Ph.D. students design biology lesson for undergrads

October 2, 2020

This article was originally published in the Cornell Chronicle by Dave Winterstein on October 1, 2020.

Graduate students in six fields of study have designed an evolution lesson on speciation for undergraduate non-majors that applies active-learning techniques. The lesson, “What is Speciation, How Does It Occur, and Why Is It Important for Conservation?” was published in August in CourseSource, an online resource for biology education.

The co-authors, all from the graduate course Evidence-Based Teaching (BIOEE 7600), designed the lesson in spring 2019; it was piloted that summer in Evolution (BIOEE/STS 1180), then introduced in fall 2019.

It is being used again this fall by instructor Michelle K. Smith, the Ann S. Bowers Associate Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).

The co-authors are in graduate fields in six departments in A&S and in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS):

  • chemistry and chemical biology;
  • ecology and evolutionary biology;
  • neurobiology and behavior;
  • the plant biology section, and soil and crop sciences section, in the School of Integrative Plant Science; and
  • entomology.

“The authors have produced a genuinely useful tool for teaching an important area of evolutionary biology; of value for evolutionary teaching at Cornell and beyond,” said Jeremy B. Searle, chair and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in CALS. “This project provides a really valuable experience in developing learning strategies they can adopt in teaching undergraduates, with emphasis on active learning and inclusive teaching.”

Smith said the project gave graduate students a rare opportunity to design undergraduate curriculum. “And we developed a lesson on speciation that engaged undergraduate students using well-vetted materials that reflect the current state of the field,” she said.

With guidance from Smith, the authors identified a gap in the existing published literature to ensure their lesson on speciation – the process by which new species are formed, a central issue in evolutionary biology – made a new contribution to further STEM teaching.

“[Smith] let us do all the design work but kept us on track, reminding us to align our activities with the learning outcomes,” said first author Lauren Genova, Ph.D. ’20, now an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Delaware. “She guided us by introducing basic principles on effective evidence-based teaching practices but gave us full autonomy to make the decisions about the lesson.”

The grad students selected giraffes for a case study to teach concepts involved with speciation because the number of giraffe species is under debate. Their goal was to create a dynamic classroom environment through a series of active learning activities.

“We varied our instructional practices, with small and large group discussions, as well as clicker questions,” Genova said. “The variety gave students different ways to engage with the material and each other.”

“We also wanted very engaging assessments, and that’s why one key activity was a modified gallery walk,” said co-author Lina Arcila Hernández, Ph.D. ’19, an active learning postdoctoral associate in ecology and evolutionary biology. “We had several scenarios where speciation was tricky; students worked in groups to argue for or against speciation in each case.”

The authors designed the lesson to be inclusive and accessible, in order to help students thrive.

“The scientists we featured throughout the lesson differed in geographic location, age, discipline, ethnicity and gender, so students of diverse backgrounds can identify with the material,” Genova said.

The students engaged enthusiastically with the material, the authors said, actively discussing the questions raised. And they said the variety of active and inclusive teaching strategies makes the lesson highly adaptable to many teaching scenarios.

The BIOEE 7600 project is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Dave Winterstein is a communication specialist in the Center for Teaching Innovation.

Klarman Hall at sunset