Redesign of Large Enrollment Introductory Biology Laboratory

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Title of Abstract: Redesign of Large Enrollment Introductory Biology Laboratory

Name of Author: Jean Schmidt
Author Company or Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Author Title: Instructional Developer
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: General Biology
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Changes in student laboratory approach, Material Development
Keywords: Inquiry-based labs/ Introductory biology lab/ Instructor training/ Science process skills/ CURE Survey

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Elia Crisucci, University of Pittsburgh

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Large enrollment introductory biology laboratory, a mainstay of the undergraduate curriculum at research universities across the country, presents a significant and compelling challenge for implementing reform in science education. One major facet of this challenge is that models of inquiry-based lab courses designed for large enrollments are limited. Secondly, providing instruction that supports student inquiry is essential, yet this approach to teaching is unfamiliar and often uncomfortable for instructors, the vast majority of whom did not experience this type of instruction when they were students themselves. Here we discuss the very large-enrollment, introductory biology lab course sequence at the University of Pittsburgh, our ongoing redesign of the course curriculum begun in fall of 2011, and the revamping of the instructional approach by which the curriculum is delivered. Ours is a two-semester course sequence serving a diverse undergraduate population and enrolling over 1000 students in approximately 65 lab sections per semester. The primary goal of our curriculum redesign has been to shift from scripted, single-session lab exercises to inquiry-based projects that run over multiple lab sessions. Our initial efforts have been directed at the first course of the sequence, now consisting of four multi-week units over a 15-week span. Within this framework, our objective has been to develop science process skills, such as experimental design, data analysis and communication of results. Objectives also include providing greater opportunity for students to engage in quantitative reasoning, critical thinking through hypothesis-driven problem solving, and collaboration with peers. In addition to curriculum changes, our second major impetus has been on instructor training and development to support effective delivery of the curriculum. We have a relatively large team of approximately 24 part-time instructors, and we face regular turnover in staff.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Curricular Change: Students spend the first week or more of each lab unit learning the tools and techniques necessary for an area of investigation. Subsequent weeks are devoted to application of these techniques in experiments designed in whole or in part by the students themselves. An example lab unit from the inquiry core of the course is entitled Dead or Alive*. This three-week investigation is presented in the context of current research into regions of the deep ocean floor, previously thought to be inhospitable to life. Student teams analyze unknown samples for evidence of life. The samples contain various mixtures of organic and inorganic substances, and are presented as coming from a deep-sea trench. The final project is a team-written grant proposal based on their analyses. Instructor Training: Weekly training sessions enable our instructors’ success as course facilitators. Session activities immerse instructors in the experience of scientific inquiry from the student perspective. We include the use of a POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning)** type structure, with instructors working in teams to build answer keys for problem sets and write exam questions.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We are using a variety of methods to assess the changes we are making to our curriculum. These methods include open-ended evaluations completed by students mid-semester and the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey*** administered near the end of each semester. The CURE survey was developed to assess research-like courses.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Since the curriculum change, our students report greater learning benefits from key course elements, including research proposals, data collection/analysis, and student-driven, open-ended projects. Students who have experienced the redesigned curriculum also report improved science writing skills, greater understanding of the evidence-based nature of science, and increased readiness for more challenging research. These course benefits are appropriate for our diverse student population since problem solving skills and scientific literacy are advantageous in any career path. Our strong instructional training program has attracted motivated candidates. A number of instructors trained in our program have advanced to academic positions in other institutions, taking some of our materials as well as our approach to inquiry-based laboratory teaching to their new posts. The institutions range from a nearby liberal arts college to the University of Kazakhstan. We expect our future impact will extend into secondary education as some instructors take positions in area high schools.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: One major challenge we encountered when starting to redesign our introductory biology lab curriculum is that models of inquiry-based lab courses designed for large enrollments are limited. Our approach has been to review the work of colleagues and to adapt lab projects that have been successful at other institutions. In doing so, we have built on the work of many colleagues, including Jean Heitz at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Mary Tyler at the University of Maine and Marvin O’Neal at Stonybrook University. We have also recently been accepted into formal pilot partnership with the Small World Initiative**** developed by Jo Handelsman and others at Yale University. We look forward to introducing this authentic research project, focusing on antibiotic discovery, into our introductory lab course beginning in spring of 2014. Another challenge has been developing an effective training program for our part-time instructors that will enable their success as course facilitators. Our approach has been to design weekly training sessions that reflect the student-centered and inquiry-based atmosphere that we want to have as a hallmark of our teaching labs. The training sessions include the use of a POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning)** type structure, with instructors working in teams to build answer keys for problem sets and write exam questions. We have partnered with colleagues from our University Center for Instructional Design to build instructor skill in supporting student inquiry.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: While still in the early stages, our dissemination activities have included maintaining open communication and collaboration with other members of our department. Our instructor-training program also facilitates dissemination as our instructors advance to academic positions at other institutions. In the future, we hope to discuss our work at science education conferences and share key findings in publications.

Acknowledgements: * Adapted from the work of Jean Heitz, University of Wisconsin ** *** CURE Survey was developed by David Lopatto, Grinnell College ****