A paper-based approach to undergraduate biology
My lab website has been live for almost three months, but I haven’t blogged nearly enough about my teaching experiences and perspectives as I would have liked. That all changes starting now. (It helps that the summer is over, and the Fall semester is in full swing). Building on my statement of teaching philosophy, which has been part of my application packages for the academic job search, I want to describe in greater detail a paper-based approach to undergraduate biology instruction.
As a Lewis-Sigler Fellow at Princeton, I’ve been fortunate to take part of grand pedagogical experiment called the Integrated Sciences Curriculum (ISC), though some would call it a return to olden times, before the de facto premed track engulfed undergraduate biology whole. This slide from applied quantitative reasoning toward cartoon models and rote memorization is coming home to roost; curricula like ISC aim to reverse the trend. In a nutshell, the goal of ISC is to reconstitute a separate biology track with calculus and probability theory at the fore. Obviously, this means a much smaller cohort of undergraduates — n=20 by the sophomore year — who actually want to be card-carrying scientists when they grow up. Layer on top of that quantitative foundation a generous helping of computer science know-how, mostly in the form of MatLab proficiency, and voilà: Integrated Science!
Since 2010, I’ve been lead preceptor – that’s Princeton-speak for teaching assistant – for the yearlong sophomore bio course ISC235/236. From the outset, I knew I wanted to experiment with the precept form. (Apologies again: precept is Princetonese for “section”). I envisioned a Socratic Journal Club, in which the students would read beforehand a paper corresponding to the week’s lecture material and come to class prepared to turn it inside and out, with yours truly serving as moderator-in-chief.
Last Thursday was the first precept of the Fall semester. In the two previous years I had used the famous Meselson & Stahl paper, which demonstrated semi-conservative replication of DNA, as the icebreaker:
However, this year I wanted to lead off with the paper I usually saved for the second week, namely Hopfield et al, better known as the paper that elegantly demonstrated kinetic proofreading in protein translation. This go-around I wanted to mix things up a bit, so I didn’t give the students any warning. They glimpsed the paper for the first time in precept, and I gave them 45 minutes to read all five densely packed, crisply written pages in small breakout groups. Then for the remaining 45 minutes we walked through the paper’s methods, results and conclusions, figure by figure:
I asked my students to tell me the purpose of each experiment, and what could be gleaned from the data. I also asked them to prove that they understood how the experiments had been done, even though few of the techniques are widely used today. At the end of precept, I asked them to rate the paper on a difficulty scale of 1 to 5. Most found the paper to be a 2 or 3, which is where I had hoped it would score.
Now if reading a paper in class doesn’t seem particularly radical, you’re right it’s not. However, what I do think is refreshing is exposing undergraduates to papers as early as possible, instead of waiting till their junior or senior years, or until the first year of graduate school. The Journal Club is really just Lab Meeting with someone else’s data, and a lab meeting is the crucible in which data are forged into knowledge. So why not expose budding scientists to the scientific method in action at the very same time they’re acquiring independent computational and analytical capabilities?
The floor is open to discussion..