Converting a Biology Course into a Writing-Intensive Capstone Course: Using Collaboration between a Professor and Graduate Teaching Assistant

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In the professional world, essential attributes for success include the ability to think critically, synthesize knowledge, solve problems effectively, and communicate information in writing that is focused, well organized, and grammatically correct. We found that even though senior-level biology majors hold significant knowledge, their knowledge often exists in discrete units without a coherent understanding of biology. Furthermore, students are often unprepared to provide explanations requiring the integration of knowledge covered in other courses. Research has shown that in the sciences, course focus is narrow (e.g., genetics, systems physiology, ecology), and students often perceive knowledge as disparate chunks of information from each content area (Brown & Benson, 2005; Spurrier, 2001). Eves, Davis, Brown, and Lamberts (2007) posited that students must have the opportunity to integrate scientific knowledge learned while completing their degree to gain an understanding of how scientific knowledge is developed, validated, and applied to meet the needs of society. Our goal is to provide an opportunity for students to integrate information from prior coursework (across all levels of biological investigation) while learning about human reproductive physiology and the factors that impact reproductive diseases.

Two key objectives for student learning guide the course curriculum. First, we sought to create a capstone course challenging students to integrate their knowledge of cell biology, physiology, anatomy, and chemistry. The course curriculum explores human reproduction beginning with basic endocrinology (e.g., molecular structure and mechanism of action of lipid and protein hormones), followed by an examination of fetal development, birth, maturation, adult functioning, aging of the male and female reproductive system, and diseases of reproductive structures. For each topic the emphasis is on integrating information from molecular, cellular, and physiological mechanisms as well as behaviors related to reproduction. Second, we formulated multiple writing assignments challenging students to work independently on out-of-class writing assignments and collaboratively with their peers to resolve issues associated with in-class case study assignments. Our overarching goal is to support students' learning as they express their understanding of complex biological concepts in writing. A study by Boyce (1990) emphasized the importance of integrating writing into instruction and posited that through writing, students learn to think critically and integrate their knowledge to organize and express complex ideas with clarity. In this course we sought to accomplish these goals by using a combination of approaches that involved both individual and collaborative assignments.

Course description

Content

This is a three-hour course with 75-minute classes meeting twice per week with an enrollment of 36 students. The students have completed the core curriculum for biology majors, and we require them to draw on knowledge gained from other biology courses. We build on students' knowledge of the molecular structure of hormones and hormone receptors to emphasize hormonal regulation of cellular function, male and female reproductive systems, and the cycle of life from conception through birth and adulthood senescence of reproductive function. Also included are the new fields of "endocrine disrupting chemicals," focusing concern on the use of products containing chemicals that mimic or interfere with hormonal signals and thus disrupt reproductive processes, and "the developmental origin of adult health and disease." We use research findings in the primary scientific literature to support explanations using a lecture/discussion format. Scientific knowledge is presented as evidence rather than facts; from the beginning of the course, students are reminded that today's facts may be tomorrow's fallacies. …