Wednesday, August 6, 2008

PS 47-142: Teaching ecology through inquiry in a large, non-science major laboratory course: Challenges and joys

Heather D. Vance-Chalcraft, East Carolina University


Many non-science majors fear science and take science courses only because of general education requirements.  The large size and “cookbook” approach to science that these students experience in many laboratory courses often reinforce student views of the difficult and tedious nature of science.  To meet future demand for increased numbers of scientists, and to foster scientifically literate global citizens, many experts believe changes are needed in university instruction of non-science majors.  In response to this call for change, my department began planning a new laboratory experience for students that are not science majors.  This experience includes more directed activities at the beginning of the semester, becoming increasingly open-ended through time.  The semester ends with the ecology unit, in which students are provided with a background in topics such as food chains, biomagnification, and phytoremediation.  The students are then expected to complete a project that focuses on these topics, in which they work largely independently.  As author of the new ecology activities, I give the students a broad background topic and list of materials.  I then expect the students to ask questions, form hypotheses, design and conduct an experiment, interpret results, and communicate their findings. 


The new ecology unit appears to spark the students’ creativity in ways that cookbook laboratories do not.  Students have been expressing a higher degree of interest and work in the laboratory longer than with non-inquiry-based activities.  Early assessment results indicate that students have improved attitudes with the new activities, and comparable performance on content questions.  The students’ ability to use the process of science has improved.  One challenge with this approach, however, is making the graduate teaching assistants who teach these labs comfortable with a less structured course format.  Additional effort is needed to model an inquiry-based approach for our graduate teaching assistants and provide assistance to them throughout the semester.  Future modifications of the course structure will be aimed at improving student understanding of ecological content and improving the teaching abilities of our graduate teaching assistants.