Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

A Team-Taught Interdisciplinary First-Year Seminar with a Focus on Blood

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

A Team-Taught Interdisciplinary First-Year Seminar with a Focus on Blood

Article excerpt

First-Year Seminars (FYS) are a High-Impact Practice (HIP) that have been shown to facilitate the transition from high school to college learning (Kuh, 2008). When Wellesley instituted a FYS program in 2011, among the goals were: to introduce the ways that knowledge is constructed in particular fields, to employ innovative pedagogies, and to model interdisciplinarity.

With these goals in mind, we designed a team-taught FYS called The Science and Culture of Blood. As instructors, we thought that both of our fields of expertise--(bio)chemistry and (cultural) anthropology--could easily be organized around this topic. Blood is also a subject that holds a great deal of mystery and interest in the popular imagination. Once we began framing the course, we were overwhelmed with potential course material and student interest.

Course design

The course was offered twice, once in 2014 and again in 2017. A list of topics and selected readings is shown in Table 1. These points of discussion were similar in both offerings, although there was some modification to the time spent on each topic and the timing of which instructor took the lead in the second offering.

The only required text was Blood: The Stuff of Life, by Lawrence Hill. Other materials, including a basic biochemistry text, were available in the library or through Sakai, Wellesley's online course platform. The 2014 offering was able to take advantage of a PBS special on blood (that site is no longer available).

In addition to all of the resources in existence, we were each able to develop a case study suitable for the course with the support of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2014) STIRS (Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills) program. The two cases were "Blood Doping: Cheating, or Leveling the Playing Field?" (Wolfson, 2015) and "Different Times of the Month: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Menstruation Taboos" (Armstrong, 2015). The former was used as in-class group exercises, and the latter was assigned as reading and paper topics. STIRS case studies are meant to be an entry into scientific thinking and reasoning, and the blood doping example included practice in interpretation and analysis of data. Both case studies also had significant content related to ethics.

Student feedback

Students responded well to the design and content of the course, as indicated by both formal and informal student evaluations. College-wide evaluations were conducted at the end of the course, and instructor-designed evaluations were conducted at the midpoint and end.

It appeared from these comments that students appreciated and understood the goal of interdisciplinarity. They wrote the following:

   The most valuable feature of this
   course was that it was a combined
   anthropology and chemistry
   course. The balance between
   social discussion and learning of
   chemistry was great.

   This course was interesting. An
   unexpected mix of anthropology
   and biochemistry, leading
   to an extremely unique mix of
   material. It was a good way to be
   exposed to some anthropology
   and biochemistry.

   I loved that this course was
   interdisciplinary and that it was a
   combination of chemistry and anthropology.
   Since I am not a science
   person, I was able to learn a
   little bit about chemistry but still
   feel comfortable since I was also
   learning about anthropology.

As the last comment indicates, we also met our goal of providing an entry point into the sciences for science-averse students.

Students also appreciated the value of a FYS in introducing them to college-level work:

   This course allowed me to
   explore what a college seminar
   setting looks like. This was
   invaluable, and I got to explore
   a niche topic through many different
   lenses, which helped me
   think critically about the world
   around me.

   It allowed for a good deal of
   freedom in what was discussed
   in class, which permitted more
   freedom of inquiry than is usual
   in academic classes. … 
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