Leaving the Science Behind: A Failure Resulting from Poor Curriculum Design

Gaurav Arora, Department of Biology, Georgetown University
Janet Russell, Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, Georgetown University, and
Anne Rosenwald, Department of Biology, Georgetown University

By the time undergraduate science majors become juniors or seniors, they are reasonably adept at communicating science to other scientists using the standard means of engaging in scientific discourse (research papers, posters, and oral presentations).  However, communicating science to the general public is another issue.  Because the language scientists use with each other is fairly technical and esoteric, it’s challenging to convey meaning to an audience lacking facility with that language. To give students practice in communicating science to the general public, we asked the members of our Microbial Genomics class to create short (5-8 minute) podcasts.

The technology used for creating the podcasts was new for both the students and the instructors. We as the instructors got so caught up in learning this new technology and building an assignment around it that we neglected the scientific research the students performed In other words, because the podcasts were specifically directed to a general audience ONLY, the students had no outlet to convey this information to a scientific audience, thus trivializing the real research they had done.

Microbial Genomics, a class in which students investigated the populations of bacteria that are found in and on the human body, is project-based.  For one of the projects in Spring 2012, we asked each student to analyze the genome of a bacterial species of his or her choice using a web-based sequence analysis tool called Rapid Annotation using Subsystem Technology or RAST (http://rast.nmpdr.org/). Students dedicated class time to learning the tool and then used it to analyze their organism’s DNA. They gave occasional short informal presentations to tell the rest of the class about their progress – where they had successes, where they found challenges – so that the others could provide advice based on their own experiences. The final assignment for this project consisted of a podcast for a general audience.

In order to teach the students this new technology, we invited experts from the Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) and the Gelardin Media Center at the Georgetown University Library to conduct a session on good practices for creating podcasts. One of us (Janet Russell) had successfully used podcasts previously in non-majors classes. Adam Johnston at the Media Center taught the students GarageBand, a Macintosh program for recording and editing digital audio files.  We gave the students storyboard templates as well as examples of professional (National Public Radio) podcasts. Students were also asked to send a draft of their transcripts to us for comments before the actual recording. After addressing the comments, students then recorded their final versions. On the last day of the project, the entire class listened to all the podcasts and commented on each other’s final products (two examples of the final podcasts are available at: http://www.library.georgetown.edu/gelardin/showcase/entries/human-microbiome-and-l-reuteri and http://www.library.georgetown.edu/gelardin/showcase/entries/why-doesnt-head-eat-tail).

The goal of this exercise was to encourage students to think of ways in which they could engage the general public. In the course evaluations, the students said that as a result of this assignment, they realized the importance of gaining facility in communicating science to a general audience. In this respect, we were very successful, achieving our goal of designing an assignment that gave students practice with this difficult task.

Nevertheless, we also failed in the design because we neglected to include a mechanism by which the students captured the data from their individual investigations. As we reviewed the transcripts prior to the final recording, we realized that some of the projects had great potential for becoming authentic research projects, ones that could form the basis for a publication in a scientific journal. However since we had only the podcast in mind as we initially designed the project, none of the students adequately documented their scientific results.

In short, our failure was in the fact that we spent considerable effort in instructing students on how to make podcasts, but without also asking them to document their research findings so that they could also communicate with other scientists. If we had thought more carefully as we were designing the assignment and its assessments from the start, we could have avoided this particular “teaching fail.”

As a result of our experiences in Spring 2012, we redesigned the assignment and assessments for the project. The following year, in addition to the goals for communication to the general public via podcast, we also laid out our expectations for communication to other scientists.  Specifically we asked the students to capture their data in an online journal format.  In this way, both the instructors and the other students could read and comment on the progress of each project.  As a result, the assessments were better aligned with the project goals.



About the Authors

Gaurav Arora received his Ph.D. from Georgia Tech and is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at Georgetown University. He teaches Genomics and Bioinformatics and Microbial Genomics and is interested in incorporating bioinformatics in biology curricula.

Janet Russell earned her Ph.D. from the Ohio State University and currently serves as the Director for Science Programs& Technology Enhanced Learning at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. She is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Human Science in the School of Nursing and Health Studies.

Anne Rosenwald, a Ph.D. recipient from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Georgetown University and serves as Co-Director of the Major in Biology of Global Health. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Lombardi Cancer Center, Georgetown University Medical Center.



'Leaving the Science Behind: A Failure Resulting from Poor Curriculum Design' has 1 comment

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