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Robin Wright

In lieu of lecturing, Robin Wright prods freshman biology students to learn by thinking for themselves.

Lecture-free biology

Freshmen learn for themselves--and with each other

By Deane Morrison

February 19, 2008

At round tables all through the classroom, freshmen watch along with Tom Cruise as gigantic Martians wreak havoc on Earth and earthlings. The scene from War of the Worlds is graphic, but these biology students are picking up details even H.G. Wells could miss. "What can you tell me about the alien?" asks instructor Robin Wright. "I heard breathing," a student calls out. "So it's breathing the same thing as Tom Cruise. What about the temperature?" "It's got no clothes, so it's very comfortable." But it can't eat humans, Wright points out. Instead, the aliens use humans to fertilize the planet and grow red stuff that they can eat. And we're like that, too. We can't eat "alien" foods, only ones whose chemical makeup is similar to our bodies. So we probably wouldn't be able to eat the food on another planet--and vice versa. "We can eat carrots because they have the same things, [such as certain sugars], that our bodies have," Wright, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs in the U's College of Biological Sciences, tells the students. "You are, literally, what you eat." Welcome to Foundations of Biology (Biology 2002-2003), a course where students have no lectures to listen to--or tune out--and must learn text material on their own. The instructors believe it to be the only class of its kind in the United States, and it's already transforming the notion of how a large "lecture" course can be run. The main event comes when Wright and co-instructor Susan Wick, a plant biology professor, probe students' knowledge of basic concepts with questions from a variety of angles. Before answering, they consult with their tablemates. Wright holds up a cup of coffee. "What happened to the sucrose [table sugar] when I put it in my coffee?" she asks. The students have four choices. At one table, a student picks answer A: Sucrose, a double sugar, splits into its constituents, the simple sugars glucose and fructose. But another student says no; the chemical bonds holding sucrose together are too strong to break by merely getting wet. In the end, the table votes, correctly, for choice C: The sucrose just dissolves. "What will happen in my stomach?" Wright prods. "Enzymes will break it into glucose and fructose," a student sings out. After the exchange, the students realize that the sucrose molecule, which is forged from simple sugars by means of an enzyme, also requires an enzyme to split it apart. By learning this, they have discovered something about chemical bonds in general, an invaluable aid to understanding how all organisms function.

From text to context

By showing how the basic concepts of biology affect everyday life, Wright and Wick add context that helps the knowledge stick. More glue comes from the discussions and the camaraderie of spending the semester as teammates at the same table. It's an approach most students come to appreciate--especially at quiz time. "Everyone gets rocked on the quizzes" when students take them individually, says Abby Moran. "But when we take them [over] as a team, we get 27 or 30 points out of 30." And just to ensure that everybody at a table gets involved, 5 percent of the course grade comes from evaluations by teammates. The idea for this kind of teaching, says Wright, has been around since at least the 1990s, when a national inventory of physics students showed that even those who had had the best teachers didn't know much more about physical forces than those who had never studied physics. And it wasn't just physics.

"Attendance is almost 100 percent. It's wonderful to have them talk about science, and when they leave to still be talking about science. These students will just blow you away with their ideas."

"The University of Washington surveyed graduates of all majors a year after graduation," recalls Wright, who was a faculty member there at the time. "The grads were happy, but nothing we'd taught them was of relevance to their careers. "Even in engineering, there's a disconnect between what is taught and what's needed. In Foundations of Biology, we emphasize real-world problems so they will take away more than just knowledge about biology." The students often find themselves wrestling with the same problems as working scientists. Last fall's Biology 2002 students were asked to come up with ideas for a new antibiotic against tuberculosis. "One group decided to use bacteriophages [viruses that kill bacteria] to kill the TB bacteria directly," says Wright. "Another group thought of taking existing antibiotics that are used topically and developing a form that could be inhaled." This spring's 2002 class (students may begin the Biology 2002-2003 sequence in either a fall or a spring semester) is playing the role of scientists in a biotech company. Their job is to suggest the best target for an antibiotic against the killer bacteria known as methicillin-resistant Staph aureus. "We're not lecturing about what antibiotics do. The students must research that, plus how resistance to antibiotics evolves, and apply what they know about basic science," says Wright. In Biology 2003, the students get to stretch their innovation muscles in the laboratory. Those taking 2003 this spring, for example, are tackling questions about how yeast adapt to conditions at the ends of the Earth. "They're sequencing genes from yeast taken from the Arctic and the Antarctic," says Wright. "We want to show how genes have changed over eons and get a handle on cold adaptation." Afterward, the students will draft a paper for publication and submit it to the journal they decide is most appropriate. Real-life lab experience is crucial because science, says Wright is like softball; just knowing how to play doesn't help much, especially with a team sport. "All science is moving toward interdisciplinary work and collaboration," she says. "As a group, they learn more than I could ever tell them. "And it's fun. Attendance is almost 100 percent. It's wonderful to have them talk about science, and when they leave to still be talking about science. These students will just blow you away with their ideas." A video of the class is available.