Perspectives Online

Biology out of the Box- Home learning is part and parcel of College Courses that bring science education special delivery

BIO 106 delivers the lab to the student in the form of a course pack and these boxed lab tools, which can be combined with household items for home experiments.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

Imagine extracting DNA in your kitchen. Or how about charting ecosystems in your backyard?

While most of us consider our month-old leftovers in the back of the fridge to be a science experiment, students in the College's "Biology in the Modern World" lab course are conducting real scientific research right at home.

Also known as BIO 106, or "Biology in a Box," the course delivers the lab to the student. Literally.

Along with the written course pack, students receive a cardboard box stuffed with the tools they'll need to conduct experiments at home: graduated cylinders, safety goggles, pH paper, Petri dishes, seeds and more. Combined with household items like aluminum foil, rubbing alcohol, potting soil and vinegar, these kits enable students to conduct experiments very similar to those taking place in labs on campus, only they'll use kitchen sinks, stoves, microwaves and blenders instead.

"The distance biology lab is designed to provide a hands-on lab environment for students who otherwise aren't able to come to campus to take the class," says Dr. Jim Mickle, associate professor of plant biology and course instructor. "Our students range in age. Many of them work or have kids, and their schedules don't allow time to travel to campus."

A 'hybrid' of introductory biology course BIO 181 is taught in small sections where hands-on activity replaces traditional classroom lectures.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

Geared toward non-majors, the course aims to teach general biological concepts in interesting ways. While all of the 40 students currently enrolled in the distance lab reside in North Carolina, Mickle says he has taught students from all over the globe in the accompanying distance-ed lecture course, BIO 105.

The nine lab units include lessons on topics like ecology, enzymes, photosynthesis and genetics. One of the most interesting labs, Mickle says, is the nutrition unit in which students use food diaries and pedometers to measure caloric intake and the benefits of exercise.

"This isn't science in a test tube, but science in a kitchen," says Patty Aune, a biological science lab supervisor, who helps Mickle teach the course. "Our students are seeing how science works in their homes and in their lives. And they're having fun."

As students complete each lab, they attach photographs of their experiments to the lab units and mail the packets to campus. Mickle and Aune also correspond regularly with the students by e-mail and phone.

While there are experiments that aren't possible to conduct outside campus labs, for safety or other reasons, there also are projects unique to this course that otherwise would be difficult to conduct on campus.

In one ecology lab for instance, the students compare two different ecosystems. With the geographic diversity of the course's participants, interesting project results come in from throughout the state.

Instructor Patty Aune (right) and student Rosy Whitney use science-in-a-kitchen tools to test the concepts of one of the nine lab units of the introductory biology course.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
"One of the things we're proudest of is hearing from students that taking our course enabled them to graduate," Mickle says.

Similar to the distance biology lab, another innovative course in the College aims to teach principles of biology - and make science accessible - in a unique way. Two sections of Introductory Biology, or BIO 181, were offered for the first time in the fall as hybrid courses, which means that instruction is split between at-home Web learning and classroom time.

Breaking the mold of the standard freshman "intro" course, hybrid BIO 181 is taught in small, 30-student sections in which hands-on group activity replaces traditional classroom lecture. Students receive lessons through an interactive Web site and apply that knowledge in guided classroom exercises.

"One of the problems we see with freshman education is that big lecture rooms and little personal interaction tend to promote memorization, not in-depth learning," says Dr. Betty Black, professor of zoology. She designed the course with Dr. Marianne Niedzlek-Feaver, associate professor of zoology, who teaches one of the sections. Dr. Brenda Grubb, assistant professor of zoology, also teaches one section.

"Our hope is that this course will give students a better experience in smaller classroom settings, so that they learn better and retain longer," she says.

The Web site, designed and managed by Black, brings lessons to life through video clips, audio files, animations and interactive activities. Students can assemble the components of a cell with the click of a mouse. And thanks to the College's Center for Electron Microscopy, students can analyze real microscope images on the Web.

The classroom activities encourage application as well as review of important concepts.

In one exercise, small groups of students started with pictures of imaginary animals to construct species descriptions that included important ecological parameters. Based on these descriptions, the class together constructed a community, determining what relationships each species would have with the others (competitive, predatory or mutually beneficial).

BIO 181 is still offered in traditional sections, but Black says she hopes that the hybrid course will "spread" to cover most sections.

"We don't have to increase the number of teachers to accommodate the hybrid course because they'll be spending half the usual time in the classroom. This also will allow us to create more sections.

"We're hoping for the best of both possible worlds - the interactive activities that students can do at their own pace plus one-on-one learning in a classroom with a live instructor," she adds.

"Biology in a Box" and the hybrid BIO 181 course were designed to meet student needs and deliver science education in new and innovative ways.

The result? Whether by computer, in the classroom or at home in their kitchens, traditional and non-traditional students alike are mastering the basics of biology - and having fun in the process.