This year FundaFunda will be offering a high school online Biology class for the first time. To let you know more about the class, I interviewed the instructor Dr Dana Underwood.
What does each unit look like?
Dr. Underwood: We do small projects for each unit – not worth a ton in terms of points, but the goal is to have students work with the material at a deeper level. They can draw, write, make a chart, do a computer animation, sculpt, etc. Some approaches work better with certain material – nobody has ever sculpted glycolysis – but I also want for them to learn that, if there is an approach to learning that helps them (writing, modeling, acting it out, whatever) then they can use it to learn even if they’re not specifically assigned to make a 3D model.
In my last few years of college and in grad school, I kept play-doh at my desk so that I could make a model of anything that I couldn’t visualize (and just sniff it if I needed to channel my non-stressed 6-year-old self).
Dr. Underwood: In addition to the test grades, students get points for homework and projects, but what I keep emphasizing to them is that usually if they do all of the work, they learn the material enough that the points don’t matter. Except in the (rare) cases where students have some sort of learning/test taking disability, homework pulls up test grades by no more than one letter grade. I can do difficult material and they don’t fear that they’ll bomb it because they have homework to ‘pull them up’, but for most students the act of doing the work causes them to learn the difficult material. I emphasize that even the absence of the assignments that I give, they should still use the techniques – making up practice tests, drawing, making flowcharts or lumping things into categories – to study anything.
Biology is a lot of studying – how do you help the students do that?
Dr. Underwood: We talk about how to approach different parts of the class – for genetics, I tell them to treat it like math and practice many problems. For the parts of the cell, I tell them to quit saying that they’re ‘confused’ because it’s mostly a list to memorize and they just need to buckle down and do it because they can’t do much else until they know the parts, and for the metabolism and replication/transcription sections, I tell them that they need to think through flowcharts because it’s a process – they can memorize the steps, but they can also choose to think logically about what has to happen next to get to the end result and they’ll end up understanding what’s happening.
We do learn a lot of material. Much of it is molecular biology and even students who don’t especially enjoy the topic are impressed with its complexity and how much they learned. At the end of the year, we do ecology, which most students find to be easier – it’s a good way to end the year.
How does this class prepare students for college?
Dr Underwood: The entire class is set up to teach students how to prepare for a college class, in addition to the biology content. Instead of detailed questions for homework, I give questions that they should use as a study guide – in college they might not give you homework questions asking ‘why is x important’ or ‘why does y have to come first in the pathway?’, but hopefully at the end of my class you’ve learned that if you’re given a list of 8 reasons that something is important, you should familiarize yourself with it, and if you’re presented with a pathway or flow chart, understanding why it happens in that order is important.
What are students likely to gain from this class?
Dr. Underwood: Alas, as much as I think that biology is the coolest subject ever, I know that many of them will use the study methods more than they’ll use the details of cellular metabolism.
Anything else you do that most biology classes don’t?
Throughout the year they write article reviews about the science articles of their choice, so they can either do something with topics that they find interesting or they can learn about current ‘science in the news’.