a successful project-based learning lab class

Since we are focusing on project-based learning, case study, team-based learning and all those new teaching strategies, I kind of figured out more why the General Microbiology lab is such a popular class now.

This lab based 2000 level class is offered by the department of biological science and the students are required to take the Microbiology lecture part either before they take the lab or take both simultaneously. It is not attached to the lecture so tightly, but knowing the basic of general microbiology is definitely very helpful.

The whole lab class is composed of 44 different exercises and two major long-term projects.  The students meet twice per week, either Monday&Wednesday, or Tuesday&Thursday. The students work in pairs, and they set up some experiments or tests on the first day, and then come back to check the results at the following class. For each exercise they need to write down the expected results and the real results they get from their own experiments. Then they analyze their data and write a short conclusion on that. With all those individual exercises, they learn and practice the common techniques used in Microbiology. A short mini lecture is also given by the TA at the beginning of each class to emphasize the general background information and principles. Most of the time during the class, the TA will just walk around to answer questions or help the students to go through their experiments successfully.

The two major projects are performed at later of the semester, which are built upon all the  techniques or tested they already practiced in this lab. Each project is like a case from a diagnostic lab, they need to figure out what is the organisms in their given sample. The students will work individually on their own puzzle and after about 4 weeks work, they come to a conclusion and hand in a lab report and journal.

There are also two mini projects they have to work independently during the first half of the semester. It is more like a mini summary of what they have done. By working on those mini projects, the students are getting trained on comprehensive thinking and also applying  what they learn in class to “real world” issue. One mini project is to identify the resident microorganisms from their own skin and all the students got so excited about it and were very eager to try different tests to figure out what they are.

As a TA for this lab class, I do enjoy my teaching all the time. The students are very involved and enthusiastic about those hands-on bench work. They also gain a better understanding of the lecture. When they come to the final major project, no one freaks out and most of them end up with a perfect job. I did see through this lab  class that project based learning is very interesting, inviting,and productive to the students. It is more fun for the students, also more fun for the TA.

power balance in the classroom

I was reading classmates’ blog trying to find some spark to light up my ideas about my second post. It is kind of interesting that people always have a stronger feeling when see something familiar happened to others. I guess we all need some kind of social identification at now and then. I do belong to this kind of group and I read through Jamie’s post about the power of empowerment, I immediately thought about my high school experiences with my major class advisor, also Chemistry teacher at then.

It was a big issue in China for teenagers to develop relationships while they are still in school. None of the high school kids are dare to show or express their romantic feelings to others, even now. While, you know teenagers, there are always few underground lovers. As our major advisor, Mr.D, he was terrified about this and keep having different students coming to his office and he would pretended to care about your school and then started asking behaviors or rumors about other students. Though he was a great teacher at his major, chemistry at that moment, nobody graduated in my class really appreciated his hard work and endeavor. It was hard for teenagers to really love and respect him if his hard work just ended up more suspicion, anger, stress, and unfriendly atmosphere in the class room. I still remember at our reunion after high school graduation, he was not invited and the boys played an insulting hoax to him by calling his home phone and cell phone after midnight. It was sad and we never did it again at our other reunions, but also he was never invited.

People in China say”Love is just like sand, the tighter you try to hold it, the quicker you lose it.” I think it also applies here in the class room. The more power the teacher tries to grant to himself/herself, the quicker and easier that he/she losses it. The teacher has power in the classroom, but not absolutely tyranny. Neutral respect is definitely the very fundamental base for constructing and maintaining an healthy student-teacher relationship. Of course, there are other challenges compared to one-to-one relationships. We all come across public challenges in the classroom by some special students. How we deal with those situations can also affect the whole power balance.

It is a global world and it is a very diverse classroom. There are some general rules about how to balance the power, but there are always some unique cases that we will experience. It is always those specific cases will either give us honor or pricey lessons. Keep exploring in this topic and be prepared for those challenges is always a better choice.



How blogging can help Biology Undergraduate Education?

The first thought about blogging is exciting! One reason is because I have been maintaining an active blog for over 7 years now and I really enjoy it.

However, this time, we were not talking about blogging by myself, but ask the students to start a blog for a specific class. For example, I am teaching General Microbiology Lab this  semester and how I am going to ask my students to write blog on this subject and improve their learning. I feel it is a great idea, but how we are going to put it in practice, especially in a science subject?

As we discussed in class, the person very possibly will be more motivated if he/she decide to start a blog or not. However, when it is required by the professor, it is more like an “writing assignment” instead of “blogging”. In this situation, whether the students will really dig into the subject and give some serious thoughts, will be out of our control.

Put the motivation aside. I am more concerned about how we can carry it out for Biology Undergraduate Education. As the second largest major on campus, Biological Science education seems a big responsibility for the whole biological science department. Most of the general fundamental classes are huge while we also carry lots of small classes focused on very specific research area.

One concern from me would be how many professors do have enough time to check their students’ blog on a weekly basis. For example, my supervisor teaches one class every fall semester. He told us more than once that teaching is stressful, especially grading. Though he only has two mid-term tests and one final. Also, most of his questions are multiple choice questions and 10 filling-up-blank questions. Since more than half of the professors who committed teaching responsibilities are also research faculties, I worried how many of them will really thinking about incorporating blogging into their teaching. It is hard to say I do not care about funding. We all know how important that means in a research university and how much work does that take.

Another concern would be how helpful it will be in Biology education. Biology does not equal pure memorization, but it does have lots and lots of facts and concepts you have to remember, especially for undergraduate classes. So, how to make each topic exciting and fun to promote the students to read more and learn dipper, I don’t know yet. Maybe that is why I am so eagerly expect Dr.Jill Sible’s talk in this class. Besides that, we also need to think about how much time blogging will take and how much the students are willing to spend on this part. I guess this would be a big challenge for those one credit lab classes. Currently, all my students loved this class, and most of them thought it was fun. However, this 3.7 out of 4 evaluation seems so pale with the reality that most of my students even wouldn’t read the textbook before they come to the class.

After all, so far, I feel I am more convinced to start a professional blog than asking my students to do it, to use it as a platform to offer more resources for my teaching. Suddenly, I realized that as a professor, Dr. Flowler does know much better than me about how to motivate students, because I just wrote my first post. Done!