To begin an experiment, the GCK generates a "field collection" of, say, fruit flies, each with a combination of traitswhite eyes or red eyes, bent wings or stubby wings or straight wings and so on. The program also provides the tools for performing genetic crosses, plus a spreadsheet to analyze the outcomes statistically. It does not explain the hidden genetic mechanisms that produced those outcomes. Nor does it offer a traditional lab manual that tells the student how to find out. Instead, the student is expected to decide what traits to look at, what crosses to try, what hypotheses to consider and, perhaps most important, when to be satisfied that a hypothesis is correct, just as a scientist faced with a real field collection must do.
"They're really uncomfortable," says Martin, who is chairman of the Hamline biology department. "They're used to problems where they're expected to get the 'right answer,' so it's hard for them to deal with the fact that the program isn't going to tell them when they get the right answer." Instead it confronts them with the task of learning firsthand the most fundamental principles of sciencethat hypotheses have to be tested, alternatives have to be ruled out, objections have to be satisfied and a conclusion requires evidence. "Ask for supportive evidence," says Martin, "and at first they're just puzzled." As the exercises progress, however, at least some of the students really do begin to get it.
Stories like Martin's are being heard more and more often. Thanks to the proliferation of high-powered personal computers on campus and the rapid growth of the Internet, colleges and universities are experimenting with computer-based learning as never beforefrequently with biologists among the leaders. Indeed, many of those biologists believe that online learning is the best hope for maintaining high-quality, individualized education in the face of undergraduate enrollments that have surged dramatically during the past decade. Some biology educators would use online sources to help change the method of learning itself, regardless of class size. They find that the GCK and similar software programs can be powerful tools for giving students an experience as close as possible to real scientific researchwhat curriculum reformers call "inquiry-based" learning. Students are encouraged to ask their own questions, struggle toward the answers and, in effect, teach themselves.
Raising Skills and Expectations
Certainly that was the intent of the kit's co-creator, biologist John R. Jungck of Beloit College in Wisconsin, who wrote the program in 1985 with biologist John N. Calley, then at the University of Arizona. In a 1988 article, Jungck and Nils S. Peterson of Washington State University explained that the teaching and the software work together to reinforce the "3 Ps" of research: problem-posing, problem-solving and peer persuasionthe peers in this case being the other students.
That 3-Ps approach has, in turn, been the guiding principle of the BioQUEST consortium, which Jungck and a group of like-minded software authors founded in 1986. The consortium, which is located at Beloit College and funded partly with hhmi grants, maintains a library of some 70 tools, simulations, databases and other resources developed for undergraduate biology. Each resource is peer-reviewed, available on CD-ROM and enhanced by data readily retrieved from the Internet. Among the offerings are the original Genetics Construction Kit, Sequence It! (a simulated protein-sequencing lab) and BIRDDBeagle Investigation Returns with Darwinian Data (a tool for exploring evolution through a database of taxonomy, song recordings, DNA sequences and measurements on some 650 specimens of Galápagos finches).
Jungck is especially taken with how such tools, complemented by e-mail, discussion groups and chat rooms, have raised the skills and expectations of students to a whole new level. "You see them engaged in collaborative problem-solving, looking at multiple hypotheses, sharing data. A teacher in one of our workshops told me recently that their worst project this year is better than their best project three years ago. Another said, 'we never knew our students were that creative.'"
He admits that this kind of science teaching is never going to be as easy as the traditional approach, Internet or no Internet. "For teachers, it's more intense," he says. "With oodles of projects going on all the time, and with students accessing all these complex tools, you have to be willing to let the students teach you things. And that's a huge change in the social contract of the classroom."
Meanwhile, Jungck says, "for the students this is a lot more work than just passively sitting in front of an instructor, taking notes. But even so, from all of our studies, the students who go through this process retain more. They stay in the courses longer. They more often go on and take additional science courses. They are better at applying what they've learned to social and legal issues. And they seem to have a conversant, speaking knowledge of science for a long time after they finish."
First-Year Biology Online
None of the software in the BioQUEST library was specifically designed to help teachers cope with overcrowded classes, but that is definitely an issue at Michigan State University, where an interdisciplinary team of biologists and education specialists is attempting to put the school's entire first-year biology curriculum online. After all, notes microbiologist John Merrill, one of the leaders in that effort, "unless the state suddenly throws a huge amount of money at us so that we can have everybody in small classes, I still have to teach these huge courses with 400 students."
The project, called "First Year Online," began in 1998 as part of a five-year, $1.6 million grant from HHMI, says project director Estelle McGroarty, and it soon proved to be an even more daunting task than the team had imagined. "It took us most of a year after we were funded just to figure out how to approach online biology," she says. "Early on, for example, we made the decision that we would not provide a complete virtual course. Biologists, more so than the physicists, feel that there has to be a face-to-face component in teaching."
Materials are presented using LOL, the Lecture Online platform that had just been developed at Michigan State by physics research associate Gerd Kortemeyer. Like commercial course-management software, LOL offers tools for keeping track of administrative details such as enrollment and grades, and, most importantly, it allows instructors to customize the online content to suit their particular needs.
How to Help Students Learn
"There is a pretty strong body of evidence that students don't learn much by just being told about science, as in being lectured to, or just reading about it," says team member Joyce Parker of the division of science and mathematics education. "They first have to be engaged in some sort of problem, so that they can see a purpose: 'Here's something intriguing, let's try to understand it.'"
The online modules are designed to start by piquing the students' interestsometimes pretty shamelessly. Photosynthesis, for example, is presented as an animated play in eight acts, with the water molecule anthropomorphized as a tragic hero who sacrifices himself for the good of the cell. Cellular respiration and the electron transport chain are presented in comic-book style, complete with a caped crusader: "The Story of Electron Man."
"We use what works," laughs Merrill, who particularly enjoys the large biomolecules module. "We start each subtopic with a picture of a nice juicy hamburger with a side of French fries, and then we have arrows pointing to, say, protein in the meat."
Once you've got the students' attention, then what? "The student has to wrestle with the material," says plant ecologist Diane Ebert-May, director of Michigan State's Lyman Briggs Schoola residential community for students in the natural sciencesand a frequent consultant to the First Year Online project. "You can tell them, tell them and tell them againand if they have a different mental model, they won't get it. Most incoming freshmen think that only animals respire; they have trouble with the concept that plants do too. They think that plants get their food from the soil, and forget that there's this stuff called carbon dioxide in the air. In fact, the whole notion of the carbon cycle and its connection to global warming is a hard concept. So in the HHMI project we try to give them modules on concepts that we know are hard to understand."
Ultimately, the project's goal is to produce 20 to 30 such modules covering the content found in most introductory biology textbooks. In developing the modules intended for the first semester of introductory biology ("Cells and Molecules"), Merrill says, the group has been learning a lot of lessons. "One is that developing online educational materials is a huge undertaking. In the way that we've done it, it's a lot like writing a textbookand I don't think we were prepared to write a textbook. Plus it requires all the same skills as developing a complex Web page. It's quite a challenge for a faculty member to learn the graphical design tools you need for that."
A second lesson, says Merrill, is that online teaching is really an art form. "The best pieces we've produced have an individual voice and sensibility." There's no formula for that, he says, "except to recognize it when it happens."
Photos: (top) Donna Terek,
(bottom) Todd Buchanan
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
September 2001, pages 22-25.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute