Monday, February 13, 2006

Teaching Biology To Adults

I teach Biology at a community college, but not on the main campus. Instead, I teach at a satellite campus dedicated to adult education. Those are all accelerated courses, which means that classes meet for about three hours once a week, either in the evening or on Saturday, and the classes last five, eight or twelve weeks.

Biology lasts eight weeks, although I teach the Lab over four weeks, doubling the face-time each week - that way more gets done, students are happier, and if an experiment does not work out well, it is no big deal because it is not the only exercise of the day.

One of the problems that all of us on the satellite campus have to deal with is the requirement that our classes exactly mirror the classes taught on the main campus, using exactly the same syllabus. This means that material taught for a whole semester has to be completely covered in eight (or five or twelve) sittings.

We deal with it in creative ways, trying not to get our students' heads to explode, but it is not easy. Unfortunately, the main campus administration appears to be adamant about this, and the satellite campus administration appears to be too timid to even voice some protest, let alone do something about it.

The duration of the class is not the only problem. We also have a very different audience. While main campus has a number of majors, we offer only four, stuff like business and computers. Thus, my biology class, which is designed for biology majors, never has biology majors in it.

The age difference is another factor. My students are adults, with jobs and families, with life experience, with little money and even less time. Often they go to school because their employers ask them to do so (and pay for their tuition) if they want that promotion (or not to get laid-off). Main campus caters to the more traditional crowd of 20-year old kids whose only job is to go to school.

Another difference is in their educational background. My students got out of high school many years ago. If they had biology at all, they remember it as boring rote memorization of Krebs cycles, flower parts, human anatomy and classification of invertebrates, with no mention of evolution at all. They come to my classroom with fear. The current crop of high-school graduates has had much better science instruction and approaches biology with eager anticipation.

My main goal, something often thwarted by the requirements of the syllabus, is to show the students that biology is fun, that science is not a monolithic body of knowledge but a method and a process, that evolution is the only way to explain everything and anything in biology, and that the class is not as hard as they feared it would be.

As non-science majors they really do not need to know the details of the life cycles of ferns and mosses - the time taken up with that boring nitty-gritty detail would be better used in covering some Big Picture aspects of the course, for instance its relevance to daily life.

As I have written before, I like to use diseases as entry points into each lecture, as well as the glue that connects the disparate topics together (you will see how if you click on that link).

If I had the freedom to design my own course, I would start each topic with a discussion of an assigned article from the media, covering topics from AIDS to Mad Cow Disease, from Intelligent Design to environmental protection, from cloning to stem cell research, etc. This immediately makes the material relevant as these topics are hot and my students are quite likely to be interested in them.

This initial discussion would be a good way for me to gauge what misperceptions my students have. Then, I can lead the discussion in the direction I want it to go, that is, to the point where I say :"OK, now listen up, I will now explain in more detail the science underlying this topic". That would be the cue for them to sit back and pay attention, perhaps take notes, as I am about to lunge into a lecture on whatever the topic of the day is.

Actually, now that I think about it, that wouldn't be a bad method for teaching science majors either. What do you think?

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Blogger karmen said...

Now here's a blog I can relate to. I applaud your goal--I've often reffered fellow students to biology professors who could bring the subject to life in their own way. I know of at least one at my campus who plays the guitar and sings along with his lectures. In our class, each lecture is accompanied by a packet of notes full of diagrams and side notes, all cooresponding to the interactive content that is displayed on the smart board. I love being a student these days... I was pretty bored in biology the first time around... these days, I can't get enough.

(non-science major in the majors bio class)

4:59 PM  
Anonymous angie said...

I am a non-traditional student taking biology and other science courses at a local community college. But I take them during the day, with all the 19 year olds. My biology prof spends part of every lecture discussing current relevance in terms of hot media topics, which I find invaluable. However the eyes of many of the students in my class seem to glaze over when he goes off on the current debates regarding stem cell research or ID or antibiotic resistant organisms or global warming--they just want to know what's going to be on the test, and think the prof just likes to ramble. So yes, for your older *cough* students such as myself, I think your idea sounds perfect. It's sad, but sometimes I think the younger crowd prefers the rote memorization method, which is what turned me off biology in the first place 20 years ago.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Nelumbo said...

I found this is a great way to teach Environmental Science. I use the text "Environmental Science: The science behind the stories" which offers a story for each topic. We start out talking about the current event and move into the science.

Like Angie notes, though, some students get more excited about this than others. This week, I think a few students would have been happy discussing the politics of oil all period, while others were ready to move on.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I'd love to take the satelite class.

Have you looked into a different course that fulfills the same requirements... something like "biology and current issues" -- or "applied biology". If the satelite programs accept it, then the administration's worry about filling the class will be moot.

8:52 PM  
Blogger coturnix said...

I am working on it...but it is an uphill battle...

9:02 PM  

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