Now that I’ve decided what I’m going to teach — Ecological Developmental Biology — and gotten departmental and university approval to do it, I have to start doing the hard part, actually putting a course together. I usually start by laying out a set of goals for the course.
First, there are some general goals that apply to any upper-level undergraduate elective.
Students should be reading the primary research literature as an essential part of the course. It’s all well and good in a lower-level course to rely on a textbook, but in this realm we should be thinking about what’s currently being published as well.
It should involve some synthesis. It’s straightforward to plod through a paper and summarize what it says, but you also have to be able to relate it to a general topic and make it part of a larger story.
Class work should be participatory — students have to take an active role in learning. Less of me standing at the front and lecturing at everyone, more of everyone working together to answer questions.
If this were a lab course (this one isn’t), labs should be less cookbook and more inquiry-based.
So those goals are just a given. I wouldn’t have approval to teach this course if I weren’t planning to do all of that. Now let’s consider course-specific goals, and I’m going to start with the big concepts.
This is an interdisciplinary course that should bring together ecology, development, and evolution. While individual components can focus on any one of the three, there must also be time to relate these pieces together throughout the course.
We’re going to kill that ‘nature vs. nurture’ nonsense from the very beginning. Discourage excessive reductionism and encourage synthesis. Break apart both genetic and environmental determinism.
Approach development from the perspective of reaction norms, polyphenisms, and plasticity. We often present development as a process that runs on rails towards a stereotypic end, rather than a responsive process that is modulated by environmental interactions.
Increase awareness of ecological concerns: there should be a place for students who may be less interested in the molecular details, and more concerned about the environment.
Another aspect of the course, though, is less conceptual and more about the essential details — we have to found our ideas on empirical evidence. It’s very high-minded to say we’re going to talk about epigenetics, but if they don’t understand the basic genetics, we’re not going to get very far. I can skip some of that — they’ve been introduced to gene regulation in cell biology, for instance, and get even more in our molecular biology course, and we offer other electives in cell signaling and more advanced ecology, and I can just skim through those topics and recommend that everyone take those courses, if they want to get more in-depth. But I’m also aware of what they won’t get outside of my class, so I’m going to have to introduce these topics.
Basic embryology. I must cover concepts like induction, the organizer, gastrulation, neurulation. You can’t claim to have taken a developmental biology course without something about gastrulation!
Human embryology. The students include pre-med and pre-nursing students; I should give an overview of human development, if nothing else, because some of the environmental studies will be about the impact of teratogens and endocrine disruptors on human populations.
The next step is to figure out whether the students have learned anything — that assessment thing. Ideally, I’d have them writing papers, lots of papers, every week, but there is a major constraint: my time. At the same time that I’m teaching this fun elective course with 15 students, I’m teaching an upper level genetics course — you may recall from back at the beginning that I was aiming to wedge this course into my existing load, and I can’t dedicate as much effort to grading this one as I do to my class with three times as many students, at risk of melting down by midterms. I’m going to have to take a hard line on how much work I’m going to be able to manage.
My tentative plan: there will be one major paper to write, plus several short ones. The major paper will be associated with an in-class presentation, giving the background on their topic.
Since I want synthesis, I’m going to force the students to do that presentation in pairs, and the point of the joint presentation is to combine their independent research projects. The paper will of course be due well before their presentation.
After the presentation, there will be an in-class discussion centered on at least one of the primary research papers used in their research.
There goes the last several weeks of the semester. But it does meet my goals of a participatory class that synthesizes material from primary research papers.
What about exams? I really don’t like them, and avoid them when I can — to be practical for a written test in a class hour, they have to be narrow and specific, or they have to be long written essays to answer a more general question. And if I’m doing the latter, I’d rather give a take-home exam, which is probably what I’ll do.
Another possibility that I’m considering is something they don’t get much of as undergraduates: an oral exam. At least one. They’re time consuming for me, terrifying for them, but it’s a good way to probe the depth of their understanding with follow-up questions.
I also want these exams to be question- and concept-focused, less on the minutia (although an oral exam would give me the chance to explore details that the students are focusing on).
That sounds like enough. I’m going to give one or more probably two take-home exams (which also have the advantage of not taking up precious class time), one oral exam (which will destroy me for a week, I think), and the students will give an integrative presentation on two or more topics as the culmination of the course.
I think this means I can put a syllabus together.