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General Biology Laboratory A – Research Techniques in Cell and Molecular Biology (Fall)

General Biology Laboratory B – Evolution, Organisms and Environment (Spring) 

The focus of these laboratories is to provide students with a structured research experience through genuine investigative lab projects such as: analysis of erythrocyte membrane protein mutants, yeast-two hybrid analysis of mutations in a colorectal cancer gene (MLH1), plant responses to environmental change, and investigations in human cardiovascular physiology.

280- 320 sophomores - primarily pre-medical students, also environmental science, science-business, and engineering students.   

14% underrepresented minorities (does not inlcude Asian studnents)

10 graduate TAs    20 undergraduate  TAs    


Challenges in Biological Sciences (two semesters, combined lecture and lab course)    

600 first year and sophomores - biology, biochemistry, pre-medical, environmental science, science-business, and engineering students.

This new two-semester course will consist of six topic-based modules, each with an active learning lecture linked to genuine research projects in the lab.  Modules will include: evolution and human population genetics, molecular genetics and hereditary cancer syndromes, developmental biology, physiology of diabetes, immunology and infectious disease pandemics, and ecology and global environmental change.  This new format will allow students to learn essential concepts while engaged in investigating fundamental questions in biology.



When I began my career as a high school biology teacher, I was not thinking about the importance of laboratory teaching.  My goal was simply to survive the day by generating a coherent lecture for each class.  However, thirteen years of teaching a lab course at Notre Dame has convinced me that the most effective learning happens in a lab or similar active learning environment.   In the lab, I’ve had the opportunity to observe students grapple with new concepts, sophisticated techniques, and often, unexpected results.  This experience has had a profound effect on my teaching philosophy, and resulted in three principles that have driven improvements in my course, and influenced my approach for future courses.

Be a biologist.  John Janovy (2003) argued in his book, “Teaching in Eden”, that “a student must not necessarily learn parasitology, but be a parasitologist.”  Or similarly, be a geneticist, ecologist, or physiologist.  The lab is a natural place for this type of experiential learning.  My courses are structured around genuine problems that require students to be scientists:  ask relevant questions, gather information, use available tools, develop experiments, interpret data, and communicate their results.  Consequently, over the course of a year, students identify the cause of spherocytosis in a mouse model, evaluate the effect of cancer mutations on protein function, study plant responses to environmental change, and investigate factors that alter human cardiovascular physiology.  These projects put students’ participation in the lab in a real world context, and give them the opportunity for discovery.  A project-based approach may limit the number of concepts that can be addressed, but I believe this results in more student engagement, deeper learning, and long-term retention.

Student ownership of the learning process.  As a high school student, I was immediately drawn to the self-directed learning facilitated by Learning Activity Packets.  As a teacher, I observed that students at all levels, whether a 9th grader working diligently on a project, or a Notre Dame sophomore arguing over the correct statistical test, are naturally more engaged when they determine the direction and pace of their own work.  Whenever possible, I have introduced projects that allow students to identify their own research question and develop their own experiments, although this can be logistically challenging with a large class.

Student responsibility for first exposure.  In the Internet age, educators no longer need to be the sole conveyors of vocabulary and basic concepts, or “first exposure” to a topic.  When students are responsible for gathering and validating this information before class, this leaves time for complex problems that require critical thinking and processing.  I use technology, such as WebCT Blackboard and Poll Everywhere, for concept checks that evaluate students’ preparation and readiness to engage in lab activities.  During class, I then assign problem sets related to the lab project, and this allows me to “eavesdrop” on student thinking, providing insights into students’ conceptual misunderstandings and challenges.

These three principles have been incorporated into the structure of our proposed introductory biology course, Challenges in Biological Sciences (CBS).  In the CBS course, students will: learn biological concepts in the context of current research areas, work on exciting investigative projects, and acquire skills needed to find and validate information.  Given the dramatic change from a traditional course to this new approach, we recognize that rigorous assessment is needed to gauge the success of this model.

In all honesty, initial discussions of this course in both meetings and hallways discussions have uncovered a group of colleagues with serious doubts.  And I have to say that I can't blame them.  What we are proposing is very different from the chapter by chapter approach that has served our department and students "well" for decades.  After all, we have one of the highest acceptance rates to medical school in the country, and many students go on to top graduate programs.   But that has also led us to think about some important core issues related to assessment:

- What are the true objectives of the course?  Content?  Process?  Critical thinking?  All of the above?

- How do we know that our students are really learning?  Or are they just good test takers?

- Is the course actually altering incoming conceptual frameworks about biology?

- Does the course spark students' interest in biology as an investigative process?  Or confirm that biology is a set of static facts?

- How can we assess our students with methods other than multiple choice without making everyone crazy?

- Does active learning actually work, in particular in a large class?  Or is it just the lastest educational fad?

Developing rigorous tools to answer these questions will be critical to evaluating the status quo, and any following any changes made in the future.



In 2009, I was a co-PI on a large grant proposal submitted to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for Undergraduate Science Education (“Transforming Education: Integrating Inquiry and Research across the Undergraduate Biology Curriculum”).  My major contribution to the proposal was redesign of our introductory biology sequence.  This two- semester course, “Challenges in Biological Sciences” will consist of six topic-based modules, each with an active lecture component linked to a genuine research project in the lab.  The proposal development process itself was a learning experience, as it sparked a series of insightful discussions among colleagues about core biological concepts, current challenges in biology, and what constitutes a successful and educated student.  While the proposal was not funded, the concept for the new course was well received and will be implemented over the next two years.  My goal is to be actively involved this process, and in continued refinement of the course.  As we develop and implement the course, I believe there will be several opportunities for exciting SoTL research as well.

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