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Biology in Society: Critical Thinking

( CCT611, Sp 99-- Seminar in Critical Thinking -- CCT645, Sp03, Fall 12, 14, Sp19)

(9/99 -- see appended update, 9/01, 9/12, 8/14, 8/19)

Initial Goals
This seminar was based on case studies and activities from an undergraduate "Biology and Society" course I had taught several times. My goals were to adapt it to the CCT/GCOE setting, by leading students to
address the course material on a number of levels: as an opportunity to learn the science and interpretive approaches; as models for your own teaching; and as a basis for discussions about practices and philosophies of education, construed broadly as a project of stimulating greater citizen involvement in scientific debates.
To this end I was more explicit than I had been before about my conceptual and pedagogical themes (see "Overview of course themes").

Challenges and Responses
The students' prior training in biology was varied and, with one exception, not recent. As a consequence the class meetings operated mostly on the first level. In any case, more than 2.5 hours per week would have been needed and/or fewer topics, in order to make room for serious discussion of teaching and educational philosophy.
For implementation of these plans in my science-STS teaching, see CCT640, Environment, Science, and Society (Sp 01) and CCT611, Making Sense of Numbers (F 01)

To bring online students in as regular participants in regular class sessions and allow for asynchronous online students:
(from the syllabus): Each session has 3 parts: a) a mini-lecture during the last part of the previous meeting; b) a check-in about how you are interweaving the course themes into your project [semester-long "learning/engaging" project in an area of the life sciences in their social context about which you are interested in engaging others in learning and critical thinking]; and c) an activity (or activities) on the topic of the session. Readings and exercises follow up on the mini-lecture and prepare you for the next meeting. (Online asynchonous students listen to the recordings of the mini-lecture and class meeting, undertake the activities, and, well before the next meeting, send to the group email list their reflections related to four separate points spread across the class meeting.)

a. A blog was used for posting of all assignments and comments to allow students to learn from each other, over and above what gets discussed during the class sessions. (Often student submissions are read primarily by the instructors, which does little to help build a learning community.)
b. Chapters for a text based on the course are taking more shape.
(8/18) The text was completed before the course. During the teaching of the course I would mentor co-instructor Morgan Thompson to become a future sole instructor of the course.
Future Plans
(9/01) Over the next few years I plan to prepare the cases for a book and website. While doing so I expect to see ways to fashion classes that would fit in the time available and to prepare reading material that brings students up to steam in the relevant biology. As I develop new cases, e.g., one on gestational programming, I will have to drop others. I intend, however, the mix of cases to cover the four broad angles of interpretation, namely, "scientists' historical location, economic and political interests, use of language, and ideas about causality and responsibility."
I also plan to emphasize the lesson plan option for students' projects, which will, I expect, stimulate more discussion of teaching and educational philosophy.

(1/15) a. I need to emphasize that using a blog does NOT mean that the assignments posted may be casually written without reference to supporting published works.
b. The students needed more coaching or explanation for them to use the critical thinking themes introduced in the sessions and chapters.
(8/19) Item b above was the case again, especially for the honors undergraduates many of whom who fell behind and did not benefit from getting comments and revising in response. I have made notes for a new version of the course in which, instead of a student-defined topic to practice each topic's themes on, each topic comes with a short-duration PBL unit to be completed by the next week. (In a sense this is letting go of the original pedagogical idea of the course, which is that there is as much discipline to be built up in the area of interpretation of science in its social context as there is in, say, learning organic chemistry.)
None of the students who complained in the evaluations about workload indicated whether they were doing the 6.5 hours so it is hard to know how to react to such commments. Similarly, students who found themselves taking time to navigate the syllabus may have been among the many students who got behind, thus losing the rhythm of the course and not being guided by comments on previous draft installments about what it means to "adopt or adapt the critical thinking themes and activities from each session." Revising because your installment pursued your topic but not the critical thinking themes and activities would have made it even harder to keep up. Despite this push back against some of the evaluation comments, I acknowledge that I need to do more coaching or explanation for students to use the critical thinking themes introduced in the sessions and chapters. The proposed shift to short-duration PBL may match my realization that I am n ot able to do such coaching in a hybrid class and with other work commitments.

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