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nonmajors' biology

Virginia Berg Virginia.Berg at uni.edu
Wed Mar 22 19:31:27 EST 2000



Right now my department serves a couple of thousand students a year with
nonmajors' biology courses, and largely gets rave reviews.  It wasn't always
this way, so it might be useful to pass on some of the reasons we think it
works now.

But first, the question of whether to offer a nonmajors' course at all.  I
have changed my mind on this (experience helped).  Look at it this way:  If
you want to know whether a stock is a good buy, wouldn't you want to know
what the rest of the portfolio consisted of?  The "best" biology course for
a student only taking one (with no followup) may not be the "best" for a
student who has to build on it for the next three years.  If you think of
the goal as "value added" to the students you are teaching, it might be best
to segregate the majors and nonmajors in order to add more value to both
groups.We now offer content-rich, palatable (not easy) courses that students
tell their roommates to take.  These are nonmajors, starting out as
science-fearers (or -haters) on the whole.  We don't ask as much of them as
we ask of the majors, but they learn lots of things our majors don't learn,
such as how agriculture developed, and the difference between "white" and
"wheat" bread.

All our students have to take a biological science and a physical science,
one of which must include a lab. Our biology department has two lecture
offerings, and most nonmajor students have to take one or the other.  There
is an optional lab with each (different versions for the two different
courses). The courses are called Life: Continutity and Change, and Life: The
Natural World.  Some years ago I helped rewrite the lab course titles and
descriptions, which are quite vague.  We did this because we wanted to give
the instructors wide latitude to teach what they thought they could teach
well, figuring this would improve the results over a highly prescribed
curriculum.  No surprise--the instructors and the students are happier this
way.  Continuity and Change focuses on human genetics, but The Natural World
has several different "flavors," depending on who teaches it.  I teach a
Plants & Civilization version, while others teach ecology-based and
environmental science-based versions.  They all help students discover how
the natural world works.  Class sizes vary from 40 to 200.

One thing that really helps nonmajors is to keep the vocabulary under
control.  If you can do that, you can cover a lot of interesting material.
You can do cell division without saying the word "microtubules;"  you can
say "pulled apart by a kind of string in the cells."  Do they really need
"microtubule?"  Do they need to learn the names of the stages of cell
division? How does that help them?  Can't they just describe the steps
("line up in the middle," etc.).  If they learn all these words, something
else will have to go.

On a recent exam I asked, "Why is sex so popular?  No credit will be given
for answers that apply only to mammals.  Your answer must apply equally to
mosses, roses, bees and humans."  The answers were great:  parasites,
diseases, changing or unpredictable physical environment, better kids,
variability for natural selection to work on, advantages of being 2N, etc.
They're thinking, and they're learning.

In my lecture we pass around lots of stuff to touch, taste, smell and see.
We act out bioconcentration of toxins, and a very limited amount of
biochemistry (sucrose synthesis, starch degradation).  There are lots of
short segments of videos. The labs are simple but active and engaging; they
are all cheap.  The classes aren't perfect, but we think we're doing close
to as much as we can for these students, given our constraints. 

Actually, it's sort of more fun than my majors' classes--these students are
so grateful for our making science interesting and possible for them.
There's almost no whining.

--Gini Berg

Truth comes out of error more readily than out of confusion.  
-- Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Virginia Berg  (bergv at uni.edu)
Biology Department 0421
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA 50614
(319) 273-2770 (phone), 273-2893 (fax)


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