anomalies in bone structure and surgery outcomes. The images that we used included a skull of a newborn showing clearly the fontanelles, an example of osteoporosis and joint replacement surgery. Students are required to identify anatomical location of the image as well as any anomalies, pathology or points of interest. Because of the student demographic of this class, many of them are destined to enter healthcare professions, they are particularly interested in this quest and are invested in solving the mystery diagnoses.

The Creative Part

Illustrations

An example of a student’s histological drawing.

The coloring pencils and electric pencil sharpener have come into their own in the laboratory and like Grey’s Anatomy illustrator Henry Vandyke Carter created before them, amazing anatomically accurate drawings are appearing on the page. Histology has been a particularly challenging aspect of our course for students with little previous exposure to sectioned specimens. In an attempt to allow students to really process what they are looking at and reflect on the tissue function I have asked students to draw detailed images of the histological specimens, label cell types and reflect on specific cell functions. This exercise aims to elevate the student’s ability to look closely at histological specimens and gain a better understanding of what they are observing and contemplate specific cell function.

Another quest involves categorizing bones and making illustrations of them, making note of unique identifying features and their functions.

3-D Modeling

Student synovial joint models with notes on function

Reminiscent of scenes from my three year old’s birthday party, I brought out the modeling clay and tried to stifle the reflex instruction to “don’t mix the colors”! Students were tasked with creating a 3-dimensional model of structures such as synovial joints. This is a particularly successful exercise in which students work with colored modeling clay to construct models of joints and label parts of the joint and describe the function of each part. This allows students to consider the relationship between the structure and function and move beyond looking at two-dimensional images from their textbooks and lecture slides. Students submit images of their completed models to the faculty for successful completion of the quest.

Other quest stations that were part of this particular laboratory session included Vertebrae Organizing, Mystery Bone Identification and Bone Growth Mechanisms.

One of the primary things that I learned from this exercise was that designing game-like scenarios in the classroom is far more enjoyable and entertaining for me as well as for the students, a win-win scenario. Overall from the perspective of the teaching faculty, the level of engagement was significantly increased compared with previous iterations of the class. The quality of the work submitted was high and in addition, this quest-based laboratory design is suitable for a wide range of topics and activities. I am currently designing a muscle physiology laboratory in a similar format that will include an electromyogram strength and cheering station as well as a sliding filament muscle contraction student demonstration station. In reflection I feel that my personal quest to find a novel and interesting way for the students to learn about bones was successful. Now onto the next quest……

Sarah Knight Marvar received her BSc in Medical Science and PhD in Renal Physiology from the University of Birmingham, UK. Sarah is currently a Senior Professorial Lecturer and Assistant Laboratory Director in the Biology Department at American University in Washington DC. Sarah teaches undergraduate Anatomy and Physiology, general biology classes as well as a Complex Problems class on genetic modification to non-majors as part of the AU Core program. Sarah’s research interests include using primary research literature as a teaching tool in the classroom, open educational resources and outreach activities.

How do you feel about sharing with the world? The Open Educational Resources (OER) phenomenon.

Joann May Chang, PhD
Professor of Biology & Director for the Center for Instructional Excellence at Arizona Western College
Yuma, Arizona

I recently attended a training on Open Educational Resources (OER) and what it truly means to offer an OER course.  What is an OER course?  If you offer a course that uses an e-text with other content found on the web to supplement without costing the student any money, this would be defined as being free of costs and not truly an OER course.  Why? That leads to the key question Matthew Bloom, OER Coordinator for Maricopa Community Colleges, posed to our group during the training: “How do you feel about sharing with the world?” 

OER has become a prominent topic in higher education to save students on textbook costs, but also a movement in building high quality accessible teaching materials for educators without being tied to a publishing company.  In a 2017 blog post by Chris Zook, he provided infographics of data associated with the increase in textbook prices that have outpaced inflation, medical services, and even new home costs. [attached graphic 1 & 2]  As Chris Zook also noted, community college students are two times more likely to purchase textbooks with their financial aid than four-year college students which increases their financial burden to complete their degree.  When faculty build OER courses, they can decrease this burden and share their course content with others who are working towards giving equal access to higher education.

OER is at the forefront of Arizona Western College because it is an integral part of our institution’s strategic planning goals to make higher education more accessible for our student population where the average yearly salary is only $38,237.    We are a year into this goal with our first formal OER training taking place in June 2019.  When Matthew first asked us if we share our teaching materials, most of us said “Sure! We share with our colleagues often.”  But then he followed that up with “How willing are you to share your developed content with the world?”  And that is the difference between a free versus an OER course.  If a faculty member develops open course content and licenses it under the Creative Commons License, the material can be retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed (known as the 5R activities) by others.  The creator of the open content can control how their material is used with the different Creative Commons licenses. [Creative Commons License gif] With the shared content, the OER movement aims to provide quality teaching materials that can be used in an open creative and collaborative manner while benefitting students in reducing textbook costs.

I did not realize the importance of Matthew’s question until I started my search for OER content with Creative Commons Licensing for our OER transitioning Anatomy and Physiology courses.  We will be using the OpenStax A & P textbook starting this Fall and even though Matthew gave us some good starting points to search for open resources that follow the 5R activities, it has been difficult finding pictures and diagrams that can be used in lecture and activities.  I have been able to find various posts to labs, power point slides, videos, and open textbooks that can be used for A&P.  The most common issue is the lack of quality science pictures or diagrams offered as open content, which I have also heard is a problem from other colleagues transitioning to OER. 

So, here’s my challenge question for you: Are you willing to share your developed content, pictures, and diagrams with the world?  If you are, please license them and share so that you can be a part of this OER movement and others can also collaborate and build that open content. Ultimately, this is about the ability to be inclusive and provide quality higher education for our students without burdening them with textbook costs.

If you are interested in this OER movement and are looking for information or content, please check out the following resources:

This list is in no way inclusive.  There are many other resources out there, they just take time to find and to search through.  I hope more of the scientific community takes part in this OER movement and can provide more resources for everyone to use or collaborate on.  It truly makes a difference to our students and their education.

Joann Chang, Ph.D. is a Professor of Biology and the Director for the Center for Instructional Excellence at Arizona Western College (AWC), a community college in Yuma, Arizona.  She currently manages the professional development for AWC and teaches A&P and Introduction to Engineering Design.  When she’s not teaching or directing, she is keeping up with her twin daughters, son, husband, three cats and one dog.  On her spare time, she is baking delicious goodies for her friends and family.

My Summer Reading: Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms 2nd Edition by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill

Jessica L. Fry, PhD
Associate Professor of Biology
Curry College, Milton, MA

Ah Summer – the three months of the year when my To Do list is an aspirational and idealistic mix of research progress, pedagogical reading, curriculum planning, and getting ahead.  Here we are in July, and between hiring, new building construction, uncooperative experiments and familial obligations, I am predictably behind, but my strategic scheduling of this blog as a book review– meaning I have a deadline for both reading and digesting this book handed out at our annual faculty retreat — means that I am guaranteed to get at least one item crossed off my list!

My acceptance of (and planning for) my tendency to procrastinate is an example of the self-awareness Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill advocate for teachers in their book “Discussion as a Way of Teaching”.  By planning for the major pitfalls of discussion, as well as the reasons behind why both teachers and students manage discussions poorly, they catalog numerous strategies to increase the odds of realizing the major benefits of discussion in the classroom.  At fifteen years old, this book is hardly dated; some of the discussion formats will be familiar to practitioners of active learning such as snowballing and jigsaw, but the real value in this book for me was the frank discussion of the benefits, drawbacks, and misconceptions about discussion in the classroom that are directly relevant to my current teaching practice.  

My lowest moments as a professor seem to come when my students are more focused on “finding the right answer” than on exploring a topic and fitting it into their conceptual understanding.  Paper discussions can fall flat, with students hastily reciting sentences from the discussion or results sections and any reading questions I may have assigned.  This book firmly makes the case that with proper groundwork and incentive, students can and will develop deliberative conversational skills.  Chapter 3 describes how the principles for discussion can be modeled during lecture, small group work, and formats designed for students to practice the processes of reflection and analysis before engaging in discussions themselves. Chapters 4 and 5 present the nuts and bolts of keeping a discussion going by describing active listening techniques, teacher responses, and group formats that promote rather than suppress discourse, and chapters 9 and 10 illustrate the ways students and teachers talk too much… and too little.  One of the most emphasized concepts in these chapters and threaded throughout the book is allowing silence.  Silence allows for reflection and should not be feared – 26 pages in this book cover silence and importantly, how and why professors and students are compelled to fill it, which can act as a barrier to all students participating in the discussion.   

Preskill and Brookfield emphasize the need for all students to be active listeners and participants in a discussion, even if they never speak a word, because discussion develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.  “Through conversation, students can learn to think and speak metaphorically and to use analogical reasoning…. They can get better at knowing when using specialized terminology is justified and when it is just intellectual posturing” (pg. 32).  What follows is an incredibly powerful discussion on not only honoring and respecting diversity, but a concise well-written explanation of how perceptions of social class and race affect both non-white and non-middle-class students in American college classrooms.  Their explanation of how academia privileges certain patterns of discourse and speech that are not common to all students leading to feelings of impostership should be read by everyone who has ever tone-policed a student or a colleague.  The authors advocate for a democratic approach to speech, allowing students to anonymously report if, for example, another student banging their hand on their desk to emphasize a point seemed too violent, which then allows the group to discuss and if necessary, change the group rules in response to that incident.  The authors note that “A discussion of what constitutes appropriate academic speech is not lightweight or idle.  It cuts to several core issues: how we privilege certain ways of speaking and conveying knowledge and ideas, who has the power to define appropriate forms and patterns of communication, and whose interests these forms and patterns serve” (pg 146).  The idea that academic language can be gatekeeping and alienating to many students is especially important in discussions surrounding retention and persistence in the sciences, where students seeing themselves as scientists is critical (Perez et al. 2014).  Brookfield and Preskill argue that through consistent participation in discussion, students will see themselves as co-creators of knowledge and bring their authentic selves to the community.   

All in all, this book left me inspired and I recommend it for those who imagine the kinds of invigorating discussions we have with colleagues taking place with our students and want to increase the chances it will happen in the classroom.  I want to cut out quotes from my favorite paper’s discussion section and have my students justify or refute the statements made using information from the rest of the paper (pg. 72-73 Getting Discussion Started).  I want my students to reflect on their journey to science and use social media to see themselves reflected in the scientific community (pg. 159-160 Discussing Across Gender Differences), and I want to lay the groundwork for the first discussion I have planned for the class of 2023; Is Water Wet?  All this and the rest of that pesky To Do list with my remaining month of summer. Wish me luck!  

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perez, T., Cromley, J. G., & Kaplan, A. (2014). The role of identity development, values, and costs in college STEM retention. Journal of Educational Psychology. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0034027

Jessica L. Fry Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Biology at Curry College, a liberal-arts based primarily undergraduate institution in Milton, Massachusetts.  She currently teaches Advanced Physiology, Cell Biology, and Introduction to Molecules and Cells for majors, and How to Get Away with Murder which is a Junior Year Interdisciplinary Course in the General Education Program.  She procrastinates by training her dog, having great discussions with her colleagues, and reading copious amounts of science fiction. 

Synergy – From conference to classroom – The value of attending and doing project-based learning

Monica J. McCullough, PhD
Western Michigan University, Department of Biological Sciences

After attending the 2018 APS – ITL conference for the first time, I walked away with so many actionable ideas to implement in my large classes. One valuable experience was practicing active learning techniques as part of a session. “Doing” helps many to learn much more than “hearing” about best practices. I not only learned much from the active sessions offered at APS-ITL but transferred that experience into my own classroom upon returning.

I decided to try a semester-long project for my Intro to Bio for majors, modifying a project  I learned about from Dr. Beth Beason-Abmayr (http://advan.physiology.org/content/41/2/239) from Rice University.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr introduced ‘The Fictitious Animal Project’ during her session at APS-ITL as one she uses in her Vertebrate Physiology for non-bio majors, averaging around 30 students per semester.  During her session at APS-ITL, we divided into groups, ranging from 2-10, and mimicked the project. I instantly saw the value of this activity and had to add it to my teaching repertoire.  Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project was to create a fictitious animal that had certain physiological characteristics. Students had categories, such as cardiovascular system, respiratory system, that were randomly selected and answer sets of questions that students would answer about the integration of them, including benefits and trade-offs for the fictitious animal.   They completed scheduled homework sets after topics were discussed in class. The students worked in groups and would present their creations to the class with drawings of their animals. What really piqued my interest was that since students had to create an animal that does not exist in nature, they couldn’t just Google it to create this project, and the potential to bring out their ingenuity to the design. 

Since I was going to teach biological form and function the upcoming Fall, and mind you for the first time, I thought I’d start with this semester-long project for 290 students, which were primarily freshmen. A major component that I wanted to maintain was the student presentations, as this is an important skill for these budding scientists. Obviously, the logistics to maintain this was the first decision, and when factoring in around 75 groups (averaging 4 students per group), I decided that the group presentations would span a total of 4 days at the end of the semester, in a gallery-style presentation. Presenters would line the room with their visual aid and the rest of the class would visit each group with designated rubrics. (Presentation Rubric) Additionally, the individual group members would submit a peer evaluation of their group mates at the end of the day of their presentation. (Group Peer Evaluation). My next modification was to adapt the category options so that the students would create a species that yielded both plant and animal components, as we would be learning about both. There were 5 overall anatomical/physiological categories, including size, circulation, sensory environmental interaction, structure and motility.  These too would be randomized with the use of Google by “rolling the dice” to assign each characteristic. (Project directions)  I continued with Dr. Beason-Abmayr’s project checkpoint of homework sets throughout the semester where students work on a subset of the categories and continue to build their species, as we learn about the topics in class. Each group submitted electronically to Dropbox, and allow time for feedback with rubrics. (HW set 1 rubric example) To end, there was a final wrap-around short answer portion on the final exam where students described each category and how it was incorporated with their own species. This allowed me to check for individual understanding of the project as we all know some group projects allow for ‘moochers’ to do and understand little.   

For me, this project is a keeper. It helped reinforce the essential concepts during the semester and practice soft skills needed to excel in the workforce. It was exciting to see how some students really embraced the project, including creating a costume of their species, 3-D print outs, live plants they’ve modified and sculptures. While difficult, there were also some group conflicts that did occur, yet, these emerging adults were able to work through their differences. A key factor to this was each group developing their own contract at the very beginning of the semester and was open for adjustments for the duration of the semester. (Team Contract)  The big take-away for me is, it is worth the risk to try something new in the classroom, no matter how large or small the size. This project helped student gains with the material, and practice throughout the semester. As an educator, I feel it is pivotal to find ways that help our students feel confident with the material and keep them curious and innovative. Just as at the top presentations at our conference, doing science makes concepts stick much more than just hearing about it.  

Monica J. McCullough, PhD joined as a Faculty Specialist in the Department of Biological Sciences and Western Michigan University in 2016, prior to which she was faculty at Adrian College. She currently teaches large introductory courses, including Anatomy, Physiology and Biological Form and Function. Dr. McCullough received her BS and PhD from Western Michigan University and studied regulation of neurotrophic factors. Dr. McCullough has 4 young children and has found a great interest in doing science demo’s in her elementary children’s’ classrooms.

Fostering an Inclusive Classroom: A Practical Guide

Ah, the summer season has begun! I love this time of year, yes for the sun and the beach and baseball games and long, lazy summer reading, but also because it gets me thinking about new beginnings. I’ve always operated on a school-year calendar mindset, so if you’re like me, you’re probably reflecting on the successes and shortcomings of the past year, preparing for the upcoming fall semester, or maybe even launching into a new summer semester now. As campuses become more diverse, fostering an inclusive learning environment becomes increasingly important, yet the prospect of how to do so can be daunting. So where to start?

First, recognize that there is not just one way to create an inclusive classroom. Often, the most effective tactics you use may be discipline-, regional-, campus-, or classroom-specific. Inclusive teaching is a student-oriented mindset, a way of thinking that challenges you to maximize opportunities for all students to connect with you, the course material, and each other.

Second, being proactive before a semester begins can save you a lot of time, headaches, and conflict down the road. Set aside some dedicated time to critically evaluate your course structure, curriculum, assignments, and language choices before ever interacting with your students. Consider which voices, perspectives, and examples are prominent in your class materials, and ask yourself which ones are missing and why. Try to diversify the mode of content representation (lectures, videos, readings, discussions, hands-on activities, etc.) and/or assessments types (verbal vs. diagrammed, written vs. spoken, group vs. individual, online vs. in-class, etc.). Recognize the limits of your own culture-bound assumptions, and, if possible, ask for feedback from a colleague whose background differs from your own.

Third, know that you don’t have to change everything all at once. If you are developing an entirely new course/preparation, you’ll have less time to commit to these endeavors than you might for a course you’ve taught a few times already. Recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than completely overwhelming yourself and your students to the point of ineffectiveness (Trust me, I’ve tried and it isn’t pretty!)

Below, I have included some practical ways to make a classroom more inclusive, but this list is far from comprehensive. As always, feedback is much appreciated!

Part 1: Course Structure and Student Feedback

These strategies require the largest time commitment to design and implement, but they are well worth the effort.

  • Provide opportunities for collaborative learning in the classroom. Active learning activities can better engage diverse students, and this promotes inclusivity by allowing students from diverse backgrounds to interact with one another. Furthermore, heterogeneous groups are usually better problem-solvers than homogeneous ones.
  • Implement a variety of learning activity types in order to reach different kinds of learners. Use poll questions, case studies, think-pair-share, jigsaws, hands-on activities, oral and written assignments, etc.
  • Select texts/readings whose language is gender-neutral or stereotype-free, and if you run across a problem after the fact, point out the text’s shortcomings in class and give students the opportunity to discuss it.
  • Promote a growth mindset. The language you use in the classroom can have a surprising impact on student success, even when you try to be encouraging. How many of us have said to our students before a test, “You all are so smart. I know you can do this!”? It sounds innocent enough, but this language conveys that “being smart” determines success rather than hard work. Students with this fixed mindset are more likely to give up when confronted with a challenge because they don’t think they are smart/good/talented enough to succeed. Therefore, when we encourage our students before an assessment or give them feedback afterwards, we must always address their effort and their work, rather than assigning attributes (positive or negative) to them as people.
  • Convey the same level of confidence in the abilities of all your students. Set high expectations that you believe all students can achieve, emphasizing the importance of hard work and effort. Perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining high expectations for every student, even those who have performed poorly in the past. However, assuming a student just can’t cut it based on one low exam grade may be as damaging as assuming a student isn’t fit due to their race, gender, background, etc.
  • Be evenhanded in praising your students. Don’t go overboard as it makes students feel like you don’t expect it of them.

Part 2: Combating Implicit Bias

Every one of us harbors biases, including implicit biases that form outside of our conscious awareness. In some cases, our implicit biases may even run counter to our conscious values. This matters in the classroom because implicit bias can trigger self-fulfilling prophecies by changing stereotyped groups’ behaviors to conform to stereotypes, even when the stereotype was initially untrue. Attempting to suppress our biases is likely to be counterproductive, so we must employ other strategies to ensure fairness to all our students.

  • Become aware of your own biases, by assessing them with tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) or by self-reflection. Ask yourself: Do I interact with men and women in ways that create double standards? Do I assume that members of one group will need extra help in the classroom – or alternatively, that they will outperform others? Do I undervalue comments made by individuals with a different accent than my own?
  • Learn about cultures different than your own. Read authors with diverse backgrounds. Express a genuine interest in other cultural traditions. Exposure to different groups increases your empathy towards them.
  • Take extra care to evaluate students on individual bases rather than social categorization / group membership. Issues related to group identity may be especially enhanced on college campuses because this is often the first time for students to affirm their identity and/or join single-identity organizations / groups.
  • Recognize the complexity of diversity. No person has just one identity. We all belong to multiple groups, and differences within groups may be as great as those across groups.
  • Promote interactions in the classroom between different social groups. Even if you choose to let students form their own groups in class, mix it up with jigsaw activities, for example.
  • Use counter-stereotypic examples in your lectures, case studies, and exams.
  • Employ fair grading practices, such as clearly-defined rubrics, anonymous grading, grading question by question instead of student by student, and utilize activities with some group points and some individual points.

Part 3: Day-to-Day Classroom Culture

These suggestions fall under the “biggest bang for your buck” category. They don’t require much time to implement, but they can go a long way to making your students feel more welcome in your classroom.

  • Use diverse images, names, examples, analogies, perspectives, and cultural references in your teaching. Keep this in mind when you choose pictures/cartoons for your lectures, prepare in-class or take-home activities, and write quiz/test questions. Ask yourself if the examples you are using are only familiar or relevant to someone with your background. If so, challenge yourself to make it accessible to a wider audience.
  • Pay attention to your terminology and be willing to adjust based on new information. This may be country-, region-, or campus-specific, and it may change over time (e.g. “minority” vs. “historically underrepresented”). When in doubt, be more specific rather than less (e.g. “Korean” instead of “Asian”; “Navajo” instead of “Native American”).
  • Use inclusive and non-gendered language whenever possible (e.g. “significant other/partner” instead of “boyfriend/husband,” “chairperson” instead of “chairman,” “parenting” instead of “mothering”).
  • Make a concerted effort to learn your students’ names AND pronunciations. Even if it takes you a few tries, it is a meaningful way to show your students you care about them as individuals.
  • Highlight the important historical and current contributions to your field made by scientists belonging to underrepresented groups.
  • Limit barriers to learning. You will likely have a list of your own, but here are a few I’ve compiled:
    • Provide lecture materials before class so that students can take notes on them during class.
    • Use a microphone to make sure all students can hear you clearly.
    • Consider using Dyslexie font on your slides to make it easier for dyslexic students to read them.
    • Speak slowly and limit your use of contractions so that non-native-English speakers can understand you more easily.
    • Write bullet points on the board that remain there for the whole class period, including the main points for that lecture, important dates coming up, and key assignments.
    • Be sensitive to students whose first language is not English and don’t punish them unnecessarily for misusing idioms.

As a final parting message, always try to be mindful of your students’ needs, but know that you don’t have everything figured out at the outset. Make time to reevaluate your approach, class materials, and activities to see where improvements can be made. Challenge yourself to continually improve and hone better practices. Listen to your students, and be mindful with the feedback you ask them to give you in mid-semester and/or course evaluations.

For more information, I recommend the following resources:

  1. Davis, BG. “Diversity and Inclusion in the Classroom.” Tools for Teaching (2nd Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. p 57 – 71. Print.
  2. Eredics, Nicole. “16 Inclusive Education Blogs You Need to Know About!” The Inclusive Class, 2016 July 27. http://www.theinclusiveclass.com/2016/07/16-inclusive-education-blogs-you-need.html
  3. Handelsman J, Miller S, Pfund C. “Diversity.” Scientific Teaching. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2007. p 65 – 82. Print.
  4. “Instructional Strategies: Inclusive Teaching and Learning.” The University of Texas at Austin Faculty Innovation Center. https://facultyinnovate.utexas.edu/inclusive

Laura Weise Cross is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Millersville University, beginning in the fall of 2019, where she will be teaching courses in Introductory Biology, Anatomy & Physiology, and Nutrition. Laura received a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Pathology from the University of North Carolina. She recently completed her post-doctoral training in the Department of Cell Biology & Physiology at the University of New Mexico, where she studied the molecular mechanisms of hypoxia-induced pulmonary hypertension. Laura’s research is especially focused on how hypoxia leads to structural remodeling of the pulmonary vessel wall, which is characterized by excessive vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation and migration. She looks forward to engaging undergraduate students in these projects in her new research lab.

Do You Want To Be On TV?

Last summer, some colleagues and I published a paper on how high school students can communicate their understanding of science through songwriting.  This gradually led to a press release from my home institution, and then (months later) a feature article in a local newspaper, and then appearances on Seattle TV stations KING-5 and KOMO-4.

It’s been an interesting little journey.  I haven’t exactly “gone viral” — I haven’t been adding hundreds of new Twitter followers, or anything like that — but even this mild uptick in interest has prompted me to ponder my relationship with the news media. In short, I do enjoy the attention, but I also feel some responsibility to influence the tone and emphases of these stories. In this post, I share a few bits of advice based on my recent experiences, and I invite others to contribute their own tips in the comments section.

(1) Find out how your school/department/committee views media appearances.  In April, I was invited to appear on KING’s mid-morning talk show, which sounded cool, except that the show would be taped during my normal Thursday physiology lecture!  My department chair and my dean encouraged me to do the show, noting that this sort of media exposure is generally good for the school, and so, with their blessing, I got a sub and headed for the studio.

(2) Respect students’ privacy during classroom visits.  After some students were included in a classroom-visit video despite promises to the contrary, I realized that I needed to protect their privacy more strongly. I subsequently established an option by which any camera-shy students could live-stream the lecture until the TV crew left.

(3) Anticipate and explicitly address potential misconceptions about what you’re doing.  I’ve worried that these “singing professor” pieces might portray the students simply as amused audience members rather than as active participants, so, during the classroom visits, I’ve used songs that are conducive to the students singing along and/or analyzing the meaning of the lyrics. (Well, mostly. “Cross-Bridges Over Troubled Water” wasn’t that great for either, but I had already sung “Myofibrils” for KING, and KOMO deserved an exclusive too, right?)

(4) Take advantage of your institution’s public relations expertise.  Everett Community College’s director of public relations offered to help me rehearse for the talk show — and boy am I glad that she did!  Being familiar with the conventions and expectations of TV conversations, Katherine helped me talk much more pithily than I normally do. In taking multiple cracks at her practice question about “how did you get started [using music in teaching]?” I eventually pared a meandering 90-second draft answer down to 30 seconds. She also asked me a practice question to which my normal response would be, “Can you clarify what you mean by X?” — and convinced me that in a 4-minute TV conversation, you don’t ask for clarifications, you just make reasonable assumptions and plow ahead with your answers.

(5) Ask your interviewers what they will want to talk about. Like a novice debater, I struggle with extemporaneous speaking; the more I can prepare for specific questions, the better.  Fortunately, my interviewers have been happy to give me a heads-up about possible questions, thus increasing their chances of getting compelling and focused answers.

Readers, what other advice would you add to the above?

Gregory J. Crowther, PhD has a BA in Biology from Williams College, a MA in Science Education from Western Governors University, and a PhD in Physiology & Biophysics from the University of Washington. He teaches anatomy and physiology in the Department of Life Sciences at Everett Community College. His peer-reviewed journal articles on enhancing learning with content-rich music have collectively been cited over 100 times.

Embracing the Instability of Positive Feedback Loops

Feedback loops are a physiology professor’s bread and butter.  From blood sugar to body temperature, negative feedback ensures that no physiological variable strays from its set point (or range) and that homeostasis is maintained.  Positive feedback loops, on the other hand, are inherently unstable.  In these loops, the response elicited by a stimulus drives the variable further from its set point, reinforcing the stimulus rather than reducing it, and continuing until some outside influence intervenes1.  The classic physiological example of positive feedback is childbirth – pressure from the baby on the mother’s uterus and cervix triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, which triggers uterine muscle contractions that further push the baby toward the cervix.  This loop of pressure, oxytocin release, and contractions continues until an intervening event occurs – the delivery of the baby.

While physiological positive feedback loops are fascinating, they are greatly outnumbered by negative feedback loops; thus, they don’t usually get much attention in our physiology classrooms.  We usually tell students that the instability of positive feedback loops is what makes them so uncommon.  However, I’d like to use my platform here to argue for a larger place for positive feedback loops in not just our physiology courses, but all of our courses.

 

Positive Feedback Loop Learning

I mentioned above that positive feedback loops are inherently unstable because they drive variables further from their set points, so you may be thinking, “why would I ever want my classroom to be unstable?”  Imagine it this way:  in this feedback loop, the stimulus is an idea, concept, or problem posed by the instructor.  The response is the student’s own investigation of the stimulus, which hopefully sparks further curiosity in the student about the topic at hand, and drives him or her toward more investigation and questioning.  Granted, this system of learning could certainly introduce some instability and uncertainty to the classroom.  Once sparked, the instructor does not have control over the student’s curiosity, which may take the student outside of the instructor’s area of expertise.  However, I maintain that this instability actually enriches our classroom by giving students the space to think critically.

 

Why Encourage Positive Feedback Loops?

Though often misattributed (or even misquoted), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (poet, essayist, physician, and father of US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) once wrote “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”2 Neuroscience research supports this assertion.  In rodents, exposure to novel stimuli in enriched environments enhances neuronal long-term potentiation, the cellular correlate of learning and memory in the brain3.  Human brains both functionally and structurally reorganize upon learning new information.  A magnetic resonance imaging study examined gray matter volume in the brains of German medical students who were studying for their “Physikum,” an extensive exam covering biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, human anatomy, and physiology4.  Brain scans taken 1-2 days after the Physikum demonstrated significantly increased gray matter volume in the parietal cortex and hippocampus compared to baseline scans taken 3 months prior to the exam (and prior to extensive exposure to new information during the study period)4.  Thus, while the brain may not literally be “stretched” by new ideas, as Holmes proposed, the process of learning (acquisition, encoding, and retrieval of new information) certainly reshapes the brain.

In the model I’ve presented above, new ideas, concepts, and questions are the stimuli in our positive feedback loop.  These stimuli promote changes in our student’s brains.  And, if these stimuli spark curiosity, these brain changes (and thus learning) will be amplified as students respond – meaning, as they construct new ideas, concepts, and questions based on their own interests.  Thus, the loop feeds into itself.

 

Designing Stimuli That Elicit Positive Feedback

How can we structure our teaching so that the stimulus we present to our students is strong enough to elicit a response?  First, it is crucial that our stimuli elicit curiosity in our students. In his essay surveying recent research on the role of curiosity in academic success, David Barry Kaufman wrote, “Stimulating classroom activities are those that offer novelty, surprise, and complexity, allowing greater autonomy and student choice; they also encourage students to ask questions, question assumptions, and achieve mastery through revision rather than judgment-day-style testing.”5  Project-based learning, a teaching technique focused on extended engagement with a problem or task as a means of constructing knowledge, checks many of Kaufman’s boxes6.  As an example, in the past two iterations of my Physiology course, my students have participated in the “Superhero Physiology Project” in which they develop interactive lesson plans for middle school students.  Based on the work of E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D. (author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of Superhero7 and multiple APS Advances in Physiology Education articles), my students choose a superhero to base their lesson upon, and work over the course of several weeks to create interactive, hands-on activities to teach kids about a physiological system.  While I give my students feedback on the plausibility of their ideas (within our time and budgetary constraints), I leave much of the structure of their lessons open so that they have the opportunity to work through the complexities that come with keeping 20 or more middle schoolers engaged.  Often, my students tell me that figuring out the best way to communicate physiological concepts for a young audience encouraged them to go beyond our textbook to search for new analogies and real-life examples of physiology to which middle schoolers could relate.

Another way to design stimuli that elicit curiosity and positive feedback learning is by capitalizing on a student’s naiveté.  In this approach, described by education expert Kimberly Van Orman of the University of Albany in The Chronicle of Higher Education8, “students don’t need to know everything before they can do anything” – meaning, curiosity is most easily sparked when possibilities aren’t limited by your existing knowledge, because you don’t have any!  For me, this approach is somewhat difficult.  Like all instructors, I regularly feel the pressure to ensure we “get through the material” and often plow through concepts too quickly.  However, my physiology students last fall showed me the power of the “naïve task” firsthand when I observed the Superhero Physiology lesson9 they gave at the middle school.  They decided that before teaching the middle schoolers any physiological terms or concepts didactically, they would present them with a hands-on experiment to introduce the concepts of stroke volume and vasoconstriction.  Their rationale and approach (below) illustrate their mastery of using naiveté to spark curiosity.

Rationale:

The students should be provided with very little, if any, background information on the heart models and the reasoning behind the varying sizes of the materials. By providing little information up front, we hope to intrigue their curiosity regarding the lesson and its significance. Students will be told what to do with the instruments; however, they will not receive any advice on which instruments to use.

The Experiment:

  1. Divide the class into two groups (within each group there should be 4-5 “holders” for the tubes and 4-5 “pumpers” managing water and pipets). Group 1 will be given large diameter tubing, a large funnel as well as 3 large volume pipettes. Group 2 will receive smaller tubing, a smaller funnel and only one smaller volume pipet.
  2. Instruct the students that they will be transporting the water from a large bucket into another bucket 8-10 feet across the room without moving the bucket.
  3. The groups will have 10 minutes to construct their apparatus, and 5 minutes for the actual head-to-head “race” in which the winner is determined by who moves the most amount of water in the allotted time.
  4. After the students have completed the first experiment they will return to their seats for the lecture portion of the lesson which will connect the different parts of the build to different portions of the cardiovascular system.

 

Not only did the middle school students have a fantastic time building their apparatus (and accidentally on purpose getting each other wet!), but as the experiment progressed, they began to get curious about why the other team was so behind or ahead.  Soon after, discussions between groups about tubing diameter and pipet size emerged organically among the middle schoolers, and they were able to easily apply these concepts to later discussions of blood flow and cardiac output.

 

Embracing Instability

While I think most educators aspire to elicit positive feedback learning in their students, there can be barriers to putting it into practice.  As I mentioned above, pressure to cover content results in some of us shying away from open-ended activities and projects.  Not all students in a given class will come in with the same motivations for learning (as discussed in Dr. Ryan Downey’s December 2018 PECOP Blog post10), nor will they all respond to the same stimuli with curiosity.  However, it just takes one stimulus to put a positive feedback loop into action – and once it gets going, it’s hard to stop.  Once a student’s curiosity is piqued, the classroom may feel a bit unstable as their interests move out of the realm of your expertise as an instructor.  But ultimately, we all as educators live for that moment when a connection crystallizes in a student’s mind and they discover a new question they can’t wait to answer.

 

Acknowledgements

The author is grateful to Wabash students James Eaton, Sam Hayes, Cheng Ge, and Hunter Jones for sharing an excerpt of their middle school lesson.

 

References

1 Silverthorn DU. (2013).  Human physiology, an integrated approach (6th Ed.). Pearson.

2 Holmes OW. (1858). The autocrat of the breakfast-table. Boston:  Phillips, Sampson and Company.

3 Hullinger R, O’Riordan K, Burger C.  (2015).  Environmental enrichment improves learning and memory and long-term potentiation in young adult rats through a mechanism requiring mGluR5 signaling and sustained activation of p70s6k.  Neurobiol Learn Mem 125:126-34.

4 Draganski B, Gaser C, Kempermann G, Kuhn HG, Winkler J, Büchel C, May A. (2006).  Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning.  J Neurosci 26(23):6314-17.

Kaufman,SB. (2017, July 24).  Schools are missing what matters about learning.  The Atlantic.  Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/the-underrated-gift-of-curiosity/534573/

6 What is PBL? (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl

7 Zehr, EP. (2008).  Becoming Batman: the possibility of a superhero.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

8 Supiano, B. (2018, June 7). How one teaching expert activates students’ curiosity. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-One-Teaching-Expert/243609

9 Eaton J, Hayes S, Ge C, Jones H. (2018).  Superhero cardio: the effects of blood vessel diameter, stroke volume, and heart rate on cardiac output. Unpublished work, Wabash College, Crawfordsville, IN.

10 Downey, R.  (2018, December 13).  Affective teaching and motivational instruction: becoming more effective educators of science. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.lifescitrc.org/pecop/2018/12/13/affective-teaching-and-motivational-instruction-becoming-more-effective-educators-of-science/

 

Heidi Walsh has been an Assistant Professor of Biology at Wabash College since 2014. She received a B.S. in Neuroscience from Allegheny College, a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Virginia, and completed post-doctoral work in the Department of Metabolism & Aging at The Scripps Research Institute’s Florida campus.  Heidi’s research lab studies the impact of obesity-related stressors, including endoplasmic reticulum stress, on gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons. She teaches courses in Cell Biology, Physiology, and Molecular Endocrinology, and enjoys collaborating with students on science outreach projects.
Engaging students in active learning via protocol development

Physiology, particularly metabolic physiology, covers the fundamentals of biophysics and biochemistry for nutrient absorption, transport, and metabolism. Engaging pre-health students in experimentation may facilitate students’ learning and their in-depth understanding of the mechanisms coordinating homeostatic control. In addition, it may promote critical thinking and problem-solving ability if students are engaged in active learning.

Traditionally, students are provided instructions that detail the stepwise procedures before an experiment or demonstration. Although students are encouraged to ask questions before and during the experiments, an in-depth discussion would not be possible until they understand each step and the underlying principles. This is particularly true nowadays when commercial kits come with stepwise instructions where no explanation can be found of principles behind the procedure. The outcomes may contrast in three ways: (1) students are happy with the perfect data they acquire by following the instructions provided by the manufacturer, but they miss the opportunity to chew on the key principles that are critical for students to develop creative thinking; (2) students are frustrated as they follow the instruction but fail the experiments, without knowing what is wrong and where to start for trouble shooting; and (3) driven by self-motivation, students dig into the details and interact intensively with the instructor to grasp the principles of the procedure. As such, the students can produce reliable data and interpret the procedure and data with confidence, and in addition, they may effectively diagnose operational errors for trouble shooting. Evidently, the 3rd scenario demonstrates an example of active learning, which is desirable but not common in a traditional model of experimentation.

To engage students in active learning, one of the strategies is to remove the ready-to-go procedure from the curricular setting but request the students to submit a working protocol of their own version at the end of an experiment. Instead of a stepwise procedure (i.e., a “recipe”), the students are provided with reading materials that discuss the key principles of the analytical procedures. When students show the competency in the understanding of the principles in a formative assessment (e.g., a 30-min quiz), they are ready to observe the demonstrations step by step, taking notes and asking questions. Based on their notes and inspiration from discussion, each student is requested to develop a protocol of their own version. Depending on how detail-oriented the protocols are, the instructor may approve it or ask students to recall the details and revise their protocols before moving forward. Once students show competency in the protocol development, they are ready to conduct the steps in groups under the instructor’s (or teaching assistant, TA’s) supervision. Assessment on precision and accuracy is the key to examine the competency of students’ operation, which also provides opportunities for students to go back to improve or update their protocols. In the case of unexpected results, the students are encouraged to interpret and justify their results in a physiological setting (e.g., fasting vs. feeding states) unless they choose not to. Regardless, students are asked to go back to recall and review their operation for trouble shooting under the instructor’s (or TA’s) supervision, till they show competency in the experiment with reproducible and biologically meaningful data. Trouble shooting under instructor’s or TA’s supervision and inspiration serves as an efficient platform for students to take the lead in critical thinking and problem solving, which prompts students to go back to improve or update their protocols showing special and practical notes about potential pitfalls and success tips.

Often with delight, students realize how much they have grown at the end of experimentation. However, frustration is not uncommon during the troubleshooting and learning, which has to be overcome through students’ persistence and instructor’s encouragement. Some students might feel like “jumping off a cliff” in the early stage of an experiment where a ready-to follow instruction is not available. Growing in experience and persistence, they become more confident and open to pursue “why” in addition to “what”.

Of note, logistic consideration is critical to ensure active learning by this strategy. A single experiment would take up to 3-fold more time for the instructor and students to work together to reach competency. To this end, the instructor needs to reduce the number of experiments for a semester, and carefully select and design the key experiments to maximally benefit students in terms of skill learning, critical thinking, and problem solving. Furthermore, group size should be kept small (e.g., less than 3 students per group) to maximize interactive learning if independent experimentation by individuals is not an option. Such a requirement can be met either by increasing TA support or reducing class size.

 

 

Zhiyong Cheng is an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Science at the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Dr. Cheng received his PhD in Analytical Biochemistry from Peking University. After completing his postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Cheng joined Virginia Tech as a faculty member, and recently he relocated to the University of Florida. Dr. Cheng has taught Nutrition and Metabolism, with a focus on substrate absorption, transport, and metabolism. As the principal investigator in a research lab studying metabolic diseases (obesity and type 2 diabetes), Dr. Cheng has been actively participating in undergraduate and graduate research training.
Where does general education fit into an undergraduate degree?

I am currently serving on a taskforce which has been given the job of revising our general education program. As a member of this taskforce, I have been reading, analyzing, and using data to design and implement a program that many faculty struggle to explain and that many students often question. This made me think. What do schools mean by general education?

If we look at definitions, most people would say this is the part of a student’s education which is meant to develop their personalities or provide skills and knowledge which will help students succeed not only in their chosen major but also in their careers and life. If we look at this more closely, many faculty members see general education as the place for students to develop some of those soft skills that are often talked about by employers. These soft skills include communication skills, listening skills, critical thinking/problem solving, and interpersonal skills to name a few.

If general education is the place for the learning of these skills, where do we as faculty fit into general education? After all, isn’t it my job to provide the knowledge for Biology classes? That is why I have my Ph.D. and the institution hired me. Surely, there are other members of the campus community that can also guide students on successful acquisition of these skills? For example, I was never taught how to teach writing so why should I teach writing? But is this statement true? I was taught how to write. In elementary, junior high, and high school, I was taught how to construct sentences to ensure that all verbs had a subject. I was taught how to put together an outline so that my thoughts were organized in a logical manner. In college, I was taught how to now take difficult concepts and use them to develop a hypothesis. I was taught how to present the methodology of my experiments. And finally, I was taught how to analyze and present data and then discuss what that data meant. Graduate school asked me to use these skills and bring them to a higher level. I could list similar instances and experiences for thinking and problem solving, collaboration, and other soft skills as well. Are these experiences enough for me to be able to teach writing in our general education program? That is the million dollar question our taskforce is trying to answer. There is a part of me, that says, “YES! I can teach students how to write.” I have had papers published. I write all the time for different committees, classes, and other activities. There is a second part of me that is terrified of the idea of teaching writing in a more general class. Those scary terms like logic and rhetoric seem overwhelming to this Biology professor. Can I even give an example of rhetoric? I know that if I stepped back and took a breath, I could give an example of rhetoric. But this raises another question. Do the students deserve someone better trained (and less afraid of these terms) to guide them while learning these skills? That question is still one our taskforce is trying to answer.

The other question our taskforce has had to face is, “How do we get students to buy into general education?” What can we as faculty and staff do to promote the importance of those skills learned in our institution’s general education programs? Are we so focused on the knowledge and skills of the major that we forget that those soft skills can make or break a successful employee? Knowledge and skills specific to a job can get the applicant to the interview. It is the soft skills that can get the applicant the job. If this is the case, then isn’t it our job as professors and teachers to not only help our students gain the knowledge but also to help them gain those skills that will help them to succeed in their careers and lives? And if that is our job, how do we as faculty support and allow for equal importance of both technical knowledge and skills and these so-called soft skills?

Let me preface, I am certainly not telling faculty that they need to get rid of their grading scales. And I am not telling students they should forget about their grades. But I am questioning how we measure success in today’s academic world and in our global society. If we look at surveys and reports that have been published, employers are having trouble finding students/potential employees with soft skills. Does this mean all of these higher education institutions are failing in their general education of students? I would like to think that we aren’t failing. But I am suggesting we might need to find a better way to illustrate the importance of the skills learned in general education classes. This could be in how we discuss general education to how we define successful completion of general education. Most teachers always ask how to assess soft skills. Is it possible that maybe a grading scale isn’t the only way to define success when it comes to learning some skills? Again, our taskforce hasn’t come up with the golden answer yet.

Serving on this taskforce has been eye opening and I have learned that putting together a successful general education program requires a great deal of guesswork. There have been questions raised that I truly do not have answers for, and I don’t know that answers are available for these questions. But these questions and this process have made me question what the future of general education looks like.  The current generation of students have access to technology and possess skills and talents that did not even exist when many faculty were students. As faculty we learned skills that helped us succeed back when we were graduating and looking to move to the next phase of life. And we have adapted as changes to the world have come. While I cannot say for sure what general education will look like in the future, I can say that we need to be training students for the requirements of today’s workforce and the ability to adapt for the future workforce. And unless we have a crystal ball which can predict the future, what that looks like will remain unknown.

 

Melissa A. Fleegal-DeMotta, Ph.D. earned her BS in Biology from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. After working at Penn State’s College of Medicine, she then earned her PhD from the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL. Following postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Florida, University of Arizona, and Saint Louis University, she has been a professor at Clarke University in Dubuque, IA for over 10 years. During her time at Clarke, she has developed an interest in how the general education of a liberal arts university fits with the education of science majors.