• August 30, 2015

Teaching Matters: Turning the Teaching of Sciences Upside Down

Many colleges and universities pack new science majors into large lecture halls to teach them about science. In those classes, professors and students discuss how science is studied, but the chance for students to actually "do science" is reserved for late in the curriculum, if at all. Only rarely are students involved in an actual scientific study—where an answer to a given question isn't known by anyone, including the instructor—until they pass several prerequisite courses, usually with a required high mark.

About 10 years ago, my colleagues and I in the biology department at Grinnell College began to wonder whether there might be another way to teach science. Over the previous decades, introductory biology textbooks had expanded to arm-breaking size, with a corresponding growth in the number of required intro biology courses. In a deep, soul-searching moment, we began to seriously consider turning our curriculum upside down. What if we had students do research, real research, first and then filled them in on the details and the big picture later?

Such an approach promised many advantages. First, it would preclude the unfortunate but occasional reality of students discovering in their senior year that they are either inept or apathetic about serious scientific inquiry. Second, if we gave students the chance to do the real thing, some of them might discover a love for science that they didn't know they had. The third and most immediate advantage was the opportunity to alleviate our out-of-control curricular growth by recruiting students more explicitly into the process of managing their own biology education. It was our hope that once students experienced genuine science, they would appreciate the worth of a broad background in biology and its closely related disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics, and would take the initiative to seek out appropriate educational opportunities.

Last, but definitely not least, this upside-down curriculum would better serve the many students who take biology but have no intention of becoming scientists—those future philosophers, politicians, and poets who take biology to round out their liberal-arts experience and prepare themselves to be knowledgeable participants in 21st century.

In creating an inverted introduction to biology, we knew that such a course would require smaller enrollments than was typical, even by the standards of a small, private liberal-arts college. Despite Grinnell's larger-than-normal ratio of resources to student, we knew the change would require a much larger investment in our early curriculum. And given the amount of effort we were anticipating, the faculty had to be highly motivated to direct the research.

The solution that resulted was a course we call "Bio 150: Introduction to Biological Inquiry." Each of us in the department offers a section of Bio 150 that focuses on a specific, carefully chosen question or set of questions. Because the Bio 150 section that we teach is related to our own research, we are best able to guide students toward questions that are most likely to yield some answers.

Our first set of Bio 150 sections were offered in the 2000-1 academic year. Students could choose one (and only one) of the following seven sections: "Building an Animal," "Prairie Restoration," "The Language of Neurons," "Biological Responses to Stress," "Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens," "The Effects of Climate Change on Organisms," and "What Does It Mean to Be a Plant?" Since then, we have added a few more sections to our repertoire, including "Sex Life of Plants," "Plant Genetics and the Environment," "Survivor," "Cell Fate: Calvin or Hobbes," "Genes, Drugs, and Toxins," and "Animal Locomotion."

Each section is limited to 24 students, the largest size that we can accommodate in our laboratories, where we spend most of our class time. In each course, the professor minimizes formal lectures, covering only essential background information. Most of the course time is spent learning to explore the scientific literature, choose good questions, and select the best means to answer them; developing a repertoire of techniques carefully selected by the instructor; actually doing the experiments; and finally analyzing, interpreting, and presenting the data in both written and oral formats. The course concludes with a combined poster session modeled after those at professional meetings, with students contributing posters (usually as part of a group of three students) that describe the original research.

This year will be the 10th time we offer Bio 150. Has it accomplished what we had hoped? One of our goals was to nip our curricular growth in the bud, and we have clearly succeeded there. After students complete Bio 150 and Intro Chemistry, those who want to take more biology are directed into a two-semester course sequence that rounds out their biology education. Although the sequence is similar to what we had previously offered in four semesters, there is now a key difference: the students. They now understand why they are learning about molecules, cells, organisms, and their ecological and evolutionary relationships. They understand because they have seen how all the parts contribute to a good, if not elegant, scientific study. The students also appreciate that biology is a fun and highly creative endeavor, and they demand no less from us in their subsequent courses. In fact, our greatest challenge as instructors is teaching the courses in our curriculum that follow Bio 150. Once we let the cat out of the bag, it was impossible to get it back in.

Our most important goal in creating a new curriculum was to make it possible for our students to experience biology through real research. However, it's not all pretty. Our students discover that the scientific method is difficult, slow, and sometimes tedious. Despite what is unintentionally suggested in textbooks—and even scientific papers—scientific progress is not always linear or unidirectional. It often moves in more than one direction at a time and sometimes even moves backward. And, when it moves forward, it almost always moves in small, almost imperceptible steps. In short, Bio 150 is painfully authentic.

In the words of one of our students, "Anyone who takes Bio 150 and still wants more is either crazy, born to be a biologist, or both." Mission accomplished.

Clark Lindgren is a professor of biology at Grinnell College.


1. rchill - April 18, 2010 at 09:17 am

How many hours/week is this course? Is there work expected outside the normal course hours? I teach molecular genetics - an advanced course. We do one major experiment in lab - a forward mutagenesis screen. I find it difficult as real resarch requires the development of basic lab skills, and as you point out,the process can be slow and difficult, requiring many hours outside the actual class period. How do you actually do the work and the research in one semester?

2. washingtonwarrior - April 22, 2010 at 09:50 am

Grinnell College, popularly known as the Harvard of the Midwest, is notorious for giving students vast amounts of homework. Students are accustomed to this type of hard work...

3. higginsc - April 27, 2010 at 05:12 pm


I am a senior biological chemistry major at Grinnell. The course consists of six hours of class time per week (two hours each MWF). There are of course assignments outside of class time such as reading literature, analyzing data, and writing up the results--all of the normal parts of research. The first part of the semester is spent learning the requisite background to know the kinds of questions to ask, and the latter half is devoted almost exclusively to the research projects.

For some perspective, in my advanced genetics course this semester, we performed a forward mutagenesis (suppressor) screen in C. elegans as well as an epistatic analysis in S. cerevisiae (both novel).

In short, washingtonwarrior is right. A lot is asked of students from the beginning, so we're used to it.

4. rchill - May 04, 2010 at 03:45 pm

Advanced genetics does not equal an introductory course - I am referring to the course in the article. Of course by advanced level you should be comfortable doing those types of experiments.

5. 11211250 - May 10, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I believe this is the way to teach STEM in the future. STEM education should be integrated, interactive, and project oriented. Ohio State's College of Engineering has had huge success by turning engineering education upside down. The introduction to engineering courses are very similar to Grinnell's bio classes. They draw from all the engineering disciplines, they are hands-on and centered on specific projects (for example, building a robot that must do a series of tasks on a kind of obstacle course completely on its own and directed only by sensors and computer programming that respond to every changing requirements). Each lab has multiple upper division undergrad TAs as well as graduate TAs who prod and guide the project groups. One student was overheard saying that he had to work harder in this class than any other he'd ever had. A senior overheard him and told him that's what engineering is all about and if he didn't like hard work he'd better find another profession. The College has been doing this for about a decade and they have see an incredible turn around in retention. Before, when introductory courses consisted of large lectures and cookbook labs only 40% of the freshman starting the engineering program finished with an engineering degree. Now the number is consistently between 60-70% each year, with an additional 18% or so who complete a bachelor's at Ohio State. Programs like this cost a more, but they yield highly motivated student and thus produce more STEM professionals, and isn't that what we are all about?

6. marka - May 10, 2010 at 06:47 pm

Hurray! Finally, some sense being made of experiential methods for teaching at all levels. Get one's hands dirty in the 'facts' before looking at the theories of others, and one might appreciate 'facts' all the more. And appreciate the desirability of math, etc., as relevant to one's inquiries. Now, if we could get the rest of the educational establishment turned around & upside down, we might get somewhere.

Congrats, Grinnell, and leading, rather than following the ruts many others have found themselves in.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.