Center for Teaching: '99/'00 Teachnology Fellowships

"provid(ing) a forum for mid-career and senior faculty to share information, discuss classroom experiences, and learn from each other and the Center for Teaching regarding teaching technologies and curriculum issues"

Statement of Teaching Philosophy and Proposal of a Project

by Joseph G. Kunkel, Professor

Biology Department, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

  As a participant in STEMTEC Cycle II, I have been convinced that the traditional lecture based classroom experience has 'seen its day' and needs replacement by more student-active and project-based teaching techniques.   I have always felt that if students actually manipulate materials and perform mind and lab bench experiments, learning occurs more readily.   I practiced this by sponsoring many students in my lab over the 29 years I have been at the University of Massachusetts.   I am now aware that many undergraduate students no longer get broad laboratory experience from their mainly lecture-based required and elected courses.   Giving each student experience in an individual research lab is perhaps not a reasonable alternative despite the success of our Biology Department with increasing its frequency based on grant and administrative support.   I think this can be remedied in part by using lecture time in a creative fashion.   Students can be drawn into the immediate learning process by being asked to participate in short student-active exercises during class periods.   These students, by carrying out the exercises, get to integrate processes implicit in the exercises with some aspect of the curriculum that is being manipulated.   It is this immediate learning experience that students need to undergo in order to cement concepts with applied success of those concepts.   Furthermore if term projects can be spawned that allow students to learn a broad underlying curriculum while carrying out a term project which they own, then the student learns the curriculum within an applied context and a greater sense of participation.

  However, problems always arise as one introduces new technology.   In my (Junior Year Writing Course) Writing in Biology (Biol 312k) I have introduced the concepts of student-active, group-based and project-based learning.   I have taught the course using a project based learning approach from a WWW based platform for the past three years since Fall Term of 1996.   Each student carries out six projects during the semester.   The WWW pages for this course are archived on the Biology Teaching Computer at URL as a record of this turn toward information technology and project-based methods.   Over the three years of the WWW based course content and description the students began to use the WWW pages more and more as their basis for carrying out their six graded projects.   As student competence with obtaining instructions from the WWW site inproved they stopped needing to come to class and by the end of the semester class attendance was very low.   Overall quality of their projects declined as they were not interacting with me or the other students over their projects.   In order to reestablish the usefulness of class time I have introduced various student-active elements into the course based on my participation in the STEMTEC II summer workshop in the summer of 1998.   This awarding of grades for class individual- and group- activity has stimulated greater attention to what is being learned in the classroom as opposed to what is being learned by each student's personal execution of the six projects.   This type of unexpected interaction between introducing WWW technology and course attendance is a new phenomenon in the teaching experience that needs to be discussed with colleagues.

  The Junior Writing Program is a perfect course in which to introduce these techniques.   I would be interested in exploring a broadening of this approach across the sections of Junior Writing taught within the Biology Department as well as across other departments such as Chemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Physics and Geology.   Initial discussions of this have been discussed recently in a STEMTEC workshop setting.   Furthermore, these approaches could well be adapted for other non-science departments that participate in the Junior Writing Program.   The Junior Writing Program could serve as a platform for promulgating this approach to the learning process.

  Beyond the Junior Writing Program it is clear that a project-based learning and the student-active model are also applicable to the traditional laboratory course setting.   The usual laboratory-partner based exercises can be easily extended to use groups of three students in which one student does the wet bench experiments, one student acts as an assistant and perhaps skeptic and a third student serves as data recorder and analyst.   I am applying this approach to my Spring 99 half of the Cell and Molecular Biology Lab Course, Biol 297C.   This type of course introduces the additional need to achieve coverage of a subject.   It brings the discussion of process vs. content into the equation of teaching.   This aspect of the revolution in project based learning is particularly challenging.   Medical and veterinary schools have converted to project based (and more specifically case-based) learning as a more effective way of producing good doctors and veterinarians.   Of course professional school students up to now have mostly come through the traditional lecture based and content based courses that have been taught in colleges and universities for centuries.   To what extent can we apply these project-based approaches effectively at the undergraduate level.   My objective in the next several years will be to explore how these approaches (somewhat new to us at the university undergraduate level) can be introduced effectively.

  Clearly with the advent of information technology many of these project-based and group-based learning techniques can be fostered more conveniently.   By using Email to bond lab groups together into collaborative units we extend the group's usefulness beyond the lab bench.   We can foster communication and analysis skills that are carried out on computers that are owned by students or are shared through distributed facilities.   We can more easily foster better writing skills by having students proof each other's reports or collaborate in joint reports for some of their graded exercises.   Toward this end I would find it substantially helpful to have a modern multimedia portable PC with which I could extend to the classroom and non-computer labs my use of WWW based information.   I already have the ability to write CDs which could contain all the necessary lecture material and aids and our Biological Computer Resource Center has a PC/MAC compatible projector which can be reserved for class use.

  Talking with fellow teachers in a forum of the Center for Teaching would be a useful adjunct to my quest for better teaching approaches.