UW News

February 14, 2008

Showing non-majors ‘how science is done’

Class title: Biology 100: “Biology of Mood-Altering Drugs,” taught by Linda Martin-Morris, a senior lecturer; and Angelena Crown, a teaching associate.

Description: Martin-Morris wrote in the course overview, “This quarter, the emphasis of Biology 100 will be on how psychoactive drugs work by altering brain function. Students will encounter a number of different biological disciplines — in particular, neurobiology and genetics, through an investigation of the mechanisms of the drug action.”

Instructors’ comments: “Biology 100 serves non-majors, and so we try to capitalize on this limited opportunity by providing frequent exposure to how science is done,” Martin-Morris said in an e-mail. “We also ask students to assess, skeptically, whether or not science in some examples was done well. Students tackle reading lay literature (magazine articles, newspaper articles, general Web sites) as well as science literature (text and research papers) and evaluate the conclusions made by the authors of these articles regularly.

“In lectures, we examine scientific leaders and researchers to discuss motivations, study designs and contributions made by these scientists (as well as harm done, in some cases). In lab, students practice what they have learned and apply their knowledge to their own investigations.”

The class, she said, was designed knowing that some students are fearful of science and uncertain of their abilities. Through case study and group learning, the class allows students to be “more than science learners… to learn how we learn, and to learn how to function in the work place.” She stressed that the class creates a safe learning community environment where all ideas are valued.

The instructors, she said, “learn names, track progress before exams,” and allow students to work in nontraditional ways, such as writing a haiku or making a digital poster. They also try to make the class as lively as possible, including some games and even movement. Students also use “clickers,” responding to questions posed electronically. This helps the instructors learn as they go if the material they’re teaching is being understood.

Unexpected experiences: “One surprising moment happened in autumn 2006 when students were asked to simulate the effects of alcohol on the brain by playing a game of football.” Martin-Morris described how a Husky football player was given the role of referee in this simulation. He’d been a quiet student, but in this role he “came totally alive,” amusing the class but also engrossing the students in the process. “I expected him to be cooperative, but still quiet. Instead he was the star of the show. He’s just one of many students who teach me what it means to learn and to succeed in an area that feels unfamiliar.”

Student views: Lara Hayden enjoyed the class so much she returned once as a peer facilitator, for credit, then again adding mentoring duties in a paid position. She said in an e-mail, “Biology 100 challenges students from every level and every discipline, then teaches you how to rise to that challenge.

“Coming in as a social work major, I was prepared to be lost in a sea of pre-science majors and slides, but Linda knows every student’s name and gives everyone the opportunity to play up their strengths and improve on their weaknesses through group work, lab and lecture.”

Student Spencer George Carter called the class an incredible opportunity to get a general understanding of how biology works “that is both helpful and interesting. Everyone at one time or another in their life will consume drugs whether it be aspirin, caffeine, or opiates, and having a deeper understanding of how these agents work in your body helps incredibly.” He praised Martin-Morris as “tremendously knowledgeable and effective,” bringing to the course “the enthusiasm and sense of community that most classes at UW lack.”

Reading list: Drugs and the Human Body, by Ken Liska, is required, but the instructor also recommends students supplement this with any introductory biology textbook. Study guides are provided online.

Assignments: Students have a quiz before each lab meeting to encourage them to come fully prepared for the day’s work. Class homework is peer reviewed and graded online. There is one mid-term and one final, both mixed format. Grades are based on exams, lab reports and group homework.

Class Notes is an occasional column about interesting and unusual classes at the UW. This Class Notes compiled by Peter Kelley.