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Ditch the Text. It’s Yesterday’s News.

I began teaching biology in 2008 and was given a book published in 1994 to distribute to my first group of AP students.  I recall thinking that I was 13 years old in 1994.  Could a book published at a time when I wore braces and carried a backpack that quite literally outweighed me still be an adequate teaching tool?  What I should have been thinking was how vastly different the world looked to a biologist in 1994.  Dolly the sheep was a mere fantasy, prokaryotes purportedly lacked cytoskeletons, and whole genome sequencing was in its infancy.  While the book clearly delivered basic concepts in biology, too much of its content was no longer relevant.  Moreover, omitting 14 years worth of progress in the field of biology would have been a huge disservice to my students.  A savvier instructor would have ditched the text completely.  As a new teacher, I found myself desperately clinging to the structure it provided.

Although I think the textbook’s starring role as the curricular centerpiece is nearing its finale, one cannot entirely dismiss a textbook’s value.  Teachers like textbooks because they:

  1. Provide an orderly, logical progression of topics for an entire course.
  2. Come with accompanying assessment and classroom tools.
  3. Cover a large breadth of content, which often helps ensure that courses meet curricular requirements.

Thus, for my AP course, even after the overhaul of the curriculum, I cannot envision giving up my (new) book completely. Furthermore, the iBook version of Miller and Levine‘s classic Biology text and others like it are models for all biology texts in the future.  They make excellent use of their digital platforms:

In addition to containing vibrant, interactive content, these iBook versions are also significantly cheaper than a hardcopy of the textbook.  Schools can subscribe to the book for one academic year and choose whether or not to renew the following year.  Assuming the digital books are updated frequently, this will help to keep only current texts in students’ hands.  However, even the most up-to-date textbook has drawbacks, including:

  1. Science advances rapidly, and the most relevant sources will continue to be science news and journal articles.  Even texts that are frequently updated will inevitably and swiftly become yesterday’s news.
  2. Technology teaching tools also advance rapidly, quickly rendering a text’s accompanying materials and activities obsolete.
  3. Most books survey a large body of material.  By attempting to construct courses that align with texts, teachers risk covering too much content even when it is not necessary or required.

I recall the first meeting I had with my school‘s new headmaster, Mick Gee, whose ideas about education are progressive.  He embraces change, unafraid of trying new things.   During the meeting, he inquired why I bother to use a textbook, challenging the dogma that textbooks are essential.  I teach at an independent school after all.  Why shouldn’t I take advantage of this independence?

This year I have seized this independence in my elective course, Genetics.  The students enrolled in this course have already taken at least one survey course in biology.  When I began the semester, I explained to the students that I felt no need (or pressure) to skim the surface of many topics in genetics.  Rather, I told them it was ok to spend more time on topics they enjoy.  We weren’t going to rush through things in the same way we needed to in AP Biology.  Their faces looked hopeful and relieved, setting a positive tone from the beginning of the year.

I’m happy with the course that we’ve created together.  It is undoubtably unique among high school science classes.  We’ve drawn heavily from current events, students have had a great deal of choice about what topics they explore and how they demonstrate their comprehension, and the atmosphere has been a collaborative one in which we all learn from each other.  Focusing on fewer topics has also enabled us to do a number of labs that require extensive amounts of class time.  A microarray  lab, a genotyping lab, and a Nasonia genetics lab have all been highlights.  Admittedly, since we have used our book on occasion as a reference tool, it probably isn’t fair to say that we ditched it.  However, it has moved out of the spotlight and into a supporting role in my Genetics classroom.

I hope to elaborate more about my Genetics course in future posts since we have had a productive and exciting semester. Independence feels so good!

Joy Found Looking Through the Microscope Lens

Graduate students in biology work long, hard hours, often with little to no usable data to substantiate their efforts.  I remember having many frustrating moments, but with microscopy experiments, my reaction to negative results was often still upbeat.  Sometimes the images were so beautiful that they took center stage on my desktop even though they would never grace the pages of my thesis.

My love for microscopy does not make me unique among scientists.  Take Dr. Robert Rock Belliveau, a retired pathologist whose eyes never grew tired of the microscopic world.  In a post on, he stated, “I would go to work and spend ten hours a day looking through a microscope.  A couple of times a week, I would say to myself, ‘I can’t believe they pay me to do this.’ I just loved going to work and doing what I did.”  Post-retirement, he has focused his exceptional skills on the plant world, enabling people to see fruits and vegetables in a whole new way.  His image of trichomes on a cucumber received an honorable mention from the NSF’s International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge in 2011.  Check out the image here.

As I transitioned to teaching, I realized that students often share this joy found by looking through the microscope lens.  This year, my school invested in a suite of Moticam 2300s.  My students can now get high resolution photographs with both our compound light microscopes and our stereo microscopes.  The images and video below are a few of my favorites that they captured this year.

Stamen of an Iris

Ovary of an Iris

Skeletal muscle

Simple cuboidal epithelium

Redefining literacy

Recently, our school’s Director of Curricular Technology, Tony Tepedino, directed my attention to Will Richardson’s post, “My Kids Are Illiterate.  Most Likely, Yours Are Too.”  In the post, Richardson points out that even good schools are not making the grade when it comes to student literacy.  How can students graduate from strong schools and still be illiterate?  Richardson notes that “learning and literacy are absolutely shifting, and that means that the roles of schools and teachers are going to have to shift as well.”  Thus, educators must have a good grasp of what literacy actually is in the 21st century.  Furthermore, educators themselves need to attain this kind of modern literacy.

Richardson cites “The Definitions of 21st Century Literacies” published by The National Council of Teachers of English, which states that to become literate, students must:

  1. Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  2. Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  3. Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  4. Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of information
  5. Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  6. Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

I am fortunate to work at a school that emphasizes professional development and that has supported technology integration.  Thus, while the list above strikes me as a tad intimidating, I am reasonably literate by modern standards (though I am by no means a technology guru!).  However, posts like Richardson’s make me realize how important the shifts in education truly have been.  My expertise in biology is valuable, but information about biology is just a click away for my students.  While my goals still include imparting literacy within the field of biology, it is also vital that my students attain the literacies listed above.  Just as reading and writing are integral components of any subject in school, the new literacies should be a focus of educators in science, history, art, foreign language, and English classrooms.

At a recent faculty meeting time to discuss technology (Tech Tuesday), I sat down with other faculty members to discuss how educators can work differently in classrooms to ensure that students are becoming literate in a modern sense.  A big hesitation among the group surrounded item #6 on the literacy list.  Teachers at this meeting seemed to worry that the vast nature of social networks and internet resources could leave students unbridled in an online world that isn’t always secure.  While these are legitimate concerns, we cannot teach item #6 if we do not at least try to model ethical usage in our classrooms. Do I think that students will make mistakes?  Yes!  But these mistakes should be treated as learning opportunities, not reasons to eschew the use of technology in our classrooms.

A recent experience in my own classroom has helped me to feel more comfortable with the way that technology forces me to relinquish some control as a teacher.  Following the end of the first semester, I didn’t want to simply barrel into new material without taking a breath.  Thus, I gave students a day to reflect on the first semester by watching Kathryn Shulz’s TED talk, “Being Wrong.”

Shulz is a journalist, not a biologist.  However, she came to the realization that our population is full of overachievers – those “CFO / astrophysicist / ultramarathoner” types that value being “perfect little straight-A students.”  Our culture of perfectionism doesn’t leave room for exploring the value of recognizing our own wrongness.  This topic seemed relevant for the population of students that I work with.  The TED talk served as a springboard to get students writing about misconceptions they held about biology and how their viewpoints have changed throughout the first semester.  It was an attempt to encourage students to rely less on their “internal sense of rightness,” which Shulz notes is not necessarily a “reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world.”

As students watched the clip, I had them discussing Shulz’s ideas on the site TodaysMeet.  TodaysMeet provides a backchannel, or “everything going on in the room that isn’t coming from the presenter.”  Backchannels are becoming more common at conferences and meetings and require individuals to work on item #4 on the literacy list.  Setting up this backchannel felt like a risky move, and like my fellow teachers at Tech Tuesday, I feared that the discussion could get out of control.

To be honest, things did get off to a rocky start.  Early in TED talk, Shulz shows this image:

Describing a road trip she took with a friend, Shulz recalls how she mistook the road sign as a Chinese character.  At the time, she wasn’t questioning her perception of the sign.  Thus, she sounded pretty silly when she asked her friend what was up with all Chinese characters.  It was meant to be a lighthearted example of how we can get stuck in our rightness even when other cues from our environment challenge our beliefs.

I had prepped the students for the exercise, stating how important it was to treat the online discussion board as a professional environment.  However, as my students began watching the video, one of the first things to appear on our backchannel was, “RACIST.”    I quietly reminded the student who posted the comment to handle the discussion board seriously, but several more silly comments ensued.  Then, I started modeling.  I began typing on the board, posing questions to my students.  We salvaged the conversation.  Was it amazing?  Not really.  But it took a more appropriate and thoughtful turn.

We got into an interesting discussion about medical errors, which Shulz touches on briefly in her talk.  One student recalled another TED talk, “Doctor’s make mistakes.  Can we talk about that?”  The discussion also prompted me to bring in a passage from Atul Gawande’s book, “Complications,” and we continued discussing medical errors the following day.  The passage was about a transition period, during which physicians began to repair a severe congenital heart defect with a new surgery.  The older procedure had only a 6 percent surgical death rate.  However, these patients didn’t usually survive into old age.  The newer procedure, popularized among surgeons in the 1980s, provides a much better repair to the heart defect.  Accordingly, patients surviving the procedure have a longer life expectancy than individuals who received the older procedure.  However, there was a 25 percent surgical death rate when the new surgery was first adopted. We forget that surgeons are fallible humans who must at times learn by trial and error.  Fortunately, the death rate has decreased dramatically as surgeons have become more skilled at the newer procedure (27-28).  It is worth noting that my class would never have discussed this interesting topic without the backchannel to take us in a different direction.

Perhaps more importantly, students gained experience with the backchannel itself.  Many of them had never tried anything like it, and students had mixed feelings about it.  One noted that he found it challenging to process all of the incoming information.  Initially, his comment made me think that I may need to rethink the assignment.  For a variety of reasons, I would not do the assignment the same way in the future.  However, it is struck me that my student was essentially noting that he was wrestling with literacy #4: “managing, analyzing, and synthesizing multiple streams of information.”  Multitasking with technology is a reality in our world.

We also had the opportunity to discuss what types of things were appropriate about our backchannel conversation and how important it is to represent yourself in a professional way online.  Have you used backchannels in your classroom?  What sites do you use, and how do you use them?


If you are searching for presentation software that goes beyond the basics, Prezi may be just what you are looking for.  I am so drawn to both its visual appeal and its organizational features.  It is less linear than PowerPoint or Keynote, and my first attempt at using Prezi reminded me of concept mapping.  I felt forced (in a good way) to consider how my ideas were related, rather than marching through my thoughts in a typical straightforward progression.

Prezi was created by an architect, who found a zoomable interface useful for his work since it enabled him to look at both “the big picture overview of a floorplan and then zoom into the details of individual rooms.”  Now, this zoom feature is available to us all. It is possible to visualize the overall organization of your presentation and then to zoom into more detailed points.  It is simply genius!

After seeing Prezi for the first time, I became a bit of a Prezi evangelist, telling anyone who would listen about this internet treasure.  My students bore the brunt of my excitement.  Apparently, I made enough of an impression that a few of them were willing to try it for their 1st semester presentations.  I am delighted to highlight some of their work below.

The first Prezi is titled “Odd Ways of Reproducing.”  This student not only took full advantage of Prezi’s ability to help presenters create artistically stunning visual aids, but she also picked and thoroughly researched a fascinating topic, parthenogenesis. Her research of parthenogenesis prompted her to consider how scientists have tinkered with mammalian reproduction.  Thus, she ended by detailing how scientists generated mice with two fathers.  It generated an interesting discussion, with students realizing how further technological advancements could someday allow same-sex couples to have biological children.

The next Prezi is on Alzheimer’s disease.  This student did a nice job of challenging herself to explore the cellular changes associated with Alzheimer’s.  Her drive to understand the disease originated from her own family’s experience, so she also emphasized the personal nature of the disease.  An interesting YouTube clip featuring an elderly couple’s experience with Alzheimer’s enhanced her own discussion.

The potential for neural implants to address the needs of patients with spinal cord injuries is the topic explored in the next Prezi, created by one of my students with a strong interest in technology.  I enjoyed his presentation because, as a biologist, I have long been intrigued by the potential for stem cells to replace damaged tissues.  However, I had never explored this entirely different approach to spinal cord injury.  His presentation looks very clean, and I like how he organized it in a way that shows the progression of research in this field.

The next Prezi focuses on bioethics, exploring fetal reduction.  This student used Prezi to make a nice flow chart to describe the procedure.  She also created a simple illustration of a balance that neatly displays the common reasons why women explore fetal reduction as an option and where they are weighted in her opinion in an ethical hierarchy.

Finally, this last selection is a Prezi designed by a true artist.  She organized her main ideas onto different branches of a tree.  She is an animated student who verbally presented a vivid description of what it is like to experience sleep paralysis as a hook to capture her audience’s attention.  Coupled with the stunning visual aid she generated in Prezi, it was certainly effective!  Each year, I have at least one student who wants to learn more about sleep patterns, a topic that is relevant and intriguing to high school students.

I give these students a lot of credit, because Prezi does take some getting used to.  Intrigued enough to make a presentation of your own?  The Prezi site’s tutorial was enough to get me and my students started:

Admittedly, it took some fiddling with the actual software to become proficient.  Fortunately, it is fun!  I couldn’t stop playing with it for nearly a week, at which point my sleep deprivation finally slowed me down.   I plan on using Prezi to present at an upcoming faculty meeting, and I am excited to have another software option in my teacher’s toolbox to create engaging presentations.  If you haven’t gotten enough, you can also view my own Prezi below.

Lesson Ideas: Genetic Engineering Coupled with an In-Depth Look at a Fascinating Mutualism

Recently, my general Biology students engineered glowing bacteria, photographed by my colleague, Ms. Amy Bonner.  I appreciate her recent post, commenting on the often overlooked connection between art and science.  The glowing phenotype was achieved by transferring genes from a bioluminescent marine bacterium, Vibrio fischeri, into E. coli, which is easy to grow in the lab.  While the experiment is designed to teach students about bacterial transformation, the laboratory also provides a perfect opportunity to take an in-depth look at an awe-inspiring mutualism between Vibrio fischeri and the bobtail squid.  Here, I will detail a few practical aspects regarding the experiment and how I have used this laboratory as a starting point to explore this fascinating symbiosis.

If you haven’t undertaken a molecular biology experiment with your students, don’t be intimidated.  Although the set up is more time intensive than the average high school lab, this kit from Carolina Biological Supply has detailed instructions and provides ready-made LB agar nutrient media to simplify preparations.  I have tried similar kits from Ward’s Natural Science, but I like that Carolina provides enough extra materials to account for occasional student errors.  While transformations can be tricky, I have always gotten good results with this kit.  It is helpful to have a water bath, although I have managed with a good old-fashioned hot plate, beaker, and thermometer.  Notably, Carolina’s student worksheet accompanying this lab is extremely well-written.  It emphasizes important concepts about positive and negative controls and walks students through a calculation of transformation efficiency.

Before beginning the transformation experiment, students watch this clip introducing them to the bobtail squid:

The clip (and the images below) are taken from Dr. Bonnie Bassler’s 2009 HHMI Holiday Lecture, “Shedding Light on an Invisible World.”  After watching the clip, we discuss the fact that, while the bobtail squid hides during the day, it must come out at night to hunt.  It inhabits shallow water.  Thus, moonlight can reveal the outline of the squid to predators lurking below.  A predator’s view would look like this:

As a way of camouflaging itself in its environment, the bobtail squid has evolved a unique symbiosis with Vibrio fischeri.  The squid assumes the expense of feeding the bacteria, housing them in a specialized light organ.

With the bioluminescent bacteria in tow, the outline of the squid from a predator’s perspective is more difficult to make out:

The squid does not have the genes necessary to produce this adaptive glow.  Thus, it provides nutrients and a protected environment for the resident bioluminescent bacterium, whose lux genes generate this glowing phenotype.  These bacterial genes have been engineered into a plasmid, included in the kit from Carolina that I discussed above.  Once my students understand where these genes come from, we move on to replicating the beautiful glow in the lab by moving the plasmid  into easy-to-grow E. coli.

With more advanced classes, I discuss the daily cycle of bacterial growth within the light organ.  As it turns out, the bacterium’s stay within the squid is temporary.  The bacteria are sent packing as day breaks since it is too energetically expensive for the squid to house large amounts of bacteria for a full twenty-four hour period.  As nightfall approaches, bacteria reproduce, increasing in number within the light organ.  What’s more, the bacteria are polite guests and wait to produce the expensive glowing phenotype until it is dark and the squid needs the camouflage.  How do bacteria sense when it is time to produce this glow?

It is all about population density, and bacteria can gage their numbers within their environment.  This is a phenomenon known as quorum sensing, which is a ubiquitous form of communication among bacteria.  The phenomenon can be studied easily in Vibrio fischeri because of the visible phenotype produced when quorum sensing is at work.  I hope to post more about Bonnie Bassler’s fascinating studies on quorum sensing in the future, which have piqued my interest in recent weeks.

The intricate symbiotic relationship between the bobtail squid and Vibrio fischeri is but one example of the remarkable ways in which organisms have evolved to work together.  Do you have a favorite mutualism?

Upgrades – Part II

In my last post, I introduced my plans to revamp my assignment on a series of articles from the NYTs, The DNA Age.  I hoped to upgrade this assignment by hosting the discussion on Edmodo, rather than having a traditional classroom discussion.  Here, I detail how I set up the assignment and some interesting things that I learned while exploring with my students.

I first made the decision to use Edmodo, in part because it is easy to set up a protected online environment for students.  While I think I would eventually like to have students making blog posts publicly, I wanted something private since it was the first time my students and I tried this type of thing in the classroom.  Once I settled on Edmodo, I set up a group and had students register for the site.  Students are not required to provide an email address to sign up for Edmodo, and many of them already had accounts from other classes.

Before the students wrote their posts, we discussed the advantage of writing online as opposed to writing on paper.  The students generated ideas, suggesting things like:

  • It is easier to share work.
  • It feels more natural than traditional writing since we communicate online a lot already.
  • Writing online enables the author to link to other sites and to incorporate pictures and videos into his or her writing.

I tried to emphasize this third point, which I view as one of the greatest advantages of writing online.  It can be really interactive, prompting readers to explore topics in depth beyond what is actually written in a post. Once we discussed the assignment, students were given the rest of the class period to write their posts.  The assignment on Edmodo looked like this:

The following day, students were assigned to read and comment on other groups’ posts.  We began by discussing how to compose a good comment.  I showed students a post and comment written on Extreme Biology, which is the best biology classroom blog I have seen so far.  We then compared the comment to these guidelines first published by Mrs. Yolis and reposted by Silvia Tolisano on her amazing Langwitches Blog:

I should note that the Langwitches Blog is a fantastic resource for teachers interested in blogging with students. Her series on blogging gave me the confidence to get started and some valuable resources as I walked my students through their first blogging assignment.

In addition to discussing the guidelines pictured above, I also gave my students the following comment starters, which I again first came across on the Langwitches Blog.  They were originally published on Youth Radio Blog Netiquette.

My students did an excellent job with this assignment.  Their posts reflected my students’ strong writing abilities, their willingness to explore different points of view, and an enthusiasm for discussing ethical issues pertaining to DNA technology.  Thus, it was important to give them constructive feedback.  Yet again, the Langwitches Blog was a valuable resource, and I was able to adapt the rubrics that Silvia Tolisano published on her site to fit my own needs.

I think that the assignment was a really positive experience for my students.  As I look back on the posts and comments my students created, I wanted to detail both what I thought of Edmodo and a couple of things that surprised me.

As far as Edmodo is concerned, I’m not sure it was apt for a blogging assignment.  My colleague, Amy Bonner, highlights many of Edmodo’s strengths in a recent post.  While I appreciated how easy it is to use, it didn’t allow my students to format or categorize their posts.  Furthermore, it is really designed for short posts and conversations.  Thus, it didn’t prompt students to add a title, and several groups consequently forgot to title their post.  I will probably search for a different site when I do similar assignments in the future.

I found two things that I didn’t anticipate about the assignment:

  • While my students’ posts were fantastic, integrating links, videos, and pictures did not come naturally to many of them.  These items were often inserted at the end of their posts or clumsily inserted within the post.  They will need to work on incorporating these items more fluidly into their writing.
  • Blogging proved to be a wonderful outlet for my international students to express themselves.  I currently have two in my Biology class, and both of them were able to contribute meaningfully to the class discussion in a way I hadn’t seen them partake before.  I think this is because they had more time to compose their thoughts.

Several of my students noted that the thing they liked best about the assignment was that everyone got to participate in the class discussion, rather than simply the most vocal students.  I agree with them, and the most important thing I learned is that blogging is an incredibly valuable classroom tool that gives every student a voice.  For this reason, I will strive to make blogging a regular part of my classroom activities.