Slimemolds vs. the MCATs

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by J. Peter Coppinger, Plant and Microbial Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

In introductory biology courses such as Biology 1B, graduate student instructors often feel the need to justify the course material to their students, especially when covering such seemingly mundane topics as the lifecycles of slimemolds or the ecology of barnacles. As a GSI for Biology 1B, my goal seemed simple in principle: get students to enjoy biology because biology is fascinating in and of itself. I wanted my students to appreciate biology simply because biology is worth marveling at — barnacles, slimemolds, and all.

Unfortunately, many students often brush aside an interesting topic if it is not explicitly intended for an exam. In order to inspire a genuine interest in biology in these students, I needed to find a way to uncouple the blinding desire for an A from the desire to learn. I needed to remove my students from the classroom setting and appeal to their innate, childhood curiosity.

In order to accomplish my goal, I took my students on frequent field trips, including the hills of Tilden Park and the tidal pools of Moss Beach. Although these trips were voluntary and on the weekends, the majority of my students attended. On these field trips, we were kids. We splashed around in tidal pools, poking (gently) at giant sea slugs and tickling the velcro-like tentacles of sea anemones. We peeled bark off fallen logs to find jelly fungus and fly larvae. While on these trips, my students didn’t ask, “How many questions will be on the exam?” or “How many questions can we miss and still get an A?” but instead asked, “Why is this algae crunchy?” or “How does lichen obtain nutrients?” These students were not studying biology because it would get them an A or into medical school, but simply because biology was fascinating in and of itself.

As a final assignment, I gave my students a choice of two projects. The first was to compose a detailed nature journal, including sketches and thorough discussions of the ecology and evolution of the organisms we had encountered on our trips. Alternatively, they could write a simple, three-paged essay about an exhibit of their choice at the California Academy of Sciences. Although the essay assignment was by far the “easiest A”, every single one of my students chose to complete the nature journal. I had successfully separated my students’ craving for an easy A from a genuine desire to learn.

When my students were exposed to biology outside of the lecture hall, they stopped worrying about grades and exams and MCATs. They began to wonder why things are the way they are, and discovered a genuine appreciation for nature. This self-motivated learning was inspired out of a sincere interest in biology-not out of a dreaded fear of midterms.