Biology curriculum revision: Bio 112 Ecology for a Crowded Planet

Emily Bernhardt and Bill Morris taught a new course, Biology 112: Ecology for a Crowded Planet as part of the Biology curriculum revision in Spring 2011.
Dr. Bernhardt explained the motivation for the course design:

When you step back and think about learning objectives, it’s clear to me that what I really want for my students to take away from my courses is an ecological approach to thinking about biological and environmental issues. The best way to do that is to have them learn the various ways in which ecologists think (read interesting papers!) and argue (read papers! argue about them!) and then to give them as many opportunities as possible to practice thinking like an ecologist about interesting problems. They need to have access to the basic information (textbook) so that they can understand what they are reading, but they can do that on their own.

What was new:

  • Course material was available on a course web page using WordPress
  • Pre-class reading quizzes, including a “just-in-time” teaching question (what was your muddiest point?)
  • Emphasis on graph interpretation
  • Active learning in the class room (including “jigsaw”, explained below)

Dr. Bernhardt described the pre class quizzes and Just In Time teaching approach:

I loved the daily pre quizzes and the Just in time teaching approach. We had >95% on time quiz completion and students did a really thorough job with their answers despite the fact that they received full credit just for turning something in on time. Because of the pre class quizzes, I knew every day when I got to class that my students had read the textbook, I knew what they thought was most difficult, and what part of their reading they were most intrigued by.  I could then invest my time efficiently in clearing up misunderstandings, pointing out common misconceptions and then bringing in new content that I could tie to the parts they already were enthusiastic about learning. The best aspect of the quizzes was that I knew how my students were thinking about the textbook content and I had some valuable information about the variation in their perspectives / expertise.

Dr. Morris cautioned:

Muddiest points are useful to know what the students don’t “get” in the reading, but care must be taken, if they are addressed in class, not to spend a lot of time on the “least common denominator” (i.e., wasting time of the students who didn’t have difficulty). I also worry that this leads to more “teaching to the textbook” than I would like. Perhaps an optional 3rd class each week devoted only to going over muddiest points, or reviewing anything else that was unclear from the 2 substantive lectures, would be useful.

Dr. Bernhardt described using the Jigsaw method to present different points of view:

This is my favorite active learning tool.  You have an issue you want to cover.  All the students read some background material in common and then you split students into groups that each read a different primary literature article on that issue.  Your students act as experts to teach one another about the paper they read.  The burden is on them to understand the article well enough to explain it to their peers.  They never know ahead of time how you will run the jigsaw so they don’t know if they can slide by without reading the article and thus they don’t skip the reading.  Perhaps more important than the content of the reading is the approach of the jigsaw itself.  The really important message the jigsaw gives to your students is that it is okay, and indeed more interesting, if we don’t all know exactly the same things.  Inherent to the jigsaw is a recognition that learning in this case is not about memorization but about comparisons and the recognition of common themes and key differences.

Dr. Morris also found Jigsaw useful, depending on the goals of the activity:

Jigsaw is a useful way to have students interact (only 1 in a group is an expert on a particular paper) and to ready the primary literature. But those who did not read that paper will not necessarily get as much out of it just by having it described by another student. One idea is to have multiple round jigsaws, where students eventually read all of a group of papers, answering more and more sophisticated questions about them, and really “getting to the bottom” of the papers.

Dr. Morris felt that the emphasis on skills as learning outcomes was one of the most successful course innovations:

Devoting special attention to graph skills, in discussion exercises, class active learning exercises, and exams, was perhaps the area in which we most clearly aligned assessment with a learning outcome. Hopefully the students will carry such skills (e.g., the meaning of a straight line on a semilog plot) into whatever field they pursue (or even in simply reading the newspaper). We also – I think successfully – reinforced several times the skill of designing an experiment to test an ecological hypothesis (in discussion section, class, and exams).

Dr. Bernhardt pointed out “We tried to provide a wide range of ecological perspectives and approaches in the work throughout the semester”  and listed many of the activities that students in Bio 112 did:

  • read and discussed a total of 45 papers from the primary literature (made much more manageable through jigsaw approaches)
  • worked with 3 different mathematical simulation models (disease SIR models, population dynamics through GEOWorld, predator prey dynamics using EcoBeaker)
  • collected their own field data on tree demography
  • used this data together with historic data to estimate changes in tree species composition and ecosystem C storage in the Anderson Woods since 1980
  • in tests or assignments designed 3 different ecological experiments and posed hypotheses illustrated by graphs of predictions
  • participated in 2 debates with each student assigned to impersonate a particular scientist’s viewpoint
  • listened to ~5 current NPR podcasts on ecological topics
  • read at least 10 current popular press articles on ecological issues
  • found, critiqued and rebutted web pages expressing skepticism about consensus views on ecological topics
  • read the IPCC Climate Change Summary for Policymakers