For many students, science can seem “dark, murky, and unconquerable” says Jackie Miller of EDC’s Center for Science Education (CSE). The sometimes-difficult subject matter, the precision of experimentation, and the varying results that arise from the same set of conditions intimidate many students.
A new high-school biology text developed by CSE aims to overcome these obstacles. Insights in Biology is a compilation of four learning modules previously offered separately: cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, and ecology. Offering an innovative approach to teaching and learning introductory biology, Insights incorporates traditional discipline-specific concepts with an emphasis on presenting concepts in depth and in context. Curriculum development was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“This is not a text book in the sense that it’s not a compendium of facts, arranged and organized by topic area,” says Miller, who directed the curriculum development. “It’s very student centered, where the learner is at the center of the curriculum. Students are expected-demanded-to be very active in this book. We have attempted to appeal to each of the many ways that people learn-auditorily, visually, kinesthetically, and so on.”
Some lessons feature role plays, where students model the cell membrane, or act out roles in a small fishing village devastated by cholera. In the “Matter of Life” unit, an activity involves debating how to make decisions about care for a terminally ill patient, with roles for a lawyer, parent, doctor, and insurer. Students may ask a question and then design and carry out an experiment to answer it; for example, how does tobacco mosaic virus affect different plants? In the unit on molecular biology they design a drug to treat cholera using their understanding of protein interactions and then create an advertisement to explain their product to the public. In the genetics unit they isolate DNA from calf thymus and then build a model of the DNA double helix.
In each unit, the text engages students through stories that demonstrate underlying concepts, answering how things happen-for instance, how cholera spreads, right down to the protein to protein interaction. The genetics unit asks, “Who are you? Are you a function of your genes?” starting out with the story of the “blue people” of Troublesome Creek in Kentucky who were afflicted with a rare genetic blood disorder that made their skin appear blue. The story demonstrates how some members of a family can demonstrate a trait as a result of their genes, while others don’t.
CSE has been developing high school biology curricula since 1993, when it received NSF funds to develop the first set of Insights materials. The first edition came out in 1998. In 2004, citing strong sales and high quality material, Kendall/Hunt, the publisher, funded EDC to revise the material into a single text.
Insightsis also designed to support teacher learning. It provides guidance about what to do in a lesson, rationales behind instructional approaches, and recommendations for effective teaching strategies. A University of Michigan study examined eight high school biology curriculum materials to determine how well they supported teacher learning and instruction of the content and scientific inquiry. Of the eight programs, Insights in Biologywas ranked highest.
Developing Students’ Thinking Skills
Insightsis designed to engage students in process thinking-the ability to find information from a number of sources (e.g., experts, readings, discussion with colleagues) and use it to address a challenge or solve a problem. The hope is that once students develop this skill, they can answer science-related questions they may have in future, says Miller.
“For instance, a student might think, ‘My grandfather has Huntington’s disease. Might I get it too?’ Our expectation is this text will not only know show them what a gene is, but also the questions to ask and different sources to go to for the answer,” says Miller.
The text is arranged into “learning experiences,” each of which revolves around a central investigation. Each learning experience has four parts: a prologue serves to intrigue the learner, showing them where they will be going in the coming pages and reminding them of previous learnings or experiences. A context-setting section includes a brainstorming exercise where students talk about what they think they know about a particular topic and may also involve a reading or an activity. A third section, experimenting and investigating, is followed by what many consider to be the “heart” of the curriculum-the processing for meaning section-students synthesize information from readings, investigations, and discussions and construct understanding about the concepts addressed in the learning experience.
If students wonder how the subject matter relates to “real life,” a “Career Focus” explores the lives and experiences of professionals applying biology skills and knowledge, for example a genetic counselor, ornithologist, or pharmacologist.
CSE has also developed a supplemental unit on developmental biology, which poses the question, “Why can’t you drive until you are 16?” Students investigate how the human brain develops, coming to realize that at age 16 the brain is still developing and may not yet have the neuronal response time required for driving.
“We have attempted to take issues that naturally interest adolescents, selecting problems they can relate to their own lives,” says Miller.
In addition to putting the four previous units into a single, glossy text, CSE has created a new “wrap around” teacher edition, placing the teacher instruction directly around the student text. Teachers have expressed increased comfort with this format, and CSE has discovered that it often improves teachers’ ability to implement the material as the developers intended.
Insightswill be on exhibit at the upcoming National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) meeting, and the texts will be used in classrooms next fall.
Originally published on October 1, 2006