Introductory Biology at Cornell University
CALS Impact Statement
The past two decades has been witness to a transformation in the biological sciences in the age of genomics, and with it has come important new challenges for the teaching of Introductory Biology for Cornell University freshmen. Cornell has responded to these challenges by reorganizing the administration, focus, teaching style, and subject matter of BioG101-104, the flagship course for biology majors (BioG101-102 for lectures and BioG103-4 for labs).
The course oversight has shifted to an interdisciplinary committee made up of faculty members across the university. The committee is organized through the Office of Undergraduate Biology. The curriculum is set by a sub-group of faculty members who share in the responsibility for teaching the course on a rotating basis. There is one faculty member assigned to each semester, although guest lectures are used for special topics.
In 2005-6 and 2006-7 the course was run by Dr. Carl D. Hopkins and Dr. James Morin. The course emphasized interactive teaching, employing personal response systems ("clickers") to track student understanding. Lectures emphasize major conceptual issues but give specific examples of historically important experiments. Lectures are accompanied by sophisticated graphics, video, and computer animations. Web-based quizzing and tutorials encourage active learning. Class discussions and dining discussions encourage in-depth analysis of complex interdisciplinary topics including parasitism, drugs and the brain, evolution and intelligent design, and cooperation and conflict. In 2005 and 2006 the focus was on understanding recent research advances in the study of malaria. Special class discussions utilizing the skilled acting of Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble taught essential lessons in Research Ethics for biologists. The course repeatedly emphasized major transitions in evolution as a theme.
The revolution in the biological sciences comes from the post-genomic discoveries in the biological sciences which has made Biology an inter-disciplinary subject. Biology has witnessed a transformation of the subject. As the genome has been sequenced in multiple organisms, we are aware of both the unity of life and the diversity, and it is all interrelated by the historical process of evolutionary change. Biology teaching must keep pace with these changes which requires dramatic changes in the way biology is taught, what is taught, and how students approach and master the subject matter.
In 2005-2007 we instituted the following changes in BioG101-104.
1) We adopted interactive personal response systems ("clickers") to poll students about their attitudes, their understanding, and their conceptual framework on specific topics. The clickers were used in nearly every lecture.
2) We adopted the use of in-class discussion using microphones for student responses, a discussion leader, and a well-defined and interesting topic (Malaria, rese"rch ethi"s).
3) We invited the Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble to act out every-day scenes in a research laboratory for which ethical issues and decisions needed to be made. The scenes involved undergraduate researchers faced with ethical decisions.
4) We emphasized Malaria in multiple lectures, and read and discussed an article from the primary literature as well as a summary of the article from the New York Times. The New York Times author (Carl Zimmer) was present during the discussion.
5) We used Web-based quizzes and tutorials to keep students on schedule, provide them with opportunities to practice and solve difficult analytical problems involving biological research.
6) We encouraged participation in weekly discussions with faculty volunteers about research in a dining discussion program.
7) We encouraged the formation of student study groups, including the Biology Scholars program run through the Office of Undergraduate Biology.
8) We encouraged continuation of the successful Explorations Program which requires every student in BioG101-102 to visit a laboratory exploration on campus. The program has been run successfully for 14 years.
Student response to Bio 101-104 has been enthusiastic.
The Cornell Chronicle describe our use of theater to teach research ethics.
We maintained a high enrollment in BioG 101-102 (650 students).
We believe that students are becoming involved in undergraduate research in record numbers as a result of the success of the explorations program.
funding source description
We were awarded a $2000 grant from the Bentinck-Smith fund to develop the Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble`s production of Research Ethics.
We applied for and received a University Lectureship to support the lecture by Carl Zimmer on evolution of host-parasite biology.
Jeff Doyle (Office of Undergraduate Biology)
Tom Owens (Plant Biology)
Robert Turgeon (Plant Biology)
P. R. Ecklund (BioG 103, Neurobiology and Behavior)