New Approach to Teaching Science Takes Hold in Genetics
"We all teach one another here,” student says.
With students gathered in neat rows of theater seating, and the professor facing them from atop a stage, you might mistake Genetic Analysis for a typical science lecture course.
But as the class gets underway, the formality of the auditorium-style classroom in William Levine Hall melts away and a buzz of activity runs through the 50 or so genetics majors.
Rather than deliver a conventional lecture, Mary Konsolaki, a genetics professor in the School of Arts and Sciences, employs a conversational approach in teaching about highly complex topics like RNA and transposable elements.
Keeping a constant dialogue going with students, she probes the depth of their knowledge with multiple choice clicker questions while lacing the academic material with intriguing references to contemporary issues—including a recent New York Times story about a 24,000-year old body in Eastern Siberia whose genome was found to contain both European and Native American lineage.
“I don’t want to be up here just talking,” she says afterward. “I like interacting with students.”
The students eventually break into groups to answer a complex question involving a process crucial to creating vaccines. The collective problem-solving creates a lively din that makes the class seem like a brainstorming session at some cutting-edge start-up company.
“We all teach one another here,” says sophomore Kendall Flanagan. “And through that process there’s a lot of ‘aha-moments’ that come up.”
Those moments will help when it’s time for the final exam, which in keeping with the unique approach of the course will be a take-home test—but not one that simply asks them to answer multiple choice questions.
Instead, the students will have to contend with complex genetic problems that require research, reflection, and originality of thought.
“That’s because life is an open book test,” declares Terry R. McGuire, the professor who designed the course. “You need to be able to deal with open access information, to use the information that’s out there to develop something new.”
A professor at Rutgers since 1979, McGuire has long advocated for a bold reinvention of undergraduate science education in which the emphasis would be on developing more flexible and adaptive learners.
“With the flood of information available to us, it’s absurd to require students to master the contents of only a single textbook in order to pass a course,” he said.
McGuire developed Genetic Analysis as a feeder course to advanced level classes but one that would push and prod younger students into a deeper understanding of genetics by drawing connections between the course material and its relevance to laboratory research and contemporary social issues.
McGuire retires at the end of the spring 2014 semester, but a new generation of faculty is incorporating the type of teaching techniques that he valued.
The Genetics Department, chaired by Linda Brzustowicz, sent Konsolaki and new faculty members Michael Verzi and Karen Schindler to a special training last year at Harvard University for professors wanting to employ active learning strategies in their classrooms.
The training was provided by the National Academy of Science and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Over the last year, the three Rutgers professors taught some of McGuire’s courses like Genetic Analysis, incorporating techniques such as “flipping the classroom,” in which the traditional roles of homework and classwork are reversed.
That means students in Genetic Analysis read the material as homework and then tackle problems that often resemble a real-life situation in class, such as a genetic counselor needing to give advice to clients, or a lab researcher interpreting data.
The result is a course that both students and professors say spurs engagement more than any they’ve experienced.
“You don’t see students getting distracted and sending texts on their cell phones,” Verzi said. “When we’re engaging in discussion, they’re all interacting with each other. It’s very lively.”
Sophomore Carol Nowlen puts it another way: “In other science classes, we do problems. In this class we solve problems.”