Arrangement of Specimens by Hyppolite Bayard. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Tomorrow has become 2 days later…but here is the assignment. The general outline is:

  1. Students select a topic. This can go different ways. For a non-majors general biology class, I have asked them to choose a topic that interests them. I provide a list of examples, but encourage them to propose their own after discussing it with me. Thanks to that, I recently learned a lot about deer antlers (courtesy of a student who likes hunting) and have been given insight about opinions about GMOs (that would be another posting). The idea at the non-majors level is to practice biology literacy. At higher level courses the topics become more specific as the idea is to explore deeper. So for example, in a majors bio class I would give them a list of genetic disorders to choose from. By providing clear gene and protein targets, they can explore them much more in detail. In microbiology the idea is to study some kind of microbe at the structural and functional level.
  2. An important part of the process is defining what students are going to post about in each iteration. This is indeed, the hardest part. We want students to peel away layer after layer of their topic, instead of just doing a mini-wikipedia like summary. So I have found important for students to make an outline of their future postings/reports. For a general bio topic, it can go like this: gene => protein=> physiological function => population level (this can be inheritance pattern, epidemiology, economical impact etc). For a microbiology topic it can be: microbe’s structure => microbe’s function => population/societal impact.
  3. Then come the analysis at different levels. Depending on the class, more or less information and details will be required. I try to have students visit databases, and gather data. Even if they don’t know what to do with a DNA sequence or a Jmol structure, it is often an eye-opener for them that all that information is available online.
  4. Feedback, feedback, feedback. It is a lot of work, and that is why grading rubrics are useful. I tend to move in grading from formative to summative. In the beginning, the main criterion for grading is if they actually submit the information required and follow instructions. With more practice, I expect them to be more specific and actually process the information.
  5. Final report: at the end of the process, students are to summarize their research in one piece of material. I often like it to be a poster, as combining text and graphic information in an efficient way is a useful skill. When at the Yale SWI workshop, one colleague share his way of practicing effective poster skills with his students: he would pick up a bunch of poster printouts from conferences and would give them for students to analyze. Which structure or format seemed the most effective in transmitting the message? I have tried other formats, from powerpoint presentations to wiki pages. However, I have found that posters have such a stringent space limitation that students do need to focus on the key information and how to best convey their messages. Oral presentations are another great way to practice communication skills. Here, following time limits is critical.
  6. Peer feedback. Interactions between students are invaluable. However, if left spontaneous, comments on these kind of projects will be usually rather superficial. I have found that the peer evaluation part of any of these processes has to be scripted if it is to be meaningful. In my latest iteration of one of these projects, I had to spell out that the comment had to include 3 parts:
    • positive feedback about something that the observer liked
    • a question
    • a suggestion

And this is all for now. Heading to the San Bernardino mountains tomorrow for the long weekend. Should be cooler up there. Happy Labor Day for those in the US!