Enhancing Biology Education – we know how!

31 October 2016 - By: Caroline Wood

Enhancing Biology Education – we know how!

Katherine Hubbard
Katherine Hubbard (right) engaging students in the lab. Photo: Mike Park

Although the SEB is an organisation dedicated to bioscience research, it can sometimes be overlooked that the majority of our members are also teachers, to a greater or lesser extent. Innovative teaching methods and incentivising students is at the core of education and SEB+ has been making great strides in recent years to support the academic bioscience community in this. During the one-day session ‘Enhancing Biology Education’ at SEB Brighton, we heard from a range of speakers who have developed creative ways to support student learning in the Biosciences. Here are a few examples:

Open Badges

Anyone who was a scout or guide will remember the thrill of collecting badges of achievement. At the University of British Columbia, undergraduate student Lisa Go and Dr Kathryn Zeiler have used this concept to great success with their biology undergraduates. “Course objectives can be so overwhelming that students don’t go back to check they have met them” Lisa says. Her solution was to take the large list of course objectives and break them down into smaller, more palatable goals. These goals are then represented with a series of online ‘Digital Badges’ using Credly (https://credly.com/). “By creating badges, we created a road-map of learning with transparent goals that progressively build upon each other. Students know exactly what is expected of them allowing them to take full control of their learning” says Lisa. Students can claim each badge once they have met a series of objectives, and so build up a digital portfolio of skills. Badges can include practical skills, such as microscopy, and can be added to social media accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, enhancing student resumes. The only problem for Lisa was that her students still yearned for a ‘real’ badge of their own. “In the end we made them iron-on badges for their lab coats - then they were very happy!” she says. 

To claim your very own SEB Digital Badge, visit https://credly.com/, click “Claim Credit” in the title bar and enter the code C15-07CD-19A.

Skills Agenda

It can be difficult for seasoned researchers to appreciate, but final-year research projects can be extremely daunting for undergraduates with little practical experience. “We found our students were terrified, kept asking trivial enquires and couldn’t think beyond the protocol” says Jane Gurman (Sheffield Hallam University). Their solution was to introduce a new lab-based module, so that practical skills went from being a “hidden agenda” to a formalised programme. Instead of leaving research projects to the final year, undergraduates now complete a series of “little labs” each year that build up to a mini-project. In the second year, this is assessed by a report and a formal presentation in the style of a scientific conference. By the time they come to their final year project, students now have “much more confidence – they just get on with it” says Jane. Even better, there has been a real jump in the number of students now going on to industry positions or further study. 

Practical Debriefs

Practical classes are one of the most challenging aspects of science teaching, and undergraduates often struggle in this environment. Katharine Hubbard (University of Hull) found that a significant minority of students found labs “stressful” and “confusing” in a project she ran while still working at the University of Cambridge. There was a clear call for “pre-practical” resources to help students prepare for labs, but also “post-practical” materials to help them revise. Who better to make these than students who had experienced “getting it wrong” for themselves? “Our students are a fantastic creative resource that should be tapped” says Katharine. “It’s time we used all the extra skills we know they have from their UCAS forms!” Four students were awarded paid internships to produce a suite of bespoke online materials and videos with dynamic feedback. The videos certainly proved popular, especially in the run up to the exams when usage counts soared. The experience was also invaluable for the interns themselves and Katharine is looking to embed student-produced work into more modules in the future.

Creative streaks

“Traditional labs often train students very well to do part of a task but they can’t think outside the box” argues Mark Clements (University of Lincoln). Having an interdisciplinary approach combining art with science is a powerful antidote for this. BroadVision, an art/science collaboration at the University of Westminster, is one such example (http://broad-vision.info/). Here student projects have included making a “bioluminescent immersive experience” in a darkened room, and facial agar masks to investigate the microflora which live on us. Similarly, in the Idea Translation Lab, art and science undergraduates from Trinity College Dublin work together to create an exhibit for the local science gallery.  Besides motivating students to really consider how their research can be applied, such projects also foster those key ‘soft skills’ that employers seek - including resourcefulness, initiative and communication.

Industry Problems

Whether biology graduates stay in academia or go into industry, their success depends on their ability to apply taught knowledge to real problems. To foster this skill in his students, David Smith (Sheffield Hallam University) developed “blended problem solving sessions” based on real-life problems supplied by employers. Each problem is presented as a YouTube video 48 hours before the tutorial, at which the students discuss possible solutions. After collecting their ideas on the online tool Padlet, the students watch a second video which reveals the actual solution that was used. Similar industry-based learning is becoming more widespread – the students at the University of Lincolnshire School of Pharmacy, for instance, are challenged each year to produce a new public health campaign for local Co-Op Pharmacies. “Feedback from the students has been highly positive” says David. “Besides knowing that what they are being taught can be applied, this approach has led to more engagement with the teaching material”.   

Best of the rest:

Careers: When your students ask “What’s next?”, point them to  www.biosciencecareers.wordpress.com where they will find a wealth of bioscience graduate profiles. These include both ‘traditional’ research-based roles – such as conservationists and genomics – but also routes out of academia; everything from a librarian to a market analyst!

Plant Science: How to show your students that plants are just as fascinating as animals? Head to Teaching Tools in Plant Science, an online repository of inspiring research-based lesson materials hosted by The Plant Cell. http://www.plantcell.org/site/teachingtools/

Biomimetics: Let Billy Bamboo amaze your students about how natural designs have informed human design. Quizzes available in English and German www.bionik-online.de

You can find many of the talks from the 2016 SEB Education session, as well as previous meetings, on our dedicated Education F1000 Channel: http://f1000research.com/channels/undergraduate-education
Category: Brighton 2016
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.