by Dwight Springthorpe, Integrative Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015
The Mechanics of Organisms (IB135) is a cross-disciplinary course that focuses on understanding animal locomotion and behavior using anatomy, physiology, fluid mechanics, materials science and physics. Students come from many backgrounds, including biology, engineering, and physics, and range from second-year undergraduates to PhD candidates. Diversity is IB135’s greatest strength since students interact with different viewpoints, learn about new fields, and develop interdisciplinary communication skills.
This diversity presents some difficulties, however, since the course material can be difficult to present in way that is accessible and engaging for all students. For example, engineering students are familiar with the course’s mathematics while biology students are encountering these methods them for the first time. Likewise, biology students possess knowledge that the engineers lack. Consequently, I had to develop techniques to keep experienced students engaged while providing a space for less experienced students to develop their skills.
I addressed this difficulty with carefully structured group problem solving during discussion sections. Students were divided into groups of four, including graduate and undergraduate students from both biological and engineering backgrounds. Each group received a problem set that included math, biology and short answer components. I instructed the students to solve these problems using their combined skills and, in particular, I encouraged them to teach each other when a group member was unfamiliar with a required skill. While the students worked, I asked each group to explain their problem solving process to me. The section concluded with problem solutions and a whole-class discussion. These exercises provided a comfortable environment for students to practice new skills while simultaneously keeping experienced students engaged by placing them in a teaching role. Since the problem sets drew on all the group’s skills, students would find themselves alternating between teaching and learning roles. This ensured that every student made a meaningful contribution to solving the problem and practiced their interdisciplinary communication skills.
I assessed my methods using two techniques: informal anonymous teaching evaluations and individual homework assignments. I presented evaluations after each midterm and asked students to list one thing from the section that they found helpful and one thing they would change. This feedback revealed that over 80% of the students found group problem solving helpful. Consequently, I increased the time allotted for group work by 50%. Individual homework assignments resembled the group work problems, except that students had to complete them on their own. By examining their responses, I could determine how well the students assimilated new skills and if they could put their work in the course’s interdisciplinary context. Over the semester, I found that students became increasingly confident problem solvers and, even when they were still unfamiliar with a required skill, they were able to demonstrate how different disciplines can work together to solve scientific problems.