Several years ago, the Biology Department initiated a plan to revamp the introductory biology courses taken by undergraduate students in the life sciences. Bryant McAllister and Brenda Leicht were part of the team tasked with making the introductory courses more effective in building the foundational knowledge needed for success in upper-level courses. After attending the National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 2010, they concluded that incorporating active learning techniques while simultaneously redesigning the curriculum and activities for both lectures and labs just might work.
“Instead of standing at the lecture podium presenting material in the way I want them to understand it,” says McAllister. “We’re really engaging them with the material using activities that promote understanding.”
In prior courses, McAllister often struggled with how to engage students during lecture.
Since the introductory classes are too large for any existing TILE room – the largest (350VH) seats 81 - McAllister and Leicht introduced a dry lab as part of the class that could be taught in a TILE space.
Unlike the wet lab where students are actively performing experiments, the dry lab allows students to prepare for activities in the wet lab, synthesize findings from the wet lab, and integrate the lab activities with concepts presented during lecture.
Using the white boards and round tables in the TILE rooms, students work in small groups on activities while the teaching assistant serves as the facilitator. McAllister finds this process allows the students to discover the concept on their own, while facilitating stronger group collaboration.
Active learning has changed how McAllister approaches teaching in all spaces. In fact, his favorite active learning activity does not take place in a TILE room at all. In cavernous MacBride auditorium, McAllister gets about 75 students out of their seats to act out a DNA sequencing reaction. All the other students looking on are then expected to interpret the results recording their answer with a clicker.