Using a Focal Organism as a Teaching Tool in General Biology

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Categories: GSI Online Library

by Maria Goodrich, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007

Teaching Problem: General Biology (Bio 1B) is an extremely rewarding and challenging course for which to be a GSI at UC Berkeley. Students in this class are taught by three of the best minds at Berkeley (and in many cases the world) in the fields of plant biology, evolution, and ecology. However, the students in this broad and oversubscribed course definitely face some challenges and obstacles. Bio 1B is a huge class, and many students get all their lectures via webcast and never set foot in the lecture hall. Each professor has a very different teaching style and different perspective, so it can be hard for students to make connections that will help them integrate concepts across the three sections of the course. The students also have very different academic and professional goals that can make it hard for them to develop enthusiasm for ideas and information that are not directly related to their field of study. For some students this is the only science class they take at Berkeley, whereas for others this is their launching pad to a lifetime of scientific research. Either way, the course coordinators feel that this class provides an important opportunity to make sure that students know how to apply the scientific method and make use of scientific literature, but this can be hard to cleanly integrate into the course work. My goals when teaching Bio 1B are three-fold: 1) to help students develop coherent links between the three sections of the course; 2) to help them move beyond rote memorization of definitions and examples so they can truly understand and apply course concepts; and 3) to make students comfortable with using scientific literature and the scientific method to answer questions.

Solution: I tried to meet these goals by assigning each of my students to find a focal organism that would help them connect to the course material throughout the semester. Within the first two weeks of class each student was required to visit a botanical garden and choose candidate focal organisms. The students then put to use their literature-searching skills to choose from their candidates an organism that was well represented in the literature so they could research different aspects of it through the semester. During the plant form and function section, each student became an expert on their plant’s structure and life cycle. During the evolution section they completed mini writing assignments posing tests of different evolutionary theories about their plant. In the ecology section they had to examine the fundamental niche of their organism and interactions that affected its abundance and distribution. The focal organism assignment culminated with a formal written project proposal in which each student proposed to test a hypothesis about the evolution or ecology of their plant.

Evaluation: This assignment produced some fascinating project proposals. Many of the students became experts on their focal organism and did an impressive job of formulating truly interesting and unique hypotheses about their plant’s evolution and ecology. The process of designing an experiment that would effectively test their hypotheses gave my students a very clear understanding of the concepts on which those hypotheses were based. More than that, multiple students told me how much they enjoyed learning about their focal organism and how exciting it was to pose questions that science had not yet answered. My mid-semester and final GSI evaluations reinforced my impression that although many students found this assignment challenging and knew it was more involved than what many other GSIs required, they valued the experience. I could definitely see that, in comparison with past Bio1B sections I’ve taught, these students showed a much clearer grasp of the course concepts in both class discussions and quizzes. Overall, I was very pleased with the results of the focal organism assignment, and I plan to continue to use and refine the technique in the future.