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Bio 103, Syllabus

Paul Grobstein's picture
Biology 103
Fall 2009, Bryn Mawr College

Course Information

Instructor: Paul Grobstein
Room 111, 526-5098,

Laboratory Instructor: Wil Franklin
Room 210, 526-5090,

Website: /exchange/courses/bio103/f09/home

Learning objectives:

  • To become more familiar with the observations and interpretations that underlie biologists' contemporary understandings of living systems and open directions for their future work.
  • To enhance skill at evaluating the usefulness and limitations of such understandings in the context of more general individual, social, and cultural concerns.
  • To acquire greater ability to engage in productive public discussion of biological research and its practical and conceptual significance for enhancing an understanding of life, human and otherwise. 

Course philosophy. Biology 103 is a one semester course designed to help you become familiar with the distinctive ideas, perspectives, and ways of asking and answering questions which have emerged from the scientific study of living systems. The philosophy of the course is that these ideas, perspectives, and methodologies are 1) of general human significance, accessible to everyone, and belong in the background of every educated person; 2) the current state of a work in progress, of an ongoing process of summarizing and making sense of an ever increasing body of observations; 3) best acquired and understood by a process like that of science itself: a continuous and recursive acquisition of observations, summarization of observations, and generation of questions which in turn motivate new observations. A further presumption of the course is that both science and learning are social activities, best conducted in an environment of active and open exchange of observations and interpretations.

Hence, Biology 103 is not intended as a "typical" science course, one in which the primary concern of the faculty involved is to efficiently outline a body of facts which students are expected to learn. You will instead be invited to listen to, read about, and work through in your own mind a consideration of unifying concepts in biology and to yourself contribute actively to the ongoing discussion of the relation between observations and ideas in biology. The course is predicated on the belief that you making sense of biology to yourself and others is the most valuable thing you can take from this course, as well as the most effective way to be sure that you get from this course what you wish to learn from biology.

Depending on your prior experiences with science (and other) courses, Biology 103 may or may not require some modification of your study habits. You will not find it generally useful to simply make lists of points and try to memorize them. Instead, you should think over what you have heard or read, not once but several times. The first go-through should be an uncritical characterization of what the material was generally about and its relation to anything else you know. The second go-through should include an effort to distinguish observations from ideas (including an analysis of which are new to you) and a characterization of the relations among them for the particular material at hand. Subsequent run-throughs should bring you at least to the point where you understand why the material was presented as it was, and where you could, entirely in your own words, duplicate the material in terms of its organization. For any material in which you are particularly interested, you are, of course, encouraged to move beyond this point to both criticism and improvement.

Such thinking through of material is greatly facilitated by comparing and contrasting it with treatments of similar material looked at from other perspectives, as well as by talking with other people, and Biology 103 is organized to encourage you to do these things as well.

Course organization. The course includes three lecture/discussion sessions (MWF, 11 a.m. to noon), and one afternoon laboratory session every week (Wednesday or Thursday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.). These sessions (see Course Schedule), define the core content of the course. To fully think through this material you should work through as well your choice of any college textbook in introductory biology. You may wish to purchase such a textbook or borrow one for the semester. You will want to spend some time as well with supplementary readings of your choice, with an exploration of resources available on the World Wide Web, and in conversations with your course colleagues. Lists of suggested periodicals and books, and of starting points for Web exploration, are available through the course website, which also gives access to a course forum for electronic conversation. The more perspectives you expose yourself to and interact with, the greater will become your sophistication in understanding biological systems.

Course requirements. In addition to active participation in lecture/discussion and laboratory sessions and in the on-line forum, you will be responsible for writing three web papers on topics in biology of particular interest to you (see Course Schedule for due dates) and a fourth based on your reading of a textbook or other book about a biological topic of interest to you. In this paper, you should compare and contrast the book with relevant perspectives and educational styles of this course. Each of the web papers should be three to four pages in length. Papers should be submitted both as a typed draft and posted in an electronic form (see information for web projects, on the course home page). Each should be an informed, clear, and interesting discussion which exhibits the concern for both observations and rigorous interpretation which is fundamental to science. You should think of these papers as contributions to helping others further explore topics in which they might be interested, and provide references on the web to the extent possible. I'm happy to meet with students to discuss topic choices, and/or concerns, technical or otherwise, about posting material on the web. You will also have to write two lab papers (four pages or less) describing observations and interpretations from laboratory sessions (due dates on Course Schedule). Effective communication, as well as both analytic and synthetic ability, is fundamental to science, and you will be expected to develop and display such skills in both web papers and lab reports.

Laboratories. These sessions are intended to provide you with experience in the collection and summarizing of observations in ways that generate new questions, and in the sharing of observations and interpretations among investigators and groups of investigators. A typical session will consist of small teams of students collecting relevant observations in response to questions and materials made available by your instructors, a period for analysis and synthesis of the observations, and a reporting period in which teams will make their findings available on the web and orally present them for general critique and discussion. Each student will also be required to prepare two written reports, for one selected lab from each half of the course.

Grading. All written materials will be evaluated in terms of conceptual logic and rigor, appropriate attention to the relations between observations and conclusions, clarity of presentation, and evidence of serious intellectual interest in and engagement with the material presented.  Each paper will be evaluated on a 10 point scale, in which 7 points corresponds to an adequate performance and 10 points to a performance which in some way quite substantially exceeds expectations for that assignment.   In general, successively higher grades will be awarded for work that  reflects  a new and distinctive individual understanding that in turn opens new questions, work that seems likely to contribute to new understandings and new questions for educated people in general, and work that seems likely to have this effect on  people with substantial prior expertise in biology .  Final grades will be calculated by combining scores on all written work, with an adjustment for class and forum participation in cases where this performance appears substantially different from that indicated by written work. In calculating a final score, scores on the three laboratory papers, the book commentary, and the first two web papers will each receive equal weight, with the third web paper weighted at twice that value. Final scores in the vicinity of 90 and above translate into grades of 4.0, those in the vicinity of 75 and above into grades of 3.0, those in the vicinity of 60 and above into grades of 2.0, and those in the vicinity of 50 and above into grades of 1.0. Final scores need to be above 50 to pass the course.

Diversity in fundamental to biological systems at all levels of organization (including that of human societies). It follows necessarily from this that no single measure can adequately reflect the distinctive efforts of any individual taking a given course, nor can your grade in any given course be taken as an adequate indicator of your likely performance in other contexts. You should therefore always regard your scores as only one measure of your performance, taking into account as well your distinctive objectives and your own sense of what you have achieved in relation to them. Should you have questions about the significance of your scores in relation to personal progress or career objectives, your instructors will be happy to discuss these with you (as well as to provide to others whatever information they have which extends that available from your course grade). Extended discussion of the legitimacy of particular scores is, however, generally unproductive and detracts from the broad perspective on life and its challenges which this course is intended to encourage.



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