Words from Plant Biology 2016 concurrent session: Education

We put out a call for some short write ups for the minisymposia at Plant Biology in Austin, TX. We’d like to grow this kind of digital coverage in the future, so if you’re interested in doing brief write ups of concurrent session talks at Plant biology 2017, keep that in mind.

Jennifer Robison (@OshnGirl), a Ph.D. candidate at IUPUI, wrote about the education concurrent session with descriptions of how each speaker was addressing better teaching of undergraduates.

Education Minisymposia

How do we improve teaching in plant biology? That was the overarching question being poised at the concurrent session on education Austin.

Jordan Chapman from Wake Forest University presented a peer teaching method for improving GMO understanding for non-science major undergraduates. She stated “we gain a better understanding of what we are teaching, while we are teaching.” First the grad students teaching freshman undergraduates about conventional breeding then move into GMOs. After training, these undergrads then spend 3 weeks teaching high school students. During this pilot trial they taught over 600 high school students! Hands-on and striking demos are critical to the success of this program. She linked real world problems, such as the California drought, with GMO crop techniques, as well as using snacks (cause who doesn’t like eating in class!) to see if students can taste a difference. At the end of the module all undergraduates significantly improved their understanding and attitudes towards GMO crops and technology.


Valerie Haywood from Case Western Reserve University brought a brilliant concept map to help clear up student misconceptions about photosynthesis. Concept maps are active learning and FUN activity where a list of concepts (nouns) are interrelated by linkers (verbs and prepositions) to explore relationships, especially for non-linear concepts. After the lecture, students would work in small groups to create a single concept map for photosynthesic processes and relationship to respiration. They then present in class for discussion and feedback. On the subsequent exams, students significantly improved their test scores after completing the concept map. She also noted that the 2 questions students continued to do poorly at were based on a single diagram that described photosynthesis occurring in plants and respiration occurring in animals, misleading students to believe these were separate, distinct pathways found only in these type of organisms, not that respiration also occurs in plants. She cautioned everyone to be critical of the materials being utilized in lectures and use these assessments to improve your teaching.

Tara Phelps-Durr (@PhelpsDurr) from Radford University explained an amazing 5 week laboratory exercise to help students understand DNA mutations and develop a strong understanding of the Central Dogma. The 5 weeks provides students with extensive experience in DNA isolation, PCR amplification, electrophoresis, bioinformatics, sequencing, modeling, and writing laboratory reports. She has recently published a comprehensive review of this module.


Ursulla Idleman (@UrsullaIdleman) from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is trying to bridge the gap between community (2 year) and 4 year college/universities. She wants to develop more meaningful outreach, reach under-served communities, and cross-train students in bioinformatics and plant biology at the same time. Up to 50% of science majors start their collegiate career at a community college prior to transferring into a 4 year institution (including this author and at least 3 of her Twitter followers!). Bioinformatics has free tools and datasets to introduce students to scientific research without the need of fancy lab equipment, all that is needed is a computer and internet access. She has laid out a 3 phase plan – 1) grad students teaching classes at the community college, 2) providing training and professional development to community college faculty, and 3) provide experience via internships to community college students by graduate student mentorship. They had just started their first internships. Her research in this area promises to be very exciting!

Lastly, the session featured Alice Harmon from University of Florida on transforming large biology lecture classes with the learning assistant program. She advocates introducing active learning activities such as providing cards with various stages of plant fertilization and having students color and order the timeline of tissue development. They have recently implemented a Learning Assistant Program from the University of Colorado-Boulder model. One section a week would be led by a learning assistant, another undergraduate who has received pedagogy training interacts with student groups to coach learning but do not provide answers or grade assessments. The learning assisted section mostly had increases in test scores and understanding of the material but there were some discrepancies in their dataset that hopefully will be addressed in the next semester.

Overall I found this session to be full of useful ways to reach students and increase understanding of complicated biological processes. I cannot wait to be able to try some of these once I’m back in the classroom!


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