Tag Archives: science

Teaching High Level Learning Goals in Science Classes: A Lesson from Librarians

Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a way to classify learning outcomes into lower order and higher order goals. On the lower end of the spectrum we ask students to remember, understand, and apply by doing tasks such as define, list, explain, and interpret. On the higher end of the spectrum, we want students to analyze, evaluate, and ultimately create by doing tasks such as organize, compare, critique, and design (1). As educators, we all want to push our students toward the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but how do you teach someone to create? It feels like a daunting task. I don’t think anyone ever attempted to directly teach me these higher-level skills, but instead I somehow learned them in graduate school by trial and error (in the form of a lot of red writing on drafts that I submitted to my thesis advisor). This is why I was so excited to discover the synthesis matrix. A synthesis matrix is a table that is set up to extract relevant information from sources, which can include non-scholarly, scholarly, and even student generated data. It provides a way to organize research that allows for easy comparison of the key information from many sources (3, 4, 5). I first learned about the synthesis matrix when I was teaching First Year Seminar (FYS) at Dickinson College. Learning outcomes for FYS include the ability to critically analyze information from multiple perspectives and use that information to create clear academic writing (2). Using class time to teach these skills was very different from what I typically do in my biology classes where it is a struggle just to keep up with the vast amount of content. Therefore, it is an understatement to say that I was out of my element teaching FYS. Fortunately, each FYS class at Dickinson is assigned to librarians. I was fortunate to have Dickinson librarians Nick Lonergan and Jessica Howard help design assignments and teach methods that help students achieve the FYS learning goals. Nick and Jessica designed a synthesis matrix assignment to help students find relevant non-scholarly and scholarly sources and extract information from the sources to help them compare viewpoints on different concepts found in each reference. In this case, the synthesis matrix was used as a homework assignment to prepare students to organize and synthesize information from multiple references in future writing assignments. The power of the synthesis matrix immediately hit me as I realized that this is what experts do in their heads. Many years of reading and analyzing both the work of others and our own research leads to the formation of a mental synthesis matrix that we can pull from as needed in our respective fields. I think my life would have been a lot easier if I knew about the concept of a paper synthesis matrix in graduate school. Since my discovery of the synthesis matrix in FYS, I have used it in different ways in all of the biology classes I teach at Dickinson College including Introductory Biology (Biology 132), Physiology (Biology 333), and Molecular Pathophysiology, which is a research and writing intensive class (Biology 433). Some ways I have used it include:

 

  • Homework assignment: On the simplest level, the synthesis matrix can be used to assess student ability to find appropriate references and extract relevant information from those references. An example of this is described above for FYS and I can easily see this working well in Introductory Biology classes. I have also done this in Molecular Pathophysiology (Biology 433) as a homework assignment prior to assigning a literature review writing assignment.

 

  • Classroom Activity: In Physiology (Biology 333), I have lab groups (6 groups of 4 students each) find a primary publication on a topic related to an upcoming lab project and analyze it for specific information related to research methods and results. In order to avoid overlap and make sure they found the right type of paper, I have the students email the paper they found for approval. If two groups found the same paper or if it is not the right type of source (for example, some students will try to use a review), I will ask them to find another paper. In lab I draw a synthesis matrix on the board and distribute blank handouts of the same synthesis matrix. We then go around the room and as students report their findings, I fill in the synthesis matrix. When it is done, I demonstrate how to use the matrix to synthesize the results of multiple references to come to overarching conclusions and design new experiments. We use this to guide the design of a class research project and in future writing assignments.

 

  • Model Creation: The most complex way I have used the synthesis matrix is in Molecular Pathophysiology (Biology 433). As a research based Writing in the Discipline (WID) class, we focus all of our attention on analyzing primary literature and doing novel experiments in lab. Throughout the semester, I encourage students to draw their own textbook style models of what data show. This can be done by synthesizing results from a single primary publication (if the authors did not already generate a model), multiple primary publications (as seen in review articles), and even by incorporating student lab results with published results. The synthesis matrix can be set up to accommodate all of these approaches. For example, instead of labeling columns by reference #, columns can be labeled by figure # for a single primary publication. Similarly, a column for class lab results can be added to incorporate class results (Figure 1). This is my favorite way of using the matrix. It is so powerful for students to see how one small experiment they did fits in with the big picture of what others have published.

Of all the teaching methods I have tried over the years, the synthesis matrix is the closest I have come to teaching students how to think like an expert. It has also allowed me to do a better job of breaking the research and writing process down into component parts. If you tell a college senior to write a one page introduction section of a scientific paper with 5 references, many of them think they can produce one page of writing in a couple of hours (I know I thought that as a senior in college!). However, if you force them to do a synthesis matrix that includes analysis of the relevant information in 5 primary papers prior to writing about them, they quickly realize how much work is involved.

 

Ultimately, the most important lesson I learned though all of this is that teaching in science classes can benefit greatly from methods used in classes outside of our discipline. If you Google “synthesis matrix”, it is a commonly used method promoted on Library, Academic Coaching, and Writing Center websites at many colleges and universities (3, 4, 5). However, I never heard of it until librarians introduced me to it while teaching FYS. Interacting with scholars outside of my discipline has helped me to integrate the teaching of higher level learning goals alongside lower level learning goals related to content in my classes.

 

References

  1. Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching, Bloom’s Taxonomy. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/. 2018 Vanderbilt University, Accessed December 28, 2018.
  2. Dickinson, First-Year Seminar. https://www.dickinson.edu/homepage/99/first_year_seminars . Accessed December 28, 2018.
  3. Ashford University, Synthesis Matrix. https://writingcenter.ashford.edu/synthesis-matrix . 2017 Bridgepoint Education. Accessed December 28, 2018.
  4. Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries, Write a Literature Review. http://guides.library.jhu.edu/lit-review/synthesize . 2017 Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries. Accessed December 28, 2018.
  5. Academic Coaching and Writing, A Synthesis Matrix as a Tool for Analyzing and Synthesizing Prior Research. https://academiccoachingandwriting.org/dissertation-doctor/dissertation-doctor-blog/iii-a-synthesis-matrix-as-a-tool-for-analyzing-and-synthesizing-prior-resea . 2018 Academic Coaching and Writing LLC. Accessed December 28, 2018.

 

Tiffany Frey is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. She received her Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and also has a certificate in Adult Learning from Johns Hopkins University School of Education. She teaches Introductory Biology, Physiology, and Molecular Pathophysiology at Dickinson College. Her research interests are focused on understanding the cellular and molecular basis of autoinflammatory disease and incorporating and assessing the effects of scholarly teaching methods in her courses. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her family (husband, 2 children, and dog Charlie), reading, participating in exercise classes, and running in local races.
Scientific Literacy: A Challenge, a Task, a Poem

Scientific literacy allows citizens to get involved in issues and ideas related to science as a reflective citizen[1]. A scientifically literate person can:

  1. Recognize, offer and evaluate explanations for a variety of scientific and technological phenomena
  2. Describe and evaluate scientific research and propose ways to answer questions and solve problems following the scientific method
  3. Analyze and evaluate data, concepts and arguments in a variety of contexts, reaching appropriate conclusions for the data received[1]

 

The challenge

Quality education is the key to achieving literate societies. Unfortunately, scientific literacy is generally very low in most developing countries. Results of the PISA tests, for example, reveal that competencies in mathematics and sciences in developing countries are below the average of the countries evaluated[2]. This has enormous consequences for the communities by negatively impacting their political, economic and social decision-making.

 

Figure 1. Performance in mathematics and science of different countries in the 2015 Pisa tests. Images Taken from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/.[2]

The task

It is very important to open spaces for the general community in developing countries to learn about the practice of science. Many scientific organizations develop training activities that are usually directed at specialized audiences. For this reason, it is important to highlight the task of scientific associations that are concerned with bringing science to the general community such as the American Physiological Society through events such as PhUn week. In the particular case of Colombia, the Colombian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACAC) organizes every two years a very large science fair “Expociencia” that is visited by more than 40,000 elementary, middle and high school students.

 

These science fairs have several objectives:

  1. Allow students to present the results of scientific projects. Students are exposed to an essential component of science, sharing and communicating research. In addition, they have the opportunity to learn from their peers and receive feedback from more experienced researchers.
  2. Open the doors of academic, governmental or industry laboratories to the community. Visitors have the opportunity to know what scientists do, interact with them, expose their visions about science. In addition, visitors can express doubts they have about different concepts, and sometimes they can find answers to their questions.
  3. Generate academic spaces so that researchers can discuss how to work with the community, address their most pressing needs and communicate their results to the public.

Figure 2. Participation of students in academic activities at Expociencia 2018. Images courtesy of Deiryn Reyes, ACAC.

Recently with the support of the Faculty of Medicine of the Universidad de los Andes, I had the opportunity to participate in Expociencia[3]. It was gratifying to see how the children ran from one side to the other having the opportunity to learn about electronics, physics, programming, biology, medicine and anthropology. These children are like sponges that quickly absorb the information they receive and are willing to ask questions without filtering them through mechanisms that adults have learned. In addition, Expociencia promotes spaces for university students to share their experiences and for a moment to be role models for school students. I believe that many lives are changed thanks to the experience of living science.

 

The poem

In the nineteenth century lived a poet who wrote and translated from other languages several of the best-known stories that are known by children and adults in Colombia. His influence on Colombian literature is similar to that of the Grimm brothers in Europe. The name of this writer was Rafael Pombo. A few weeks ago, thanks to my son, I had the opportunity to learn that he also wrote about the importance of knowledge and science. On this occasion I want to share a personal translation of one of Rafael Pombo´s poems, that can be used to discuss with small children and adults the importance of science in our lives.

 

THE CHILD AND THE OX

Rafael Pombo (1833-1912)

The boy

 

-What do you think about all day

Lying on the grass?

You seem to me a great doctor

Enraptured in his science.

 

The ox

-The science, dear child

It is not what feeds me;

That is the fruit of study,

With what God gives humans.

 

Out thinking for me,

Poor animal, hard enterprise;

I prefer to make thirty furrows

Before learning two letters.

 

Chewing well, I care more

that a lesson at school.

With the teeth, I chew,

You, child, with your head.

 

But if you want to be wise

Hopefully seeing me you´ll learn

To ruminate, and ruminate a lot,

Every bit of science.

 

Digesting, not eating,

It is what the body takes advantage of,

And the soul, invisible body,

has to follow such a rule.

 

Without ruminating it well, do not swallow

Not a line, not a letter;

The one who learns like a parrot,

Ignorant parrot stays.

 

References

  1. National Academies of Sciences, E., and Medicine., Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequence. 2016.
  2. OECD. Results by Country. [cited 2018 November 4th]; Available from: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/.
  3. Ciencia, A.C.p.e.A.d.l. Expociencia 2018. 2018 [cited 2018 October 31st]; Available from: https://expociencia.co/home/.
Ricardo A. Peña-Silva M.D., PhD is an associate professor at the Universidad de los Andes, School of Medicine in Bogota, Colombia, where he is the coordinator of the physiology and pharmacology courses for second-year medical students. He received his doctorate in Pharmacology from The University of Iowa in Iowa City. His research interests are in aging, hypertension, cerebrovascular disease and medical education. He works in incorporation and evaluation of educational technology in biomedical education.

He enjoys spending time with his kids. Outside the office he likes running and riding his bicycle in the Colombian mountains.

 

 

 

The Real World – A Philosophical Analysis?

Silhouette of coming businessman in doorway with shadow

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”—thus, Wordsworth over two centuries ago, bemoaned man’s disconnect from the natural world and meaningful lives. Universities these days are exhorted to prepare students for the “real world”. But what that “reality” is, puzzles me.

 

In one sense, there is a depressing soul-numbing banality to our daily lives. As the Fool told Jacques, “From hour to hour, we ripe and ripe/And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;/And thereby hangs a tale.” Surely we do not need Universities to teach students to cope with that tedium—picking out the best buys from a selection of toilet paper or tooth pastes, parking cars, changing diapers, filing tax forms and other drearies (to coin a word). The ‘real world” is one where many trudge through their working days longing for the weekends when they can begin to live. We always ask people how their weekends went, not their week. Do we need courses in coping with tedium or preparing for the weekend?

 

We could of course, prepare them for other realities. Beyond death and taxes, there are other certainties, the “resonant lies” that Auden warned us about in his Ode to Terminus. That our students will find themselves in a thicket of lies in the real world is more than certain. We can prepare them well by giving them the right tools. In the sciences, much is made of critical appraisal where students are taught to assess peer-reviewed articles and analyze publications. That is all well and good, but the more dangerous lies have rarely been subject to peer review. They lie buried elsewhere in the minutes of Committee meetings, confidential reports etc. I think it was David Halberstam in his brilliant analysis of the Kennedy administration, who noted the significance of selective “minuting” in skewing decisions. Perhaps an interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary mandatory course in “Institutional Lying” can be very useful.

 

Philip Larkin found himself in a church where he mused on what would become of such sacred spaces, “In whose blent air all our compulsions meet/ Are recognized, and robed as destinies.”  To me, the University much like a church, is a sacred space, where one melds the richness of the past with the exuberance of the future. It is that richness of the real world that we can pass on to our students, not just its banalities.

 

I am a basic biologist and most, though not all, of my courses deal with biological mechanisms that underly the very marrow of our existence, the stuff we are made of, so to speak. The words and concepts, I use, (receptors, inverse agonists, G-proteins, allosteric modulators, constitutive activities etc.), may seem a trifle arch but these can, and have, made their way from bench to boardroom and beyond. In addition, our daily lives, loves, behaviors, misbehaviors stem from responses to such molecules.

 

None of what I teach may help my students deal directly with their quotidian vicissitudes; in a deeper sense though, they may realize that underlying all their actions, their fears, hopes, loves and despairs are molecular interactions whose mysteries have been probed and defined by their own species adding to the rich tapestry of human expression and creativity. We are, ourselves, part of that wonderful world that Wordsworth wanted us to be in touch with.  Truly the unknown psalmist got it right when he said “Oh Lord, How manifold are Thy works! In Wisdom has thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches”

What better way for a university to fulfill its role than opening the windows to their students to that wonderful world, the REAL one?

 

pkr

 

 

P.K. Rangachari is currently Professor (Emeritus) of Medicine at McMaster University. Depending on the emphasis placed, that word emeritus could imply he has much merit, none whatsoever or only in cyberspace. He has a medical degree (M.B.B.S. 1966) from the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India and a Ph.D. (Pharmacology) from the U. of Alberta (1972). He drifted into medical school due to a bureaucratic blunder that derailed his efforts to become an organic chemist. However he was lucky. He had great teachers in the basic sciences and so after graduation, he left his stethoscope behind and began a peripatetic existence moving from lab to lab in several continents, finally landing up at McMaster University in Canada, some thirty plus years ago.
P.K. Rangachari’s experimental research focused on the effects of inflammatory mediators on ion transport in smooth muscles and epithelia. He has taught students in undergraduate science, liberal arts, nursing, medicine, physiotherapy and pharmacy. He has sought to bridge the two cultures (the sciences and the humanities) by designing interdisciplinary courses or encouraging students to express their learning through more creative outlets such as framing conversations, writing reviews and plays. He is blessed that he is blissfully ignorant so he can wake up each day convinced that there is so much more to learn. His students fortunately help him in that regard.

 

 

Acknowledging race in the science classroom

thinking“I don’t teach about race. Leave it to the social scientists. They are trained to talk and teach about this stuff. I wouldn’t even know where to start.” I am embarrassed to admit it, but there were times in my life I thought this, and I know I am not alone.

As a science educator, it is easy to stick close to our training as scientists. Scientists teaching science is normalized, largely unquestioned, and safe. Early in my career as an educator, with every institutional equity initiative announcement, I easily convinced myself that I supported my students in other ways. “Leave diversity to the experts.”

What about my expertise? Diabetes is a topic I know well after more than 15 years of training, research, and teaching. It was easy to incorporate this topic into all of my courses. In fact, I teach my entire introductory biology course using humans as a model and diabetes as a way to connect many of the systems. Most students know someone with diabetes. Their personal experience with the disease, complemented by a continuous barrage of hands-on, inquiry-based laboratory activities in this intro course, completely hooks the students! They succeed, with very low drop or fail rates (<5%). At the conclusion of the course, students are enthusiastic about taking more biology courses (Johnson & Lownik, 2013). Things seem to be going well. Why worry?

During the introductory biology course, we spend days going over CDC data about the trends and risk factors for diabetes (CDC, 2015). Are the relationships correlations or causations? How can we use population data to think about the biological mechanism of diabetes? These are great questions for introductory students, and they totally buy in.

However, something funny happens when we start looking at these data. Diabetes is a disease that affects black and Latinx populations at a vastly higher rate than white populations (CDC, 2015). Why would I talk about that? Let’s talk about the science. I know the science. I have spent years studying how hormones regulate glucose (i.e. “the science”).

Frankly, I was scared to stray from my training. The students of color really engage the topic of diabetes, intrigued by the data indicating racial differences.  Many students of color speak of their beloved grandparents’ struggle with diabetes. What if students started asking me questions about race? As a white professor, how could I answer their questions? I know how hormones act to change glucose levels; I don’t know why certain racial and ethnic groups are more susceptible to diabetes. Students want answers about their own risk, and I didn’t know how to help them.

Looking back now, in response to my fear, I deliberately avoided discussions of race disparities. During the introductory biology course, we talked about socioeconomic factors, cultural factors, obesity, and food availability, but in vague and general terms. I might put up a graph to demonstrate disparities, but we never “had time” to engage the topic. We never really talked about why these disparities exist.

As a researcher, I would never intentionally ignore a major contributing factor to a disease. Would we ever ignore smoking as a risk factor for lung cancer? Why completely avoid race as a risk factor for diabetes, even though some individuals are almost twice as likely to develop the disease (CDC, 2015)?

 

By ignoring race and ethnicity as risk factors for diabetes in my course, I taught my students:

  1. Only traditional aspects of disease are worthy of investigation and emerging or relatively newly identified risk factors do not deserve attention.

Potential long-term impact: Reinforcing old practices comes at the expense of new findings and approaches. Focusing exclusively on the role of hormones in diabetes ignores other potential mechanisms, specifically those related to race, limiting the scope and creativity of questions investigated in my classroom and the scientific community.

  1. Scientists don’t “do” diversity.

Potential long-term impact: While national science education initiatives have a strong emphasis on encouraging diversity and equity, these movements have struggled to develop at the grassroots level. In my experience, most white science undergraduate students cannot articulate the importance of diversity of thought and experience in science. Students typically miss the mark when they emphasize that science is “objective,” and therefore, unbiased.  In fact, every scientist has different experiences, training, and assumptions, resulting in different approaches to asking questions and drawing conclusions. Diversifying these approaches is essential for innovation. If the importance of diversity in science continues to be misunderstood, current and future scientists will surround themselves with individuals that think and act like them, limiting new ideas, interpretations, and innovations.

  1. To ignore the concerns and questions of students of color.

Potential long-term impact: By glossing over the details of racial health disparities and not taking the time to understand them myself, I silenced the legitimate health concerns of my students of color. It should not be a surprise that many of my black and Latinx students switched their majors to public health and sociology. I was ignoring their queries and interests. They went to disciplines that addressed their questions. Mass exodus of individuals of color represents a deletion of perspectives from the scientific community. The result is a limited set of experiences that determine the scope of future research agendas; therefore, severely limiting the ability to solve large and complex scientific problems (Page, 2007).

To address these problematic gaps in my pedagogy, I continually challenge the way I think about diversity and equity in my classroom and make impactful changes. Avoiding potential harm to my students was a factor in making these changes; however, my greatest influence was students of color at my institution stating that they did not feel safe or welcome in the sciences (Johnson & Mantina, 2016).

Here are a few first steps I have taken to change the atmosphere in my classroom:

  1. We now talk about racial health disparities and investigate mechanisms related to these disparities in my courses, using CDC data or peer-reviewed scientific articles (ex. Herman, et al., 2016).
  2. I continue to educate myself about the interdisciplinary research investigating these disparities.
  3. I acknowledge publicly to students that when we discuss race and diversity, I might not get it right, might not have all the facts, and might have different personal experiences than theirs.
  4. Prior to larger class conversations about race, I collect input from students of color about how they might approach these conversations.
  5. I never ask a student to speak on behalf of their race or identity, only to speak to their own experiences. I never force a student to speak on the topic of race, period. However, reflective writing or small group discussions are helpful to bring ideas to the forefront.
  6. I avoid telling students that their experiences with racism are wrong or overblown.
  7. I use an assets-based approach to teaching science. Students develop strategies to become successful by identifying the skills and information they bring to the classroom based on their unique experiences and background.
  8. I challenge myself to continue to evolve my approaches to active learning and engaging students. For example, in my early years of teaching, to establish an interactive environment on the first day of class, students introduced themselves and talked about a summer experience to a small group. However, students that worked as day labors found this exercise intimidating when sharing with students that went on wonderful European vacations. I now prefer to ask students to describe their favorite food or dessert.

I acknowledge that issues of race, equity, and diversity are multi-faceted and nuanced, and purposefully, this description is a broad overview of the topic. I still have a lot to learn and do, but I am now a scientist that “does” diversity.

References

CDC (2015). Diabetes Public Health Resource. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/incidence/fig6.htm, accessed August 2, 2016.

Herman, et al. (2007). Differences in A1c by race and ethnicity among patients with impaired glucose tolerance in the diabetes prevention program. Diabetes Care, 30 (10): pp. 2453-7.

Johnson, K.M.S. and Lownik, J.C. (2013). Workshop Format Increases Scientific Knowledge, Skills, and Interest when Implemented in an Introductory Biology Course that Attracts and Retains Underrepresented Minorities.  Poster.  Experimental Biology, Boston, MA, April 20-24, 2013.  Published Abstract: FASEB J. 27:739.7

Page, S.E. (2007). The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey).

 

KatieJohnson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Katie Johnson, Associate Professor of Biology at Beloit College, evaluates the effects of active teaching practices on learning attitudes and outcomes in different student populations. She has been recognized by the American Physiological Society for her work. Her laboratory research assesses the connection between obesity and hormones that regulate glucose levels in animals. She mentors a diverse group of trainees and has numerous physiology and pedagogy publications and presentations co-authored by undergraduate researchers.