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All posts by Bruce - 7. page

I've taught introductory biology for... a long time now--at U. of Arizona, Princeton, Stockton (NJ) and Sarah Lawrence College, as well as online (Wyzant). Currently I'm retired; all the teaching I do is for the love of it.

Death by 1000 cuts: Vocabulary in Introductory Biology

Brain in the form of the maze

I have read that the average number of new words of vocabulary in introductory biology textbooks exceeds that found in… a foreign language learning text. This can’t be well-considered; new words are the primary purpose of a foreign language course; they are a barrier to understanding in a Biology course

Some thoughts on how vocabulary in introductory biology is a horrific educational crime, and concrete proposals  about what can be done, as well as available tools, follow

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What’s important about… Key Concepts in Biology

Before we design courses, textbooks, assessments, labs, we need to determine what is important to teachputting puzzle piece in plate in Introductory Biology. I think we’ve failed to do that, or at the very least confused concepts with content. Part of the problem is historical–textbooks are a product of inertia, each new one modeled on the ones that came before rather than initiated de novo to reflect principles in biology or pedagogy. Secondarily, I think a lot of effort in revamping biology curricula is being driven by older efforts in Chemistry and Physics, where a lot of the critical material is more operational and less conceptual. I’m writing this post to lay out one possible schema.

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PatternMaster: Real Scientific Method

Sitting in a classroom, a beginning biology student can easily come away with the impression that the Joy of Science lies in memorizing what is already known… and that historical problem solving and experimentation was about confirming what was obvious or inevitable. This describes no one I have ever worked with, and no lab I’ve ever worked in. The challenge is in delivering the excitement of figuring things out; too many labs are about taking (often stale) data.

PatternMaster (now playable via web/tablet!) lets students make discoveries about how things work using the Scientific Method. To quote the NGSS ‘Crosscutting concepts’:

1. Patterns. Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.

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Problem solving: Petals around the rose

Flower and diceFrom time to time, I’m going to add websites or problems that I think challenge visitors in rich ways. One of my very favorites is a little wonder called “Petals around the rose”. There is a nice implementation by Lloyd Barrett on his website. Prepare to spend some time on this, and don’t bother going if you’d ever contemplate doing a web search for solutions. If it takes you a week to solve, it’s a well-spent week. It took me several days (so no, I don’t want to hear about it if you solve it simply after visual inspections 🙂 ). There are several problem solving aspects that I think make this a rich experience… [No spoilers below]

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What’s important about… ATP?

Every Intro Bio student can cite ATP as ‘the energy currency of the cell’… but what do we mean by that? And why does it play that role? These are important questions, and they deserve answers. And real ones, not invocation of the mystical ‘high energy bonds’.

Perusing Wiki for an image to link for ATP, I’m surprised to find how many directly imply that the ‘value’ is in the bond between two phosphates. I think suggesting that this is the case does a disservice to students’ ability to analyze and understand. We’ve taught them by now that bonds are simply shared pairs of electrons. Blaming the bond for the potential energy inevitably raises the question “Is it the electrons that are special? If not, what is it about the bond?”. No and nothing.

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What’s important about… biology’s Central Dogma?

‘What to teach’ in Introductory Biology presents a whole host of conundrums. Is our role to cover the breadth of all of biology (or all of the biology student will hear again in upper divisions) at breakneck pace and without depth? A whirlwind tour of vocabulary to commit to memory with vague understanding for some later date? I will argue periodically that we should pick a limited, integrated fraction of possible content and teach it in a way that allows students to see and grasp underlying concepts and universal themes, thereby enabling them to figure out what comes later, and to embark on their own to investigate whatever catches their fancy.Ribosomes translating mRNA

The key ideas of biology’s Central Dogma–or better put, the flow of information— are a critical case in point. We all agree that ‘something’ about DNA, RNA and protein is among our core duties. But what? My view is that identifying the roles of each of these players, how their structures fit them to play those roles, how they came to occupy and the ‘flow’ between them them are straightforward, core ideas in biology.

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