We make personal ethical decisions everyday, but we are called upon far less often to practice ethical decision-making as a member of a community, let alone as citizens of a nation with a matchless technological, environmental and economic wingspan. One of the tools students use in my Biology 101 course to illustrate how broadly the effect of their personal decisions may stretch across the earth is the Ecological Footprint Calculator (http://www.ecofoot.org/). (Despite my best efforts, we would need three more planets to support us all if everyone lived at the level of my current lifestyle.) The typical student who struggles with the scales of size and time in the context of biological science is at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to understanding the broad implications of some investigations currently being conducted in biology: stem cell research, animal cloning, genetically modified foods, etc. These research areas were beyond the imagination of students just a few years ago, and yet today's students may be expected to make decisions regarding whether federal funds should be used for such research, whether to use medical technology based on this research, and even which foods they should purchase at the local grocery store.
Science is changing our world at a phenomenal pace, and our growing world population is taking its toll on the environment. Biologists generally recognize that global environmental harm has outpaced our attention to the associated bioethical issues (Ehrlich 2003), and struggle with how best to address these ethical concerns for the long term. In contrast, for many students who have focused on their personal lives for at least the past few years, the question is: "Why should I have to consider ethics in a non-major's course?" A particularly powerful message for our students to hear is that if they default on their responsibility to act ethically, they will forfeit their right to a voice in important decisions that affect not only their lives, but undoubtedly those of future generations. The extent of their rights in these matters begins with the responsibility to initiate and practice the behaviors required to get informed and remain motivated to act. The bioethics debate in Biology 101, as the culminating laboratory "experiment," complete with research and testing, provides an opportunity for students to practice these essential behaviors, with the guidance and relative shelter of the academic environment.
I recognize that students entering Biology 101 Introduction to Biology come from a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds. As an introduction to biological science, this course demonstrates the interdependence of many scientific disciplines and emphasizes the methods of scientific inquiry as a way of answering a variety of questions about the living world. Every student is expected to seriously consider the following questions concerning the scientific study of life:
The primary objective of this course is to introduce students to the current concepts and methods in biology through the investigation and discussion of living processes at the molecular, cellular, organism and ecosystem levels, and to engender an understanding of the important advantages of using scientific methods for the application of critical thinking. Through their collaboration with the instructor, lab teaching assistants, and peers, students gain confidence in their ability to ask meaningful questions, and identify the working elements related to their questions. Most importantly, students learn to integrate the concept that scientists and the broader community are not individual entities unaffected by one another, and that each individual has a responsibility to develop scientific literacy and engage in the scientific issues of our time. In addition, students develop abilities critical to understanding scientific investigations, namely the use of models, quantitative skills, and deductive reasoning. A successful student in Biology 101 is scientifically literate, can plan to solve problems or answer questions using the scientific process, has a greater understanding of life processes, and has developed the intellectual tools to understand new biological information as it becomes available both in popular media and scientific publications.
Not unlike other large GUR introductory courses, Biology 101 has proven to be particularly challenging for instructors and the diverse population of students it is designed to serve. Student expectations, learning styles and study skills vary widely, and so a considerable amount of lecture time is invested in discussing an array of strategies intended to direct students toward success not only in this class, but also in related aspects of their lives. Students often expect that the course will be excessively content heavy, and that their "lecture investment" will be minimal. (Some assume a passive habit; concealed in the back row in a room full of back rows! I suspect this is a common disappointment in GURs.) And yet a common criticism is that the course content is not relevant to students' lives. My efforts therefore include modeling the expectations I have for students regarding their preparation for class meetings, and encourage their engagement in discussions about biological science by collecting their questions during an anonymous end-of-class 2-minute write. I post these questions on the course web site, and address a handful of the most relevant and interesting questions at the start of the next lecture meeting. The quality of these questions improves dramatically throughout the quarter, along with student satisfaction with their performance in the class. With similar goals, each laboratory meeting requires the investment of a small amount of time and energy to complete a pre-lab assignment, as a mechanism to help students create a conceptual foundation on which to build their understanding of new material, and in some cases, reflect on the history of their current perspective on the topic.
Laboratory meetings provide a chance for students to turn motivation into behavior. The Biology 101 lab is designed to give students the best possible opportunity to experience the scientific process and the living world in a direct, hands-on, social environment. The laboratory curriculum is also constructed in a way that deliberately links familiar experiences with new information in biological science, and allows greater opportunities for ongoing practice by organizing the curriculum around three broad themes (cell biology, ecology, and genetics); culminating with a topical discussion in bioethics. Unlike the lecture class of 144-300 students, the small-group setting in lab encourages greater collaboration with peers as a way to develop understanding in biology as a life-long skill. The exercises are intended to be interesting and thought provoking, potentially affecting their view of the world and their place in it. Students are also encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities to use their peers for consultation and reflection. In particular, students are highly motivated by opportunities to exchange opinions related to current events and ethical issues in biological science. Having sampled the process of being a cell biologist, geneticist, and ecologist through previous laboratory exercises, students are better prepared to engage in a bioethical discussion at the end of the quarter.
In one sense, the Biology 101 student lab experience has been building up to the bioethics discussion throughout the quarter, which contributes to the success of this activity. Students have practiced the terminology in biological science, applied the scientific process to a variety of questions (cell biology, human physiology, genetics, and ecology), and built community in the laboratory setting. To this point during the quarter, the student experience has been carefully orchestrated by the curriculum. In preparation for the bioethics debate, however, students are given greater freedom to pursue a direction of their own choosing, another factor in the success of this assignment. Following a brief introduction to ethical reasoning in the context of biology, class discussion leads to the selection of three topics; each topic is assigned to two groups of four students. Students are instructed to research and prepare both "sides" of the issue that they are assigned. (Experience has shown that if students are asked to invest in preparing only one position, the classroom discussion does not develop as well, and there is a greater chance that feelings will be hurt.) When students return to the lab for the bioethics meeting, the tables are randomly assigned either the "pro" or "con" side to present. This method of "catching students off guard" helps them avoid too large a personal investment in one position and exposes them to more information on the topic.
It's also necessary to lay down some ground rules in advance, including pre-approval of topics (during the aforementioned classroom discussion), to insure an informed, friendly exchange of information on controversial issues. (See: Ground Rules for Effective Groups) This classroom discussion helps build a common purpose, and is an important opportunity to establish clear expectations for the research component of the assignment and the debate that will follow. It is also important to guide each group of four students toward developing an understanding of the influence that personal interests/opinions may have on the process, what each student has to contribute (everyone must be involved), and the expectations for their performance. A team must get to know each member's skills, experience, and personal goals. In other words, the instructor coaches the team for their first game: helping to assess individual strengths, assign "positions on the field", explain the rules, and promote team behavior.
Generally, students enjoy the Bioethics lab because they get to explore a topic of personal interest. They like the opportunity to express their opinion in a debate-like forum, especially near the end of the quarter when they are more comfortable with their classmates, their teaching assistant, and the laboratory expectations.
An unexpected learning experience for some students is the strain associated with presenting an argument based solely on the evidence, even though they may have a personal connection colored by attitude and emotion. To maintain order during the discussion, one TA has instituted a strategy in which only the student holding a Nerf® ball is allowed to talk. He also emphasizes to his students that they are "role-playing", in an effort to encourage them to stay objective in their comments.
"I have always found it to be one of the most fun labs and very successful. I have never had a problem with [keeping the lab running smoothly] as long as I was prepared myself and had read up on the topics at hand. When the debate slowed down I was then able to start throwing questions out for the students to think about [and] answer, and then the debate usually came back to life. It is also important for the undergrad TAs to be prepared to do the same thing. When students see that the TAs are interested it usually gets the group more interested and involved."
-Ellen, Grad TA
"The students seem to really enjoy the debates and it's good practice for them to get in touch with current events. Plus, since it's done at the end of the quarter it gets pretty exciting because the students are comfortable with each other by then."
- Molly, Grad TA
Clearly, an introductory biology class provides an excellent opportunity for students to explore their personal ethical constructs as applied to contemporary issues in science such as stem cell research. Furthermore, the laboratory setting affords an environment for a collective learning experience where there is no expectation for consensus. (Scientists collect evidence, organize and analyze that evidence, and then report conclusions, directing rigorous attention to eliminating bias that would weaken the conclusions.) Students who do not plan to become scientists fully recognize the value in this basic process as they tease apart an ethical issue and prepare for discussion. While Biology 101 students enjoy the benefit of eight weeks of experience with this process, the elements included in the assignment could easily be adapted to serve similar objectives in other fields. It is an exercise particularly well-suited to achieving the goals of a liberal arts education, especially in helping students to develop the skills, attitudes, and behaviors that enable them to recognize and address problems.