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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.