Lessons learned: a retrospective on a newly developed course

This fall, I developed and taught a course called Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes for the University of Oregon Clark Honors College.  The course objectives were to:

  1. introduce students to basic concepts, laboratory techniques, historical background, terminology, and technology related to microbial ecology in or on mammals,
  2. familiarize students with online resources, including sequence repositories, scientific databases, and analysis tools,
  3. discuss how host-associated microbiomes are shaped by the anatomy and lifestyle of the host, and how the microbiome can reflect onto the health and performance of the host, and
  4. review current literature on host-associated microbial ecology.
As always, include plenty of humor.

Keeping it fresh

While I’ve taught similar material at Montana State University, and have plenty of teaching experience from my graduate teaching assistant days at the University of Vermont, I’ve learned that each student population is different, with a unique core knowledge base and interests.  Thus, I developed this course from scratch, and constantly revised it during the semester to adjust to the pace and learning style of my students.  A draft syllabus, as well as an example of a student’s final project, can be found on my GitHub.

To improve engagement, I tried to make the course (which did not have a lab section) more interactive. I offered a tour of the molecular biology lab I work in, I brought agar plates to class so students could try culturing their own microbiota, and I dressed up like a dead cat.

These students were not science majors, and had had very little science since high school. Even if they had been science majors, I wanted to give a broader look at the field of science than just giving an overview of current knowledge.  At the end of some lectures, I facilitated class discussions on various topics in science: the role of scientists in communicating science and whether we should report only or have an obligation to convince the public; elitism, recognition, and credit for intellectual property in a highly-collaborative working environment; the transfer of maternal microbiota and health status to offspring and how we approach prenatal care and parental leave; air quality (and air microbiota), residential zoning in urban areas, and income inequality; should we eat dirt?, etc.  The students enthusiastically participated in class discussions, and — to my surprise — requested more (see below).

Phone a friend

I wanted to highlight current research in host-associated microbiomes, and hosted three mini-lectures from guest researchers; Deepika Sundarraman, a graduate students in UO physics, Dr. Candace Williams, a postdoctoral researcher who Skyped in from Vienna, and Dr. Edward Pajarillo, a postdoctoral researcher who Skyped in from Florida.

Feedback

I really enjoyed teaching this group of students, and I got regular feedback from them about how the course was going and what was working.  More formally, I volunteered the class to participate in a pilot evaluation for my midterm and end of term review, which asked more probing questions of students than typical teaching evaluations.  For the midterm, only 4 of 15 students responded, but for the final, 13 of 15 responded and I have decided to share those (anonymous) course evaluations for IMM2018: 

Students wanted more in-class discussions, and more group-based work, which was surprising to me as science students tend to prefer fewer of these, or at least the option to opt out. I am already considering additional topics for discussion next year. While there was an option on the final to submit a group project, no one chose to pursue that.  Similarly, students were able to work collaboratively on journal article summaries to improve their comprehension, provided each student submitted a unique response.  Perhaps this option simply needs to be reiterated.

What surprised me most about the evaluations was that several students replied that (the second half of) the course was not challenging enough.  The course content was entirely new to them, and while the assignments drew on skills from their core competency as humanities students (reading and writing), they were required to distill large amounts of scientific information and be able to explain it back to me.  It’s a challenge to serve the learning speed and style of all students in a class, and I try to manage this by varying the format of assignments, as well as to teach skills in the first part of the class which can be refined with successive assignments. 

An example of this was the final project, for which the students needed to create a public outreach presentation in the format of their choice (essay, poster, pamphlet, presentation), which covered a particular topic or discussion point on host-associated microbial communities. Students were able to draw from scientific article summaries they had previously written, or even material from their exams (take-home essays), provided it was more developed and presented in a new and creative way. This flexibility allowed students to choose topics that they were passionate about, and to focus on the message rather the format. I felt this would help them find their voice, and judging by the final projects I received, it was effective.

That being said, if humanities students thought the material too easy, I take credit for communicating it well. I’m pleased with how the course turned out, as well as with the feedback I received from students.  I’ve already begun implementing upgrades to my curricula, and have proposed this course again to the Honors College. Pending approval, I’ll be back at it next year!

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