Saturday, May 10, 2014

Freshman Biology and Creativity!

Teaching is often its own reward, but also has its compensatory challenges.  The two main courses I teach (introduction to cell and molecular biology for freshman biology majors, and microbiology for junior and senior biology majors) have different audiences, different challenges, and different joys.

I know that helping students to engage the topics in class through "different eyes" and different strategies can help improve retention and outcomes (meaning exams, on one level).  One method to accomplish that is to encourage students to approach concepts from class based on their interests, using their own skill sets.  I find that most students have impressive talents and special interests that we just don't find out about within the context of a crowded introductory course.  

Nothing motivates students quite like points (he said, cynically), so I often offer "extra credit" for "creative" projects in some of my classes.  This has created some wonderful products in the past, as can be seen in my freshman course last Spring here, and my microbiology course last Fall here.

This Spring, I offered my freshman biology students the same "deal."  They had to talk about their project with me first, to get verbal approval.  Then I needed them to write a one page proposal, to lay out the basic parameters and concept of the project.  I did both of these things to keep students from doing something overwhelmingly last minute (which is in my opinion non-optimal in two ways:  last minute efforts are generally underwhelming, and I also worry that the project might take away from their studies in general).  

The results in the past have been gratifying (as seen in the prior links), and this Spring was no different.  Here are some examples of what these students can do, when they are in the "driver's seat" of their studying and preparations for final exams.  Also note that, for every project, the act of putting these projects together helps students with concepts central to my introductory course. This approach helps the students in an enjoyable and positive manner.

It works.

First, a "piratical" approach to a dihybrid cross that would make Mendel smile.  I hope.

I also had two students who were interested in what I had presented about endosymbiosis, and followed up with Elysia, the chloroplast harvesting sea slug.  In their hands, this topic became a children's book, as you can see from the following two sample pages.

Several students became fascinated by mitosis and meiosis (and well they should!).  One student "cross-stitched" her version of mitosis (very "crafty" as my late mother would have said) as can be seen here. 

Another created a flip book (I am still trying to create a YouTube video to demonstrate, but cannot get the angle quite correct) showing meiosis in action.

Another student created a fun "mini-comic book" about Mendel as her project.  The student pointed out to me, correctly, that the founder of genetics was born "Johann" and only took "Gregor" as a friar in his religious order. 

There was a great deal of creative writing that appeared in this year's "creative projects" offering. Here is a poem about "mitochondrial love" and central metabolism.

Another student created an ode to a phospholipid that I think emphasizes some important points.

One student came up with a charming idea I had not anticipated. She told me that she loved the idea of "visual puns" involving biology.  This student created a series of cartoons that mix humor and first year biology pretty well. 

For example, a "Barr Body" takes on a whole new meaning in this student's artistic vision:

 And don't get me started about cell phones in class:

Another student had a more traditional artistic bent, and created this lovely piece of art on canvas that I will hang in my office or laboratory:

I'm not usually surprised by student choices with this kind of assignment, but one student created a "bingo" game that one can use to create a dihybrid Punnett Square.  That is certainly one approach to creating a random selection of alleles during gamete formation!  She included lots of apparatus and instructions.  I can't wait to try it out! 

Another rather shy student wrote a fun poem about the ribosome, that emphases the basic structure and function.

One student asked to do something more "short story"-"creative writing" for her project.  In particular, she wanted to write about Rosalind Franklin.  What the student produced is a ghost story with a slapstick edge.  Here is an excerpt:

Another student had quite an interest in 1930s Gothic literature, such as that of H.P. Lovecraft.  For her project the student produced an analysis---1930s style---of some rather odd families in the H.P. Lovecraft universe, complete with pedigree analysis.  

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn  

Which brings us to some more...theatrical...extra credit productions.  First, three of my students decide to rap a bit about mitosis:

Here is their lyric sheet, exactly as they presented it to me.

Another student tried her hand at also being raptastic about mitosis, as you can hear in this audio file:

I don't know how to add an overall cover image, so this is the only way I could determine to upload audio to this blog!  Apologies for the kludge-y approach.  Here are the lyrics to the rap, anyway:

And finally, two students with traditional musical talents put together a pretty fun parody, and do their best to emote for the camera...about mitosis.

Well, I hope that the "creative extra credit" project had some positive aspects for the students.  I know that I was impressed by skills and interests among the students, aspects of them about which I was unaware! And if this kind of project helps the students prepare for their final exam next week, all the better.

I will leave the students with a microbial "good luck" wish, as you can see:

And I recorded this on the last day of class.  I like to think they were clapping because they enjoyed some of the class, not simply that it was over!

I hope you enjoyed this post, as well.  I'll keep trying to merge their creative sides with their studious sides in my classes, never fear!  Give it a try in your classrooms, educators---the students always surprise and impress me!


  1. This is a great idea! Extra credit is always a motivator, and they *actually* learn some science in the process.

  2. Only at Puget Sound. :) Don't worry, it doesn't end there. I parody songs I hear in the lab all the time. Mostly about grad school, but definitely about my project as well.

  3. Appreciate the comments! I hope you have seen all the funny science parodies out there ("Bad Project," "Posterface," "Up All Night to Get Data," "Gridhole by Chri$," "Some Budding Yeast I Used to Grow," and many others)!


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