Investigative Learning in an Introductory Biology Curriculum

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Title of Abstract: Investigative Learning in an Introductory Biology Curriculum

Name of Author: Nitya Jacob
Author Company or Institution: Oxford College of Emory University
Author Title: Associate Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: Introductory, Inquiry, Research, Student-centered, Literacy

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Implementing the recommendations of Vision and Change are especially critical in entry-level biology courses to reach all students as they begin their study in biology. Oxford College is one of nine divisions of learning within Emory University and has a unique setting of a two-year undergraduate liberal arts campus within a large research institution. Our project was to modify our introductory curriculum for biology majors by establishing a framework of core concepts and competencies in the first course (Biology 141) and intentionally linking this framework to further development of the same concepts and competencies in the second course (Biology 142). Students are required to complete both courses prior to taking any upper level biology courses. Our project was to work together as a department on the following goals: identify common learning outcomes in concepts and competencies for the two courses, develop a collective vision for the types of student learning experiences in the two courses, and to develop and implement practices in both courses to emphasize and support active learning, problem solving, collaborative discussion, collaborative inquiry and data analysis, exposure to authentic research, information literacy, and scientific communication. The intended outcomes of this project were to increase the use of student-centered learning practices of teaching in our courses by all faculty, build a program that strongly emphasizes the process of science and authentic research, to better equip students for success in the second course of the curriculum, to increase student success in pursuing research opportunities outside the curriculum, and to improve collaborative efforts in pedagogy among faculty within the department. By doing so, we have specifically addressed the recommendations listed under the first two action items of the Vision for Implementing Change in the Vision and Change report.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: We identified several common learning outcomes between the two courses and designed corresponding active-learning and investigative learning experiences. For example, we developed modeling exercises to facilitate student learning of DNA replication, transcription, and translation in Biology 141. We designed complementary activities in Biology 142 to review the same material through collaborative discussion among students before advancing to the next level of contrasting these processes in prokaryotes and eukaryotes and examining current research literature on these topics. To address the outcome that students will be able to apply the process of science by being skilled in their abilities to create a research proposal with a justifiable hypothesis, to collect and interpret data, evaluate and argue experimental results, and effectively communicate to an audience of peers, we focused more intentionally on setting the groundwork for scientific research skills in Biology 141 through short investigations and communications. By establishing a formal scientific writing program that connects both courses, we introduce writing and information literacy skills in Biology 141 and use the same framework to advance the quality of student abilities in Biology 142. For example, students conduct an authentic research project in Biology 142 investigating microbial communities of Georgia rock outcrops using field skills and molecular biology tools. We implement a writing curriculum in Biology 142 that engages students in developing the collaborative thinking, writing, and communication skills that they initially learned in Biology 141 but this time with expectations of substantial literature research, well justified claims, and an iterative process of draft reviews. By having frequent meetings of faculty members teaching these courses, we share and develop student-centered learning practices that can be consistently implemented by all faculty.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: To measure the increased use of student-centered learning practices by all faculty teaching these courses and the collaborative development of materials, we established secure Blackboard course sites for each of the courses specifically for all faculty teaching Biology 141 and/or Biology 142. Individual faculty post new ideas and activities on this website for each unit of the course. We thus are able to compare the number and types of student-centered learning activities developed by our department for these courses prior to this project and its current status. We have measured the progress of our program in emphasizing the process of science and authentic research by comparing the number of activities supporting this in our curriculum today compared to what our program contained a few years ago. To measure student success in the second course of the curriculum, we formally collected data on progressive changes in their ability to seek information from scientific literature for written communication of laboratory experiments from the first course to the second course. Informally, we observe students’ ability to better connect with concepts in Biology 142 but we need to conduct more formal assessment of this impact. We conducted informal surveys on student perceptions of scientific research at the end of the second course. We surveyed 183 students in Spring 2012 who participated in research experiences outside the curriculum to measure the impact of skills they learned in their Oxford College science courses, including Biology 141 and 142, on their success in these experiences. We now intend to pursue a formal assessment of student learning by administering established tools for assessment such as concept inventories and the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey. We need continued growth in this area in formalizing our measurements of impact on both students and faculty.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Our project has provided a way for our faculty to build common goals and a vision for our future as a department. We will have a new science center on our campus by 2016 and our efforts at working collaboratively on the introductory curriculum prepared us well to build a programmatic vision for learning spaces in the new science building. The authentic research module designed for Biology 142 was awarded the 2011 Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI) Prize by Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which brought our department and institution national recognition. Our collaboration with librarians on building an effective program for inquiry-based thinking through information literacy led us to develop ourselves as a model for other institutions. Student feedback has indicated the positive impact of their exposure to the process of science through our program’s emphasis on hypothesis-driven thinking, scientific communication, and data analysis and presentation in terms of appreciation for scientific research, success in research programs, performance in upper level courses and medical or graduate programs. Students develop a sense of ownership about their work especially through the authentic research experience. Students are able to feel comfortable about reading primary research articles and have extensive conversations about research with faculty in their first and second years of college. Our institution has recently implemented a “Ways of Inquiry” general education curriculum in which practices similar to those developed in biology are now being used across disciplines. Our department was thus a leader in providing a set of courses that were already well prepared to be part of this new curriculum. Another impact of this project on our teaching is that we are now extending some of these strategies into our non-majors courses.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: We faced some unexpected challenges in laboratory preparation and coordination to support a curriculum emphasizing authentic research and investigative thinking. This required re-examining expectations of our project and finding ways to streamline the preparation work without compromising student experiences in independent thinking. We had to develop well organized laboratory preparation inventories and guidelines, re-organize the preparation room structure, hire an additional faculty member, and purchase additional equipment to tackle some of the challenges. We also faced challenges in gauging the types of support students might need to effectively engage in the learning process. To address this challenge, we had to develop additional tools for student support such as writing workshops, structured guidelines, improved laboratory instructions, worksheets for initial practice of concepts, and other resources. Coordinating consistent efforts among all faculty teaching these courses presented difficulties as well in terms of teaching styles, level of experience, and comfort in collaboration. We tried to overcome these difficulties by having regular meetings and discussion about the course during the semester. Further improvement is needed in this area.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have published articles in Science, the Journal of College Science Teaching, and the Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly on the investigative laboratories, authentic research, scientific communication, and information literacy aspects of our program. The laboratory manual for Biology 142 is available online linked with the Science IBI Prize Essay by Dr. Nitya Jacob. Two of our faculty co-designed and published a new bioinformatics exercise in the laboratory manual, Investigating Biology, published by Benjamin Cummings. One of our faculty members, Dr. Eloise Carter, is the co-author of Investigating Biology and seeks departmental feedback in further improving the exercises in this manual. We also have features in Emory University publications, particularly the Emory Report and The Academic Exchange. We have presented posters and/or papers at various conferences including the annual meetings of the American Society of Plant Biologists, Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Georgia Conference on Information Literacy. Our faculty have led workshops on case-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and incorporating research into the curriculum. Our future plans include conducting formal assessment of impacts which we intend to present and publish, and continuing to be model resources for other departments interested in similar change.

Acknowledgements: Dr. Eloise Carter, Oxford College Biology Department, for co-developing some of the original ideas and strategies for this project. Present and past members of the Oxford College Biology Department (Dr. Eloise Carter, Dr. Steve Baker, Dr. Amanda Pendleton, Mrs. Theodosia Wade, Mrs. Jennifer Gaulding, and Dr. Rebekah Chapman) for their contributions and collaborative efforts towards this project. Oxford College Librarians (Dean Kitty McNeil, Ms. Andrea Heisel, and Ms. Mary Moser) for their efforts in co-development, co-teaching, co-presenting and assessing the information literacy component of our emphasis on the process of science.