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Summary of 12/02/05 Discussion
with Paul Grobstein
"A Case Study of Teaching/Learning at Bryn Mawr: Biology 202" "

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Brooks Ambrose (Haverford Sociology), Peter Brodfuehrer (Biology), Elizabeth Catanese (Art History/Creative Writing), Jody Cohen (Education), Anne Dalke (English/Gender&Sexuality), Amanda Davis (Anthropology/Biology), Kate Devine (Math/English), Carly Frintner (Political Science), Natsu Fukui, Paul Grobstein (Biology, Center for Science in Society), Peggy Hollyday (Biology), Rachel Horton (Biology), Shayna Israel (Sociology), Lauer Jasie, Xuan-Shi Lim (Psychology), Orah Minder (English/Religion), Megan Rowley (Political Science), Mariah Scott-Wittenborn (Philosophy/Cognitive Science), Cheryl Shelah (Chemistry), Corey Shdaimah (Social Work/Political Science).

This session was described as an "experiment in what happens when interested faculty and students come together to inquire about what goes on in a course: how we can do teaching and learning together." It is hoped that this will be the first in a series of sessions in which we can learn from each other's experiences, activities and wisdom as students and teachers. The expectation is that, in learning about how one particular course works, we can learn about ways of thinking about our engagement in other courses. Not just the single course being workshopped, but the more general issue of what works and what doesn't, in classrooms across the campus and the world, is our topic here.

Paul described Biology 202 Evolving, a course which originated at the University of Chicago some 20 years ago, and is typically taught at Bryn Mawr each spring to a mix of 40-50 science and non-science students. It is a "non-traditional science course" that uses web resources instead of a textbook, and an on-line forum and student web papers instead of exams. Anyone taking the course makes a commitment not only to their own education, but to that of others. Paul's commitment is to learning along with students (rather than "just telling them things"); attention is to process as much as content. The course is "subject to modification on the fly," dependent on students' reactions to the material presented. It is "specifically designed to have little things make sense in terms of bigger issues."

Discussion opened with the question of whether the structure of the course would be changed to accommodate those who didn't find it useful. Since this class is specifically designed to allow students to "get out of it whatever they are interested in, at whatever level they are at," it is possible to discount student dissatisfaction, on the grounds that those having difficulty in "getting something out of the course" have failed to "put anything into it. " But how to deal with the inevitable range of student opinions during the course? How to draw in a student who isn't interested? Is there a way to intervene up front to "keep disasters from happening"? Several things are built into the course to address these issues, in particular the assignment of web papers on topics the students have to identify themselves. A class defined by student interests will "self-select" for students who are self-motivated, who are willing to engage in an "open" class which purposefully "lacks clarity" about a single goal, which is "relatively unstructured."

Students in several different disciplines described their reasons for taking the course: because it was non-traditional, "not as structured"; because they wanted to "understand the human mind," to get "more of a biological perspective" on the systems that create "prejudice and discrimination and decision-making"; because they had been told that it would be easy (it turned out to be challenging--to decide oneself what one wanted to write about, how to articulate and analyze it at a deeper level. Each paper needed to be more sophisticated than the last; the brief comments from the teacher gave one a lot to think about. One became more comfortable making observations and asking questions, and found these skills useful in work in other disciplines.)

What are the goals and direction of the course? Biology 202 goes back and forth between "unsophisticated and unanswerable questions" and more focused material. It actually works its way across a fairly characteristic and well-defined set of observations and interpretations of them. It explores in considerable detail the possibility that everything that one does and is is the function of the material structure of the brain. It "builds the case" successively from fairly simple to more complex phenomena. The educational objective of the course is to help students further develop their own ability to distinguish between observations and interpretations, specifically in the context of accounting for behavior. Paul said that his objective in teaching the course was also to advance his own thinking, in areas in which he has been working on his whole life. He "runs it by students," to see if this way of thinking works, and in order to have his thinking be affected by that of others.

But what were the goals of the students in the course? Did they change over the course of the semester? What were the ways and places where they could articulate what they were looking for? The course seems least successful for a particular sub-set of science majors. Was there a difference between those wanting to use science instrumentally, and those engaged in more general exploration? Were the students most dissatisfied with the course those most invested in being successful in grad school? Do hard science majors get uncomfortable in those classes which bring up larger discipline-level questions about what they are doing? Are pre-med students "mechanical and non-intellectual"? Do they seek out a kind of authority which this course doesn't offer? Do they want a clear delineation of right from wrong, and the chance to show off as knowing more than others (to "be a star")? Is that why they do not respond well to an invitation to make a course "what you want to make it"--including the possibility of making it, on your own, a traditional science course?

What do people taking this course do with it? Among the science majors are those who go on to graduate and medical school; a significant number of post-bacs take and enjoy the course. The conversation became quite lively as we moved into a discussion about "what science is" and "what one's expectations about science education are." Those who want to "know a great deal more about something than someone else does" are not likely to find Biology 202 useful. They will not think it is a science course. The same complaint can come up in a course in any discipline which refuses to offer either a specific answer, or a particular direction for students to go in--especially if there is a mix of majors and non-majors in the class.

But (the question was asked again), what happens in the classroom, when students have different expectations and goals? In this course, students are instructed to write a weekly posting about anything that comes to their minds; these are excerpted and used in the first class of each week, as a means both of reviewing where they class has been, and as a way of laying out future directions. Selections are read aloud, expanded on and discussed. It's "all quite public," part of the commitment the students make at the beginning of the course to educate not only themselves, but their classmates and (since this material is published on the web) the world. It is "not a problem" to get students to use the web.

In Paul's current offering of Biology 103: Basic Concepts, this practice has led to an on-line challenge by one student to "get back to the facts here," to "avoid all this speculation and politics," which belong in another course. After classroom debate about whether students wanted more details about how or why "eggplant becomes Norma," it was finally agreed by the class that observations are only meaningful in larger contexts.

Don't scientists who do large-scale observations sound as if they come from the humanities? Isn't mixing science with humanities, as both this course and The Evolution of Stories does, practicing "a more sophisticated kind of science," insisting that detailed material is both most relevant and best assimilated in the context of more general questions? It is important that science and the humanities not be separated; it is "glaringly obvious that they affect one another." Paul has "gathered a lot of data, over the years, of students' increasing acceptance of this notion"; a "different culture has evolved," one that no longer equates science with the acquisition of facts. But of course the students in Biology 202 are self-selected, and Paul has been encouraged by his colleagues to contribute to that self-selection, by being very clear during the shopping period about how unique this course is in the science curriculum.

But (he was asked a third time), "how do you check that students are with you? Do you implement changes if they are not? Even though you make it very clear from the beginning what your expectations are, students are bound to misinterpret them. How do you deal with the inevitable dissonance between what you are doing, and what they are wanting?" Paul reiterated how important the forum is as a means of his keeping in touch with what the students are thinking. The class structure involves a combination of Paul's bringing a set of observations and interpretations and then inviting comments, additions and modifications from the students. Paul explained that this "interdisciplinary, investigative, student-based class is quite old." Years ago, he realized that the course always "fell apart" about 1/3 of the way through, right after the first mid-term. Examining the students clearly violated the shared spirit of investigation which defined the course. Requiring exams seemed contrary to the ideals of the class, so Paul stopped doing so.

Paul also said that he "took the negative evaluations from students seriously," and found them useful in highlighting what traditional science is. There was some discussion about how science is taught and learned in graduate school. Sociologists "have to be theorists at step one," but science majors may not. Undergraduate work in physics, for instance, seems to involve "downloading as much information as you can, and committing to an insane workload." But the first lesson in grad school is to "think creatively and independently," to learn to be a peer to one's instructors. This contrast between scientific and non-scientific work was challenged; it "makes sense for students in all disciplines to go to grad school having practiced being colleagues with their teachers." Students are "self-infantilizing" when they refuse to be in control of their own analytical processes. There was some impatience expressed with those who want structure in their classes; no one needs to be "trapped in a science class not of their liking."

There was also a challenge to our representation of humanities vs. sciences: it is offensive to portray sciences as a body of facts to be memorized. Critical analysis is involved in exam questions, in reading the primary literature. Traditional science has gotten a bad rap in the media, as being unwilling change. Scientists keep questioning, keep finding new evidence, keep re-evaluating what they think we know about the world. But that sort of scientific inquiry is somehow lost in conversations between scientists and non-scientists.

Others said that they could understand--and shared--the frustration of traditionally scientific, more analytical-minded people. "Thinking about graduate school goals," they "have no time for a creative-thinking course." It is "not supported by the sciences, to be improved as a person." There is always a trade-off to be made between breadth and depth in a class. Although it is "wonderful to spend time analyzing your own thoughts and behavior," that is not what will get you into grad school; for that, you need to be "exposed to the intricacies of DNA." Classes such as Biology 202 are "good auxiliaries to traditional science education," but the latter should not sacrificed. There was a quarrel with this distinction between "legitimate science" and what is "auxiliary." It is "difficult to make the case that any meaningful inquiry can take place" without larger-scale thinking. Depth is a compliment to upper-level thinking. One student talked about how astonishing she found it to realize that "everything we do is due to our brain and nervous system," and that "nervous system is mainly concerned with itself."

Paul was asked a fourth time how he sustained interest in the course, when student goals and expectations differed from his. Several general questions were laid on the table: how can students derive meaning in their courses? Can their goals be changed? Can they be changed during the middle of a course? If they want changes in a course, how can they be implemented? Students expect their professors to advance their own goals, but what about the students' own search for meaning?

A specific set of skills are needed to succeed in the hard sciences. But one of the benefits of a liberal arts education is learning to look at how one's own discipline relates to others. Learning how we do research is important, but it is ultimately useful to acquire a more complete, and comparative, picture of each discipline, taking into account a variety of perspectives and approaches on how people learn. The empirical question was posed, whether grad schools want undergraduates who have taken more traditional science classes. "To not look like an ass when I get to grad school, I need my bio." Initially, there is not much room for questioning and interpretation in science.

A comparison was made with law school education. There are two philosophies about legal education: you can teach students to memorize a bunch of cases and laws. But cases and laws change, so students need to learn how to think about underlying principles. What do we assume are the facts that we know, and how do we know them? In biology and the hard sciences generally, there is a presumption that there are hard and stable facts, and that they further away we get from them, the more "fluffy" our work becomes. But it is essential to open your mind to questions, and realize that no facts are stable. "Get used to the idea that you can ask questions about anything." Question the structures in place that keep ideas stable.

Biology 202 challenges what we think about science; it questions what is stable and knowable. It queries what we have been taught by the media, and it also goes against what many students think will make them successful and get them into grad school. This course also "really rocks the structure" of this college. This type of learning can cause a degree of threat; students who began to quesion, and learn to speak out more, can get in trouble for doing so in other classes. There is no institutional support for changing how we do things here.

Paul admitted that it is "difficult to teach a course like this one" in the BMC context, where many other courses are more prescriptive in their requirements (when a student gets into a time-bind, for instance, this course is the one to go). Biology 202 does not fit comfortably into the established curriculum, and taking it seriously is likely to make trouble for students who have been through it. It is also likely to make trouble in other contexts. The reality is, however, that most graduate schools want students who can think, rather than students who just know the facts. This is NOT a form of education that compromises anyone's success in grad schoool. It may compromise their success in other structures: in most professions, one succeeds by sounding like others in that profession, and this course doesn't teach you to do that. But BMC feeds students into grad programs, and creates the science teachers who will be responsible, in turn, for future BMC students. Preference for thinking over structure @ any point in the education system is going to have an impact on all of it. Asked if he thought his type of thinking was the norm in grad school, Paul told the story of a young colleague, an excellent student through medical school and Ph.D. programs, who could not conduct independent research: "no one had helped him learn to think on his own."

The question was raised (for the fifth time) about how much institutional support was available for a class like this. One student shared a sense of frustration that she had been "quelled by the structure" at Bryn Mawr. She had come here expecting time for discussions, for "delving," for thinking through things, for dialogue and argument. Instead, she finds her anger building, because she is repeatedly asked to "just reproduce." "Bombarded by structure," she's become more quiet, less inquisitive; she raises her hand less and less.

"There is the feeling that the institution bears down on one." You can decide what your own priorities are. You don't have to do what your professors ask you do; you are not "imprisoned" by deadlines or bad grades. Some classes are structured for broader thinking, for "feeling around," for more experimentation. Others are more focused, and ask students to acquire certain kinds of knowledge before tackling larger projects. There are too many students, and not enough teachers. Once students arrive at the thesis level, they lack experience working as a community defining its own parameters. There is a crucial distinction between model-builders and theory-builders: the first does work based in established paradigms; the latter is involved in processing paradigm shifts, and this is where the best science and social science takes place.

Discussion closed with appreciation for the range of arguments expressed, for students "caring enough to be really be putting it out there." There were expressions of gratitude for participants' willingness to engage with these questions, to demonstrate the level of commitment that fueled our thinking together.

Peter Brodfuehrer has volunteered a new course of his for our next workshop, to be held in January. Until then, the discussion is warmly invited to continue on the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning."

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