What Does Our New Curriculum Look Like?
To some extent, the general structure of our curriculum is not unlike biology programs you’d find at most institutions. We begin with a common set of four introductory biology courses, giving all our majors the same foundational knowledge and skills. At the same time, students take cognate courses in chemistry and statistics, adding breadth to that foundation. This common introductory “core” also provides some flexibility in choosing a major. After completing it, students take upper-level biology courses that branch out into different vocational pathways.
Our Introductory “Biology Core”
Because of its emphasis on Vision and Change and on New Biology, the teaching strategies and learning activities of our curriculum are significantly upgraded in comparison to traditional biology programs. Living Systems (Biology 123), the first course in our new curriculum, teaches biological core concepts and core competencies through contemporary societal challenges, which form the basis for the course’s four thematic modules:
- Systems thinking
- Biodiversity, evolution, and global climate change
- Food: nutrition, obesity, biofuel, and sustainability
- Infectious and inflammatory diseases: public health and personalized medicine
To explore and address these challenges, we employ a problem-based learning approach. This involves giving teams of students a set of questions dealing with key aspects of the challenge. In turn, the teams use internet resources, models and simulations, and experimentation to research the question and explore problem-solving options. Teams then present their findings as part of class discussions, much like collaborative research teams do in scientific investigations. Biology majors and non-majors alike find these experiences fun and insightful. The highly active learning environment and occasionally controversial topics also keep instructors on their toes – we enjoy this immensely!
Because they are central to so many contemporary challenges, systems thinking and sustainability are recurring themes in our Living Systems course. As a result of this and our learner-centered approach in this course, Living Systems is gaining a nation-wide reputation.
- Living Systems has been featured in Bioscience magazine as a model for sustainability education.
- Several of our learning activities are now available through the SISL website.
- Living Systems is a SENCER model course for teaching bioscience through societal challenges.
We also offer a research-oriented version of Biology 123 in which students isolate novel bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) and characterize their genomes as part of a nationwide effort funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. You can explore more about our “Phage Hunters course” by visiting this website.
Our second course (Cellular and Genetic Systems, Biology 224) and third course (Ecological and Evolutionary Systems, Biology 225) focus on how living systems function simultaneously at different spatial and temporal scales. An NSF TUES grant is currently funding reforms in the laboratory component of these courses, designing multi-week modules that use core competencies and concepts to address compelling research questions related to issues explored in Living Systems. Faculty and undergraduate research students responsible for designing these modules have presented posters highlighting the new investigatory projects of these courses:
- “’Let Food be Thy Medicine’: Investigating the Nutriceutical Properties of Cruciferous Vegetables”
- “Teaching Ecology and Evolution through the Lens of Vision and Change”
Our new introductory curriculum culminates in a Research Design and Methodology (Biology 250) course involving extended research projects that address ecological and human health problems associated with Plaster Creek, a highly impacted local stream. With funding from the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network (GLISTEN, http://www.greatlakesed.net) and in collaboration with Plaster Creek Stewards and other community partner organizations, student teams conduct research on various projects including stream bank erosion and restoration, coliform bacteria and sediment loads, and invasive exotic species. Beyond providing valuable learning opportunities for students, these projects have enhanced community efforts to monitor stream health and implement actions in its watershed management plan. A poster presented by our undergraduate stewardship liaisons at the 2011 GLISTEN meeting highlights the projects completed by student teams in our first Biology 250 class: