Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Student-Centered Learning, Part I: Nanobiographies!

It's been a while longer than I had hoped since my last blog entry.  A second exam, a quick trip to a microbiology conference (where one of my research students presented and did a fantastic job), and the like, interfered.  In any event, my beloved Microbiology course is winding toward a close, after a wonderful semester.  I learn as much, if not more, from my students than they from me---and this year was no exception.  I have many ideas, based on what I have gleaned from this crop of Micronauts, that I am looking forward to implementing in the Fall of 2013.  Next stop, my cumulative Final Exam.

One of the challenges in teaching any kind of broad yet deep topic, like Microbiology, is how best to navigate the vagaries of student learning.  Let's face facts:  tests are but one measure of what students "get" from a course, and often not a very accurate one.  Student "learning styles" are genuinely variable.   Thus, I like to give students an opportunity to investigate a subject for themselves; I find that many students "bloom" with such assignments.

Enter the ancient concept of The Dreaded Term Paper™.  Being true to myself, I call such a paper a "Microbiography."  Students are asked, in a scaffolded fashion, to create an in-depth investigation of a microbial topic that interests them (I usually insist that they stay away from viruses, other than mimiviruses or bacteriophages, and generally stick to bacteria and archaea).  First, students obtain approval of the topic from me (and I share my thoughts on their topics).  Later, a one paragraph summary of their goals for the paper.  Still later, an annotated bibliography and an outline.  All of this leads up to the final product, which I direct and shape with a detailed rubric (so that the students know what I am hoping to see).  

The fact is, I have had a number of Microbiology students over the years win writing awards from our campus' Center for Teaching and Writing and Learning for these Microbiographies.  And it's not a surprise:  students pick a topic which genuinely interests them, the assignment is scaffolded (to prevent, or at least hinder, "last minute" jobs), and the expectations are clear.  This allows students to really dive into a topic, and not only learn a great deal...but provide others (including yours truly) with valuable insights into specialized microbial topics.

One of the later "scaffolded" assignments is a one page summary of their Microbiographies, which I predictably call a Nanobiography.  The goal, I tell my students, is to create a one page essay (with diagram or cartoon) explaining what is wild and wonderful about their particular topics.  The intended audience?  Their peers (or even their parents!).  Some students are businesslike.  Others highly creative.  But I would say that all students benefit from the assignment, and they enjoy reading about the fellow students' topics in such a format.   Thus, I thought I would share this year's Nanobiographies with the readers of this blog---from the students who didn't mind my posting their one-page essays here, in any event.  

It gives me a chance to brag about my students, after all!  

Below each of the titles you will see is a clickable image of the relevant Nanobiography.  Feel free to click and enjoy!  I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did!

The Spiteful Cell:  Pyocins versus Cheaters!

Microbial Freeze Tag:  Life at Low Temperatures.

Compartments, Paradigms, and Carboxysomes.

Virophages:  Parasites of Parasites?

An Attractive Proposition:  Magnetotactic Bacteria.

Archaea in Sickness and in Health.

A Weighty Question:  Microbiota and Obesity.

The Microbial City on a Tooth:  Ecology of Dental Plaque.
Streptococcus thermophilus:  Farmer, Pharmacist, and Survivor.
Some Like It Hot:  Hyperthermophilic Microbes.
The Microbial Juggernaut:  HA and CA MRSA.
Squid for Rent:  All Microbial Applicants Must Glow.

Harnessing the Tiny Killers:  Bacteriophage Therapy Redux.
An Aggregate Heartbreaker:  Bacterial Endocarditis.
There is no "I" in Colony:  Social Shortcuts Among Microbes.
Cavity Creeps Who Are Bad to the Bone:  Porphyromonas gingivalis.
Septic Salivary Symbionts:  Oral Microbiota of Komodo Dragons.
Chatter Among Teeth:  Communication Among Dental Plaque Microbes.

Black Plague:  A Story of Subversion by Yersinia pestis.
What's (in) a Hoatzin?
Sugar, Spice, and Microbial Nice:  Microbes and Flavor in Chocolate.

These are remarkable students, and I will miss sharing Matters Microbial with them three days a week (plus lab sessions).  Fingers crossed for all of them during the upcoming Final Exam!  


  1. As I scramble at the end of my own semester, I can't savor these for another few days, but taking pride in one's students is one of the grandest perks of our work! Cheers to scientists in the making!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. It's interesting to see how students react to different styles of teaching and learning....

  2. Unfortunately, many learners try to do the opposite. They use classroom lectures, textbooks and grammar books to learn English. They use their eyes instead of their ears.


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!