Developing Freshman Biology

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Title of Abstract: Developing Freshman Biology

Name of Author: Naomi Wernick
Author Company or Institution: University of Massachusetts Lowell
Author Title: Lecturer
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: introductory biology freshmen active learning assessment curriculum development

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: My overarching goals, since joining University of Massachusetts Lowell, have been to revise the curriculum to include project-based lab courses and active learning in the classroom, as well as to implement the core concepts and competencies outlined in Vision and Change. My first plan, which has been successfully implemented, was to devise a project-based curriculum in Experimental Biology (the introductory lab course) with weekly learning objectives that corresponded with Principles of Biology (the introductory biology course). Additionally, as the advisor of the freshman class and instructor of freshman seminar, I have revised the seminar curriculum to include the core competencies described in Vision and Change as well as other components that have been described in the literature as critical to the development of incoming college freshmen.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: A project-based lab curriculum was developed in which students transform pGLO (Bio-Rad; Hercules, CA) into bacteria and induce its expression. They follow this up with protein purification and a second transformation with an unknown plasmid (ScienceBridge; UC San Diego) that they identify using DNA sequencing and a BLAST search. The second semester lab provides students with the opportunity to work with C-Fern. They begin by studying the plant’s development (Carolina Biological, Burlington, NC) and conclude with an inquiry-based lab in which they explore the nature of a developmental mutant (Spiro and Knisely (2008). CBE Life Science Education, 7, 82-88). In the classroom, Principles of Biology now includes several modes of active learning. Clicker questions and concept maps are a regular activity; regular group work has also been incorporated. I am currently updating my curriculum to improve the alignment between learning goals, teaching and assessments. Following attendance at an assessment workshop this summer, I am working to arrange the introductory biology course content into units organized around essential student understandings and questions. From there, I will develop individual content, teaching methods and assessments. This year I will also incorporate weekly ‘Flipped Fridays’ which will incorporate active learning.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: I have incorporated pre- and post-surveys into all classes. I have also analyzed student grades and the quality of class work.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: As part of my Biology Scholars Research Residency, a study was performed on the use of clickers in the classroom. The majority of students (76%, n=40) liked clicker questions and wished there were more of them, and 77% (n=40) believed the questions helped them understand the course material. One student said, “in-class clicker questions were very helpful to me, because they reflected the questions on the exams. I like the fact that the questions asked are not memorization; they are applying concepts.” Regarding the use of group work and concept maps in the classroom, this study is ongoing; however, anecdotally, it was noted that students were forced to make connections between concepts that are not usually noticed. Furthermore, most students appeared to enjoy the group work since it involves instructor-guided, peer-peer instruction rather than didactic lecture. Additionally, while analysis of the changes to freshman seminar is still underway, we can conclude that students (n=59) felt seminar increased their: ability to set realistic goals (78%), academic motivation (64%), understanding of biology’s role in society (83%), and ability to work well in groups (63%).

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: While great successes have occurred in the past two and a half years, there is still much work to be done and barriers to overcome. Students at UMass Lowell come from diverse backgrounds. It is a struggle to engage the more advanced students while still retaining those who come from less advantaged backgrounds. The increase of active learning in the classroom seems to help bridge this divide. Thankfully, there is support from the administration and I am currently participating on several campus-wide active learning committees.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: I presented a poster at ASM-CUE in 2012. In addition, I am currently working with three honors students who are conducting research. They presented their data in the form of a poster at the UMass Lowell Student Research Symposium. They have two more years until graduation and we hope to publish a paper before that time.

Acknowledgements: Biology Scholars Research Residency; UMass Lowell Co-op Scholars Program