Monday, April 16, 2007

Biology, the blockbuster

This post was inspired by a discussion with Woodie Flowers in which he compared the manpower (small closed group or solo author) and expenditures (small, but higher than warranted) put into producing an average textbook and the collaborative manpower (huge!) and expenditures (whoa!) put into producing a feature film.

What if textbooks looked like this? Not just as "supplementary materials" or "outside exercises," but imagine showing this (without narration, but with really great music as in this clip on Youtube.

What if bio class looked like this:

  1. Before the first day of class, have students read handouts - short handouts, almost like field guides - on different components, phenomena, and apparatus in the cells that appears in the video - but don't tell them that - and don't expect them to read them very well, don't give them any quizzes on the material, just let them read it (and some will read it blindly and robotically, and some will complain, and some will frantically attempt to memorize it, but whatever.)
  2. On the first day of class, introduce yourself (5 seconds), remind everyone that they had read something prior to coming to class, hit the lights, and without further explanation, start the movie (with music, no narration).
  3. Hopefully by this point most of the students will be going "WHOA! I think that was my part but what was that and how does this work and what are the spiral things poking off the yellow blobs and what was that?"
  4. Break students into groups according to the reading they did (so that each reading has a representative in each group). Have them go through the video and produce an explanation - or narration - of the clip, as best they can.
  5. Then have these small groups pair off, with each group in a pair talking through their narration or explanation of the movie to the other group. When that's done, bring the class together, fielding quick questions or discussions for a few minutes if there are any pressing outstanding debates.
  6. Next, hit the lights and watch the long movie with the narration by the original movie creators, asking the class to note how they explain the phenomena - not that this is a correct interpretation, but that it is a variant of one. Get a little meta afterwards. Ask them about the effectiveness of the movie, the accuracy (and biases) of the "official" narration; encourage them to write to the creators of the movie with comments, thanks, and suggestions.
You can go on from there. The intent is for students to always have more questions than answers, and to be sufficiently driven by those questions to find their own answers, and to recognize that there is no "absolute" way to search correctly for an answer, and often not an "absolute" answer at all. (The bio textbooks I've seen are written with the material portrayed as gospel where the fact of the matter is that they're theories in development, just like any other field, and this is our best guess as to what's going on at the moment.) This is how you develop fluency as a scientist, the ability to move within a field and converse with your fellow practitioners.

Olin BioEs: is this the kind of stuff Joanne is into with regards to teaching biology?


Nikki said...

That video was hot. *wide eyed*

Elizabeth said...

I'm not a BioE, but I am in Bio right now...and I could totally see Joanne doing this. She did something similar earlier this year with a video with and without narration. You should talk to her.

Tim Smith said...

How does this fit into a semester-long course -- is this is a one-off exercise? Does the course have a textbook? This sounds awesome but I would panic if you threw me in a course requiring the acquisition of substantial "factual" material (like intro bio) w/o a textbook.

Mel said...

It would be the first day of a semester-long course. I'm totally not qualified to say anything about how to teach bio (I barely know intro bio myself) so I can't make up ways to teach the rest, but the emphasis would not be on "substantial 'factual' material" but on... fluency in biology as a culture and a language, almost. (Yes, it requires the learning of a vocabulary, but students can create a dictionary - perhaps a shared wiki of notes for the entire class - for this.) A number of textbooks would be placed in the library as an optional reference. Dunno. It seemed to me that when I took bio with Joanne, she was trying to move in this sort of direction already, which was really, really cool (Joanne is awesome!)