Thursday, May 9, 2013

Freshmen, Extra Credit, and Different Ways of Learning

When I was in freshman biology (Biology 4A, with the great Dr. Robert Goldberg at UCLA in the late 1970s), things were pretty "old skool" about learning in and out of the classroom.  We took notes during lecture.  We studied.  We were tested.  We sweated over and earned grades.  

But even then, Professor Goldberg insisted that it was all about our taking "ownership" of our own learning, and he held us to strict percentage standards.  In part, this was to encourage us to not feel competitive with one another (as grade curving can).  More to the point, with humor and rigor, he challenged us to do better than the results for which we would normally settle:  to demand more of ourselves.  It was not about the exam, but the focus was on the learning, with a sense of ownership and a passion for the subject matter.  The grades were simply the result of the work we put in, and the standards we set for ourselves.  I think of Professor Goldberg every time I step in front of a classroom; a very inspirational fellow from my perspective. 

My wise friend of mine from graduate school, Dr. Daniel Klionsky, a superb cell biologist and educator, makes a very powerful point:  we don't do many things in science the way we did them a century ago.  Why should we teach the same way?  Dan's collaborative learning model is wonderful, and during the past several years, I have begun to incorporate aspects of it into my "bag of educational tricks," just as I have tried to use some of the teaching skills and educational philosophy that Professor Goldberg used with me so long ago. 

I have come to understand that there are indeed many learning styles among undergraduates.  For some students, the best way to learn is by "doing," almost a kinesthetic approachFor example, when I am teaching the portion of my freshman course involving genetics, it is common for students to look at a Punnett Square and feel confident that they understand it.  The truth is, they have seen it, which is emphatically not the same thing at all.  But after physically drawing out a Punnett Square, I find that students "get it" much more readily, especially under stressful conditions such as  exams.    

More importantly,  I have seen this more physical approach work with some of my microbiology students, as I relate here.  For many  students, the "creative projects" approach can enhance and fortify concepts and learning outcomes.  

So why not try this approach in my "Unity of Life" course for freshmen?

As an extra credit project, I gave the following instructions to interested students in that class:  (i) come up with a creative way to engage material we have covered in lecture, (ii) obtain my verbal approval of topic, (iii) write a one page summary of your project, and (iv) go to it!

The results were pleasing, and I am certain the projects will help these students on the upcoming cumulative final exam.

One group of students became interested in building models of viruses via orgami:

 I still think that virions look like tiny invaders from another planet or dimension!

Another student was quite taken by "artwork" made from DNA gels.  Based on what she found on the Internet, she painted the following piece on canvas, which I found quite lovely:

Another student decided to approach Mendel's Laws via poetry, as you can see here in this excerpt:

Another group of students decided to create a short "puppet show" illustrating issues of antibiotic resistance (the rise of drug resistant microbes is one of the most relevant subjects to everyday life in my course, I believe).  I thought this was quite creative (especially the aluminum foil representing resistance!).

 Another student created a "posterboard" detailing what takes place at the fork during DNA replication.  My guess is that this student will understand the process quite well!

Another student group created a "comic book" detailing the rise of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, using quite a unique metaphor.  It's always interesting for me to see what information I present in lecture appears to "stick"!  Here is the cover and one of the pages:

Here is an interesting creative approach.  One student wanted to represent the "Z-diagram" of photosynthesis using flower petals.  That's one way to remember photosystems, electron transport chains, ATPases, ferredoxin, and the like.

 Another student put together a "stop-motion" video (RIP, Ray Harryhausen!) depicting mitosis.

This student tried her hand at artistically depicting the different levels of protein folding:

One student was particularly taken with viruses, and tried her hand at poetry in honor of these tiny entities:

Another student group decided to highlight mitosis in plant and animal cells, painting a series of small tiles that could be assembled in different ways:

This student created an "ABCs of Molecular Biology" style "childrens' book."  Here is a sample page:  "F is for F plasmid."

One student feared that she wasn't "getting" photosynthesis as well as she would like.  To deal with this, the student created a "comic book/graphic novel" booklet of the process.  Here is a sample page.

Another student decided to turn central glucose metabolism into a prose metaphor, using a "fairy tale" style.  Here is an excerpt.

This student loved photography and art, and created a booklet of the stages of mitosis, using twigs and flowers and tiny pine cones as props.

Another student group confronted the complexities of meiosis by creating a large poster of the word "meiosis," using images of each stage in the creation of each letter.

Finally, one student group created a children's book version of mitosis that was quite lovely.  Here is the cover.

And here is a sample page.  

There were others, but you get the idea, I think.  And I now have many new items to put on the walls of my office and lab!  I was really quite pleased by the creativity and enthusiasm I saw with this project.

I think it is clear that each of these "projects" took time and thought and close attention.  I believe that this approach will help students with their preparation for the cumulative final exam in my class.  Beyond that, it is yet another example of how using different learning styles in the classroom can allow students to take control of their own education.  Not simply to do well on an exam, but to "get" the material, and own the positive outcomes.

I'm glad I tried this approach with my freshmen.  We shall see how it goes next week on their Final exam!


  1. Excellent!! We used to get 2nd yr Micro students to make virion models; I have one particularly good T4 phage hanging via a noose above my seminar table (known as "The Hanging Phage of Death"; you have to speak when it points at you). I also have an excellent adenovirus. Another project was to come up with a poster describing life cycles, or particular microbiological problems. Unfortunately, now it's all Powerpoint...B-(

  2. Thanks for your comment! It's true that there are all kinds of instructions online for making such "viral origami," but these freshmen had to stretch quite a bit to get into this. I was happy with their efforts! I would very much love to see your Hanging Phage of Death---find a way to take a photo and send it to me, if you can. There is something about physically building something that seems to help many students; it's not just arts and crafts. Thanks again for your kind comment.


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