Field of Science

A new way to teach science in college

In this brief article in eSkeptic, Clark Lindgren, Professor of biology at Grinnell College tells the story of how the faculty turned the curriculum on its head, letting freshmen do real science in their intro bio course, and then filling in the holes with facts and theories in later courses.
With fear and trepidation we began planning a one-semester course called Bio 150: Introduction to Biological Inquiry. Each of us in the department would design a section of Bio 150 that focused on a specific research area. Each section would teach students the bare minimum needed to get started on a real scientific question. The students would be shown how to perform a few techniques, how to search for and read scientific articles, and how to distinguish a good scientific question from a not-so-good question. Finally, working in groups of three (we had previously discovered that three was the magic number for group work), the students would choose a question, design and carry-out experiments to answer the question, and then present their results and an interpretation of their results in formats appropriate for the discipline.

Our first set of Bio 150 sections were announced in the fall of 2000. 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.”
My first reaction was that this can't be done. Without first learning the fundamentals of biology, you can't do research in it. But if they show us at Grinnell that it can be done, then it can. And they did. Students and professors are apparently both very happy with it. Students either find out early that biology isn't for them, or they get hooked, and eagerly learn all the facts and theories, because now they see why that's important.


Besides, the truth is that I entered biology the very same way. I had a degree in physics, and then started a Ph.D. program without ever having taken a course in biology. (You could argue that explains a lot.) The standing joke while I was at UCSB was that "I haven't actually taken any biology courses, but I have taught several." I started research from day one, and have been filling in the missing holes in my knowledge ever since. I still work at that. I often say (it's not a joke) that I got my bio undergrad by reading Natural History (the print version) for a few years. I still read it every month, though the revelations are now farther in between.

On the other hand, one could argue that not everyone is taking biology because they want to do research in it. There are pre-meds, for example, who needs the credit so they can become physicians. I wonder if they have many of those at Grinnell...


  1. Hi Bjorn,
    We do have pre-meds at Grinnell; however, I think it is safe to say that they do not rule the culture here as they do at some places. That said, we do tell our pre-meds that Bio 150 does not "count" towards the biology requirement for medical school. They must take Bio 251 and 252. Since we write their committee letter of recommendation to medical school, it is relatively easy for us to enforce this. However, it is conceivable that a Grinnell student could decide to apply to med school without our help and try to apply Bio 150 toward that requirement. I am not aware of anyone actually doing this, but I also don't know how to prevent it either.

    Good question,
    Clark Lindgren

  2. Clark, thanks for clearing that up. In other words, the your program doesn't exclude pre-meds (though you say you have less than some other places; less than average, perhaps?). Are the pre-meds as happy about the program as other bio students? Do they suffer through Bio 150?

    I am very intrigued by your "experiment." Do you know of other colleges who have copied your approach?

  3. I am not sure if we are above or below average, but I do know the number of premeds are on the rise, as is true everywhere.
    Initially, I received the most negative responses from the pre-meds, but that has lessened, perhaps since they have realized they have no choice. On the positive side, medical schools are increasingly mentioning the value of research experience for pre-meds, so a savvy pre-med might talk about their experience in Bio 150 in their essay or interview.
    Someone once mentioned that Kenyon College has something like Bio 150 but I have never looked into it.

  4. I so seldom ever learn anything in class that the outrageous tuition (and accompanying torture) seems to me as a fee I must pay to get a piece of paper that will enable me to move on with real education. I've maybe taken about 4 or 5 classes in my entire undergrad career so far where I've actually sort of learned something: two were in linguistics, and then a couple nice biol classes.

    I've learned most of my biology from research, random reading and...blogging. The research is self-explanatory mostly, although it should be pointed out that this misconception that real research experience only exposes you to a very narrow field is utterly false. That is, if you're doing it properly (ie. being curious and involved enough to actually gather up loads of background info).

    My short and simple foray into stomatal development in the last couple of years has taken me much farther than just...stomata. Let's see...I've had to digest reviews on: cellular morphogenesis; cell division; endomembrane trafficking; cytoskeleton; cell wall biosynthesis; interface between CW synth, cytoskeleton and vesicular traffick; cell cycle and ploidy regulation (in gory detail), activity of various drugs on various mitotic events, plastids and cell cycles; regulation of DNA replication... even seemingly remote topics like checking exactly what happens with the nuclear envelope during mitosis, whether or not plants have a preprophase band checkpoint (seems to be unknown...) and various fixing and clearing techniques for plant tissues. I've definitely not mastered any of them to the expert level, and have a long ways to go in terms of learning (probably would take a few lifetimes); but in having to investigate those topics, I've covered a nice chunk of an upper-level cell biology course.

    In fact, I've genuinely learned way more than I ever would in even a full year intesive cell biol course, for this information was actually necessary for me at the time, and there was a place in the brain for its acquisition. I knew where to fit stuff -- it was directed by fairly direct questions. Most likely, if I tell you to go learn a pathway, we won't get very far. However, if I tell you to figure out a particular interaction there, we'd probably have a start. If I present some data and ask for your opinion on how it may interact with this particular pathway, we might actually learn something!

    (I can rant about undergrad education for hours; you've been warned for the future >_> )

    tl;dr - I'm really glad someone's actually tried at 'research-based education', and am rather filled with optimism that it seems to work! This model has great potential, and I think it teaches much more important things than the 10 steps of glycolysis and associated enzymes. After all, while glycolysis is one wikipedia link away, good thinking is much harder to google.




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