Saturday, 31 October 2015

The old and the new

In a couple of my classes this week I was fortunate enough to be able to combine some traditional approaches to teaching and learning biology, whilst utilising technology that would have been virtually unthinkable a few years ago.

Case study 1 - Modelling mitosis

Mitosis is a classic case of a biological concept that can seem very abstract to learners. Many textbooks and websites describe various different approaches for practical classes that involve modelling mitosis in order to make it something more concrete for students to grasp, for example using pipe cleaners, pop beads or modelling clay. I opted to use modelling clay - pipe cleaners were probably a lot easier to source in the past than they are these days! This was the traditional part of the class.

However, I also wanted to add something a bit more engaging to the practical, so I decided to have my students create stop-motion movies. This was the part of the class that would have been much more difficult to achieve in the past, without a fair amount of expensive and specialised kit. Now, since all of my students have smartphones, they simply downloaded a free stop motion app to their phone and away they went. Most of them chose to use a free app called Stop Motion Studio. There is an example of their work here

So, in the space of a double lab class, I had given brief notes on the four phases of mitosis, had my students make their model chromosomes, and also had them create a stop motion movie to generate a tangible, final finished product. Most of them also had time to make movies showing cytokinesis, illustrating the difference between this process in plant versus animal cells. 

Case study 2 - Ecological sampling techniques

The second activity was a practical activity that took us outside of the classroom, something I discussed in my last post. I do enjoy getting out of the classroom with my learners, although the conditions weren't ideal on this particular occasion - the temperature was 34° Celsius and, because it had recently rained, the humidity was around 85%!

For this practical activity learners had an opportunity to try out some classic ecological sampling techniques using quadrats. Again, this is a very traditional method used in biology that has long been a feature of high school biology classes.

The new aspects I was able to incorporate were two-fold in this case. First, students were able to take photos of their quadrats, and the plants they could count within them. These will be useful for a future activity looking at urban biodiversity. Secondly, once we got back to class, the data they had collected were entered into spreadsheets and quickly converted into tables and graphs for analysis. 

In general, my feeling is that there are often traditional approaches to pedagogy that are popular and appear frequently in textbooks, websites etc for a reason - they are effective. In these cases, it is worth keeping them. I would also not advocate using technology for the sake of it, however, in the two cases I have outlined above, I feel that technology clearly has a valuable role to play in augmenting the learning opportunities that are available. 

I would be interested to hear of other examples where old and new techniques are being used to create new and interesting learning opportunities, please feel free to comment below.