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.
There are numerous studies showing that STEM persistence rates are poor (especially amongst under-represented minority, first-generation, and female students) (1-2). It is also fairly broadly accepted that introductory science and math courses act as a primary barrier to this persistence, with their large class size. There is extensive evidence that first-year seminar courses help improve student outcomes and success, and many of our institutions offer those kinds of opportunities for students (3). Part of the purpose of these courses is to help students develop the skills that they need to succeed in college while also cultivating their sense of community at the university. In my teaching career, I have primarily been involved in courses taken by first-year college students, including mentoring others while they teach first-year courses (4). To help starting to build that sense of community and express the importance of building those college success skills, I like to tell them about how I ended up standing in front of them as Dr. Trimby.
I wasn’t interested in Biology as a field when I started college. I was going to be an Aerospace Engineer and design spaceships or jets, and I went to a very good school with a very good program for doing exactly this. But, college didn’t get off to the best start for me, I wasn’t motivated and didn’t know how to be a successful college student, so my second year of college found me now at my local community college (Joliet Junior College) taking some gen ed courses and trying to figure out what next. I happened to take a Human Genetics course taught by Dr. Polly Lavery. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Genetics or have a particular interest, I just needed the Natural Science credit. Dr. Lavery’s course was active and engaged, and even though it didn’t have a lab associated with it we transformed some E. coli with a plasmid containing GFP and got to see it glow in the dark (which, when it happened almost 20 years ago was pretty freaking cool!). This was done in conjunction with our discussions of Alba the glow-in-the-dark rabbit (5). The course hooked me! I was going to study gene therapy and cure cancer! After that semester, I transferred to Northern Illinois University and changed my major to Biology.
So, why do I bring this up here? When I have this conversation with my undergraduate students, my goal is to remind them that there will be bumps in the road. When we mentor our students, whether it be advisees or students in our classes, it is important to remind them that failure happens. What matters is what you do when things do go sideways. That is really scary for students. Many of our science majors have been extremely successful in the lead up to college, and may have never really failed or even been challenged. What can we do to help our students with this?
First of all, we can build a framework into our courses that supports and encourages students to still strive to improve even if they don’t do well on the first exam. This can include things like having exam wrappers (6) and/or reflective writing assignments that can help students assess their learning process and make plans for future assessments. Helping students develop self-regulated learning strategies will have impacts that semester (7) and likely beyond. In order for students to persevere in the face of this adversity (exhibit grit), there has to be some sort of hope for the future – i.e. there needs to be a reasonable chance for a student to still have a positive outcome in the course. (8) This can include having a lower-stakes exam early in the semester to act as a learning opportunity, or a course grading scale that encourages and rewards improvement over the length of the semester.
Secondly, we can help them to build a growth mindset (9), where challenges are looked forward to and not knowing something or not doing well does not chip away at someone’s self-worth. Unfortunately, you cannot just tell someone that they should have a growth mindset, but there are ways of thinking that can be encouraged in students (10).
Something that is closely tied to having a growth mindset is opening yourself up to new experiences and the potential for failure. In other words being vulnerable (11). Many of us (and our students) choose courses and experiences that we know that we can succeed at, and have little chance of failure. This has the side effect of limiting our experiences. Being vulnerable, and opening up to new experiences is something important to remind students of. This leads to the next goal of reminding students that one of the purposes of college is to gain a broad set of experiences and that for many of us, that will ultimately shape what we want to do, so it is okay if the plan changes – but that requires exploration.
As an educator who was primarily trained in discipline-specific content addressing some of these changes to teaching can be daunting. Fortunately there are many resources available out there. Some of them I cited previously, but additional valuable resources that have been helpful to me include the following:
- Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide. Felder & Brent Eds.
- Covers a lot of material, including more information of exam wrappers and other methods for developing metacognitive and self-directed learning skills.
- Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by Lang
- Covers a lot relating to student motivation and approaches that can encourage students to take a more intrinsically motivated attitude about their learning.
- Rising to the Challenge: Examining the Effects of a Growth Mindset – STIRS Student Case Study by Meyers (https://www.aacu.org/stirs/casestudies/meyers)
- A case study on growth mindset that also asks students to analyze data and design experiments, which can allow it to address additional course goals.
- President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Office of Science and Technology.
- Shaw, E., & Barbuti, S. (2010). Patterns of persistence in intended college major with a focus on STEM majors. NACADA Journal, 30(2), 19–34.
- Tobolowsky, B. F., & Associates. (2008). 2006 National survey of first-year seminars: Continuing innovations in the collegiate curriculum (Monograph No. 51). Columbia: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.
- Wienhold, C. J., & Branchaw, J. (2018). Exploring Biology: A Vision and Change Disciplinary First-Year Seminar Improves Academic Performance in Introductory Biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(2), ar22.
- Philipkoski, P. RIP: Alba, The Glowing Bunny. https://www.wired.com/2002/08/rip-alba-the-glowing-bunny/. Accessed January 23, 2019.
- Exam Wrappers. Carnegie Mellon – Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/examwrappers/ Accessed January 23, 2019
- Sebesta, A. and Speth, E. (2017). How Should I Study for the Exam? Self-Regulated Learning Strategies and Achievement in Introductory Biology. CBE – Life Sciences Education. Vol. 16, No. 2.
- Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner.
- Dweck, C. (2014). The Power of Believing that you can Improve. https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare
- Briggs, S. (2015). 25 Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset. https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/develop-a-growth-mindset/. Accessed January 23, 2019.
- Brown, B. (2010). The Power of Vulnerability. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en&utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare
|Christopher Trimby is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Delaware in Newark, DE. He received his PhD in Physiology from the University of Kentucky in 2011. During graduate school he helped out with teaching an undergraduate course, and discovered teaching was the career path for him. After graduate school, Chris spent four years teaching a range of Biology courses at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), after which he moved to University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE – https://wiscience.wisc.edu/) to direct the Teaching Fellows Program. At University of Delaware, Chris primarily teaches a version of the Introductory Biology sequence that is integrated with General Chemistry and taught in the Interdisciplinary Science Learning Laboratories (ISLL – https://www.isll.udel.edu/). Despite leaving WISCIENCE, Chris continues to work on developing mentorship programs for both undergraduates interested in science and graduate students/post-docs who are interested in science education. Chris enjoys building things in his workshop and hopes to get back into hiking more so he can update his profile pic. .|
Recently, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games came to a close. The games included a number of thrilling surprises (Red Gerard) and heart-breaking spills (figure skaters). Although medals awarded late in the Olympic schedule helped boost Team USA’s medal count, most would agree that the U.S.’s performance in PyeongChang fell below expectations. Looking for answers, TV commentators remarked that the US pipeline for development of Olympic athletes has diminished in recent years.
While taking in the splendor of the Olympic Games, I began to wonder…should we be training future scientists is a manner similar to our athletes? Is the pipeline for development of talent well established and supported? How do we get the American public to rally behind the performance of high performing physiologists? What if local businesses, and corporate sponsors proudly displayed “we employ future teachers, scientists, and health care providers”?
As an avid follower of the games, it became obvious to me that Olympic athletes cluster in specific regions of the US. The Gold medal men’s curling team included 4 men from Minnesota (3 from Duluth), and one from nearby Wisconsin. Three young Olympic snowboarders (Red Gerard, Kyle Mack, and Chris Corning) all hail from Silverthorne, Colorado. The city of Federal Way (located along Federal Highway U.S. 99 in Washington State) is an incubator of U.S. short-track speed skating talent, and has sent American speed skaters to the past five Winter Olympics (Ohno, Celski and Tran).
Is it possible that certain high schools and undergraduate institutions could be considered “incubators” for development of physiologists (scientists in general)? Can we consider our school a “hot bed” for training and development of those with a passion for science? As professionals, are we fulfilling our role to prepare our youth for their “Olympic” performance, or are we falling behind expectations?
To assist in preparing future physiologists, the American Physiological Society supports the “pipeline” by providing a number of programs and awards (see links below). However, these offerings require us to identify students and encourage and support their applications. We are called upon to build programs and opportunities that are sustainable, and produce measurable outcomes.
I have to admit that prior to writing this post, I had not FULLY considered my role in developing our future physiologists (Olympians). I personally pledge to re-evaluate my role, and hope to bring others into the conversation to ponder the questions posed.
In closing, I would ask you to consider a quote from former Olympic Gold medalist Mia Hamm, and think about specific and personal ways each of us can help build the fire, and light the match.
- Barbara A. Horwitz and John M. Horowitz Outstanding Undergraduate Abstract Awards
- Barbara A. Horwitz and John M. Horowitz Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Research
- Integrative Organismal Systems Physiology Fellowships
- Physiology Video Contest: “Function Follows Form”
- Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research Fellowships
- Undergraduate Research Excellence Fellowships
- Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowships
- APS Science Fair Awards: APS members make APS awards at local or regional science fair at the elementary, middle, or high school level.
- ISEF Awards: APS participates as a Special Awards Sponsor for the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)
Program brochures for diversity and higher education:
|Mari K. Hopper, PhD, is currently an Assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine. In addition to teaching physiology in a variety of systems based courses, she serves as the Director of Research, Hospital Medical Education, and other Scholarly work. Prior to this position, she taught physiology based courses at the undergraduate level for over 20 years. She is currently on the HAPS Conference Site Selection Committee, Chair of the Chapter Advisory Committee of the American Physiological Society, and Past-President of the Indiana Physiological Society. Her research interests include both student academic engagement (active learning) and student health.|