Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Transferring a Course Developed for Honors Students to Non-Major Biology Students: Lessons Learned

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Transferring a Course Developed for Honors Students to Non-Major Biology Students: Lessons Learned

Article excerpt

The honors program, in distinguishing itself from the rest of the institution, serves as a kind of laboratory within which faculty can try things they have always wanted to try but for which they could find no suitable outlet. When such efforts are demonstrated to be successful, they may well become institutionalized, thereby raising the general level of education within the college or university for all students. In this connection, the honors curriculum should serve as a prototype for educational practices that can work campus-wide in the future.

--Basic Characteristics of a Fully-Developed Honors Program


Honors colleges offer the opportunity for faculty to teach small classes to motivated, academically gifted students. One possible benefit offered by teaching honors courses is the opportunity to experiment with new teaching approaches. Thus, one goal of honors colleges is to act as a "lab" for developing novel educational approaches that can be applied across the university. Here I report on the lessons learned from my experience transferring a course developed for honors students to the general student population.


Teaching science to non-science majors involves a special set of problems. For example, many students are not interested in science (the most depressing definition of science I have ever received from a non-major biology student was that "science is the study of things that are boring to me") or are fearful of science. It is important to motivate non-science majors if we expect them to learn about science. We want to motivate them positively by interesting them in the subject, challenging them at the appropriate level, and showing them how learning about science can be useful to their everyday lives. Similarly, we want to avoid negatively motivating students, i.e., we want to avoid boring, frustrating, or hopelessly confusing these students. Thus, I try to cover material that is both interesting and relevant to them. Luckily for me I teach biology, so it is easy to include "sexy", interesting, and relevant topics.

In my opinion, the lab component is a major weakness of many science courses for non-majors. A significant problem with many introductory science labs is the use of "canned labs," where the students simply follow a recipe that will lead them to the desired result. Any scientist would tell you that this is not how we really do science. So what are these types of labs really teaching the students?

There are three main uses for a lab course that is associated with a lecture course for non-science majors. First, the lab can reinforce information covered in lecture. Second, the lab can provide students with hands-on experiences that are not possible in the lecture. Third, the lab can introduce students to the process of science through investigative activities. Although these are each valid uses of a lab course, I have chosen instead to develop a lab that focuses on exposing the students to the process of science. First, I believe that an understanding of the process of science will be more useful to students in their future life than being able to name all of the parts of a flower, to illustrate the process of meiosis using play dough, or to know whether food first passes through the large or small intestine. Second, I hope that exposing students to the excitement of discovery will increase their appreciation of and interest in science.

In the "Process of Science" lab, I cover: (1) what is science? (2) the scientific method, (3) sampling and experimental design, and (4) hypothesis testing and statistical analysis (including t-test, linear regression, and chi-square test). The ultimate goal of the course is to prepare students to design, conduct, analyze, and report on their own independent research projects. Because these are non-science majors, typically they lack the background necessary to ask sophisticated questions about biology. …

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