An Interdisciplinary approach to Biology
As a biology teacher I integrate the concepts of biology to chemistry, physics, mathematics, art and beyond. My own personal education is deeply rooted in this philosophy and I believe that fostering a broad worldview of biology is the best strategy to capture the interest of a diverse student population. My courses are structured to go beyond transference of knowledge and are designed to mold students into better independent thinkers, scientific writers and presenters. For example, when I teach pharmacology, I want my students to leave the classroom as informed consumers of pharmacological agents with the ability to effectively pass on this information to lay people within their communities. Therefore, my pedagogy is based on an interdisciplinary approach that facilitates independent learning and scientific communication. I strive to achieve this goal through three strategies: 1) Combine traditional lectures with student-centered learning 2) Relate course content to other disciplines and stress real world applications and 3) tap into the student’s natural curiosity to encourage a vested interest in the subject. I believe the second and third points can change the environment of the classroom to one in which students ask “how” and “why” instead of “what,” or more specifically, “what is going to be on the test”.
Teaching Methodology. Children have a natural curiosity about the world and I believe it is everyone’s prerogative to have a basic understanding of how the natural world works in order to make educated decisions about health and the environment. I recognize that only a fraction of my students in any given class will go on to study pure science, and therefore, it remains my duty to make sure that all the students gain knowledge and appreciation of the subject. For example, when I taught pharmacology I strove to help students develop into informed consumers of pharmacological agents.To this end, the course included two major writing assignments, one on a drug and one on a disease. I gave more guidance during the first assignment and tapered off my help over the course of the semester; this facilitated independent learning and strengthened the student’s scientific communication skills. I encouraged the students to pick a drug/disease of personal interest because if the student is personally invested in the topic, he/she will be motiviated to work on the assignment. We also had routine in-class discussions about controversial historical events or current events related to pharmacology such as the use of Thalidomide in the 1950-60s and the recent outbreak of fungal meningitis due to lack of oversight at a compounding pharmacy. By comparing the drug regulations in recent history, the students gained an understanding of how drug safety and regulation has evolved and what problems still remain. This will help them in the future to evaluate drug related news in the media and for their own health.
I also promote student-centered learning by breaking up traditional lectures with small partner or group activities. For example, following a pharmacology lecture in which I explained the different ways a drug can act upon a drug target, I handed out cards with either a picture of a receptor interacting with a drug or the name of a drug-receptor interaction and had my students find their matching partner. The entire class worked together to compare different drug-receptor interactions. This type of activity also makes it more apparent to me what needs to be clarified before the lecture moves forward.
One of the most important civic duties of scientists is to educate lay people. I envision my pharmacology students spreading their newfound knowledge to their friends and families. I also want to encourage artistic expression of scientific concepts. Creativity and science go hand-in-hand and some of the greatest discoveries have been from researchers thinking “outside the box” The abstract concepts as well as the personal nature of disease lends well to an artistic interpretation. The pharmacology students will had two oral presentations that require a visual aid. They brought in power point presentations, videos and one person wrote a pome about the drugs used in type II diabetes. By tapping into the creative side of the brain the students will reach a deeper appreciation of the subject, which will foster long-term retention of the material. This assignment facilitated student-centered instruction because the students presented their visual aids to one another in class.
Assessment Methodology. My courses typically contain combination of formal and informal assessment tools to account for different learning styles and to accurately gauge the students understanding according to the Bloom’s taxonomy scale of learning objectives. Quizzes and tests are excellent tools to assess memorization and understanding of content and the application of that knowledge. Essays and oral presentations are geared to test the higher level learning objectives: analyze, evaluate and create. When determining my grading scheme, I make sure that my grading scale reflects the level of importance of each skill. For example, in my pharmacology course I wanted the students to understand the content and also master written and oral presentation of scientific information, therefore 25% of the grade was based on writing, 35% on oral presentations and 40% for quizzes and exams.
I also design courses to have a mixture of low and high stakes assessments. Low-stakes assessments are small assignments that are worth only a few points each, usually in the form of short quizzes or participation grades. A multiple choice question at the start of class or an open ended 1-minute writing assignment at the end of class will help me monitor day-to-day understanding of the information and serve two major purposes: students identify their weaknesses and I identify topics that are universally more challenging so that I can retool my efforts. High-stakes assessments refer to longer writing assignments and formal exams. I plan to ease the students into scientific writing by increasing the difficulty of the assignments over time. For example, the first writing assignment for my pharmacology course was on a specific drug, the students turned in an outline that I returned with extensive feedback and then they wrote a 2-3 page paper. The second paper is longer and focuses on a more complex topic- the different drugs that can be used to treat a specific disease. The students were still required to turn in an outline but then participate in peer editing to polish their written work. I believe this structure for written assignments builds skills and confidence over time.
Cultivating an Inclusive Learning Environment. My goal in the classroom is to reach as many students as possible. I want to engage the top 10% of the class without losing the bottom 10%. I design my course to accommodate different learning styles by disseminating content in a variety of ways and by using a multifaceted assessment approach. I also engage students by pulling from their unique backgrounds, personal experiences and interests. I allow the student to chose their own topics for their writing and oral assignments. I believe a personal connection to course projects leads to greater discussion about the material outside of class, independent thinking and long-term retention of the material.