Recorded: 29 Apr 2005
Teaching biology, one of the things we struggled with and this is going to continue always to be a struggle is you want to give students the background information and the basics. You have to tell them about Mendel. You have to tell them about Watson and Crick and DNA structure and actually how it was even figured out that DNA is the genetic material—the classic experiments on how we know what we know. It’s so important to talk not just about facts, but talk about the process and what are the facts based on it. What do we really know and what’s just our best model for how things are going. But every year there’s more stuff and you want to tell them about the new stuff that’s so exciting, but there’s the background that they need and you have only a semester, or whatever your course plan [allows] and we call it the shoehorn effect. You are trying to put more stuff in all the time and then the students get overwhelmed. So you have to constantly be cutting stuff out. I think looking back after a whole career of teaching, there—it’s so much more important to teach students how to think about things and how to figure out what they need to know and how to have the skills to look up the stuff that they need to know because we don’t know what they’re going to need to know in the future and we don’t know what science is going to be in the future. [They need to understand] but to understand our current models and that they are models and that things are always changing. We need to give them this basic background, but we can’t shoehorn in every fact that they need to know and every exciting new thing because there isn’t time in the semester. I’ve seen this with students; they get overwhelmed when you give them too much. These are things they have to have time to think about and talk about and work with. It’s a very hard thing to decide what are the actual essentials here and what are the things that students can get on their own later.
In our program we end up with a four semester [program] where we choose some topics almost arbitrarily. I mean they are based on the interest of the faculty involved, but we have students reading current literature. It’s not so much learning about that particular subject that’s important. It’s how to read a paper and how to be critical about a paper and sometimes we will give them two papers that come to different conclusions or we’ll give them a paper where things are wrong. It’s astounding for students to realize that some things in literature are not correct.
So it’s learning the process of science that’s so important and how it self corrects and how to figure out stuff and how to be critical and how to design experiments. We’re big on that too, the whole experimental process. I don’t want my students to see biology as a bunch of facts. I want them to see it as a process that we’re always building on.
Ann Burgess is the Director Emeritus of the Biology Core Curriculum. She earned her B.S. in chemistry from UW-Madison and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University. She was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1987 to 2002.
Biology Core Curriculum is four semester intercollege honors program that provides a broad and integrated background for students interested in any field of biological science. She is interested in undergraduate science education with a particular accent on laboratory and filed experiences that absorb students in process of science.
Ann Burgess is running in several UW-Madison and national efforts to advance science education, including the BioQUEST Consortium and the National Institute of Science Education's College Level One team.