STEMTEC INTERIM REPORT on Writing in Biology
by Joseph G. Kunkel
Biology Department, University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003

Since I participated in the Cycle II STEMTEC Workshop in the summer of 1998 I have been modifying my course, Biol 312k, Writing in Biology, toward a more student active and less lecture oriented curriculum.  I have given the modified course twice, once in the Fall 1998 and once in the Spring, 1999.  I am currently preparing to teach two sections of the course in the Fall 99 semester.

The basic structure of the course has superficially remained the same: Each section of Biol 312 has a capacity of about 25 students.  Students meet with the instructor once per week for 2 hours.  Six formal projects are worked on independently; and written or oral reports are handed in by each student.  Two-hour lecture meetings alternate with two-hour laboratory sessions.  The semester ends with a symposium in which the students give a 5 minute talk on their term research project.

The detailed structure of the course has changed dramatically since I participated in STEMTEC with dramatic results, in my opinion.  The change involved the shifting of the burden of responsibility for activity during the class meetings from the instructor (Joe Kunkel) to the students.  This is accompanied by an increase in the proportion of the grade that depends upon student active participation.

The following changes to the structure of the course were made:

Group associations were introduced to encourage group cooperation

In-class assignments were introduced (40% of total grade) to encourage active participation in learning. Career day allows students to explore their options for post graduation and allows me to introduce the possibility of teaching as a future profession.

These innovations have resulted in greater student involvement in the learning process.  While previously attendance dwindled by the end of the semester, now the class participation and graded class exercises have encouraged students to maintain high attendance throughout the semester.  This then allows the students to benefit maximally from the devised learning activities.

I have had the course evaluated twice by the STEMTEC evaluation team.  Feedback from that evaluation has and/or is being incorporated into future offerings.  The idea to develop a rubric with the class's participation was a suggestion by Brenda Capobianco based on discussions with her of problem areas during my first pass at Biol 312 after the STEMTEC workshop.  I repeated the rubric development in my second pass as well as adding student aided rubric development for one of the other term projects as well.  The rubric development is an example of the type of student-active project used during what were previously traditional lecture times.

Other short lectures are bracketed by splitting into random groups which then respond to some query about what was just presented.  I have effectively eliminated heavy lecturing to my students.  Students perform tasks that require they learn something such as how to use a word processor or a spreadsheet.  My lectures are quite specific and pointed at enabling them to learn how to use their own intellectual and exploratory skills to carry out a project.  Learning to extend those skills is the most valuable benefit they will derive from my course.

This Fall 1999 I teach two sections of the course which will allow some contrasts in method to be carried out between classes.  With such low numbers taking each section (20-25) I can not hope for any strong statistical significance of the results but my subjective observation of the paired contrasting offerings will be a better comparison than between-semester comparisons, which have been used up to this time.  I have not as yet decided on exactly what type of experiment to do on the classes but will consult with STEMTEC staff as I approach the task.

Respectfully submitted,
Joseph G. Kunkel