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New concepts transform biology learning
Photos and Story by James Hill
by James HillA Portland Community College biology instructor likened it to constructing a curriculum bridge to the 21st century.The PCC Sylvania Campus Biology department is slowly transforming its lab space and its curriculum to fit the changing needs of its students. Thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Sylvania Campus is phasing out the current teaching model to one that will engage the student more than ever before.Since 1995, a group of faculty and instructors from the department have been working hard to update PCC’s three-quarter general biology courses (101, 102 and 103), classes that serve nearly 800 students each year at the Sylvania Campus. The revisions of the curriculum will include "real-time" biology, featuring live lectures, labs, fieldwork and group discussions. The focus will shift from fact learning to conceptual learning."The real focus of the effort is to underline the theme that less is more," said Jerry Button, a PCC instructor on the team to re-invent biology curriculum at the college. "The curriculum is not being dummied down. It’s less driven by facts and trivia, and much more by the process. It will be issues-based with projects and learning outcomes."The Biology department received two $50,000 grants from NSF and an instructional improvement grant of $5,000 from within the college. With these grants, instructors are re-planning curriculum, and overhauling the old system of audio-tutorial teaching and learning. Button was the project director for the first NSF grant, followed by biology instructor Lynn Larsen for the second NSF grant.Button estimates the audio system has taught more than 30,000 students college-wide in its almost 30 years of existence. In the early 1970s, Purdue University (Indiana) created the biology course students had been taking, essentially a series of focused sections that the students rotate through. The students went to the laboratory, listened to tape lectures, performed lab experiments and received one-on-one instruction. They went through a module and a self-test based on learned objectives. It was an open-entrance and open-exit system where students begin and finish anytime, and go as fast or slow as they needed."In the new curriculum the students may not immediately know the answers, but they’ll know where to find them," Larsen said.The department officially introduced the new curriculum this summer.Besides the curriculum, the two labs at the Sylvania Campus are being converted into facilities that will feature more hi-tech equipment (such as two InFocus projectors for multimedia shows and Apple computers) to match the new learning process. There will be laser disc players, a video stereo microscope system and a video player added as well.Both Button and Larsen said the entire five-year project has involved many people. "The writing was done collaboratively with the faculty in the biology department at Sylvania," Larsen said. "Having completed the 101 grant, it set a really good foundation of how to proceed to 103. Since it is a team effort, we all learned how to function as a team and we achieved that pretty well."The grant requirements include a provision that PCC share information about the curriculum revisions with other institutions. Larsen will present information on the new curriculum to the National Association of Biology Teachers in Orlando, Fla., in October and the Oregon Sciences Academy in February 2001. In addition, she has already received requests from community colleges in Kansas and Virginia for information.The improvements to the general biology courses and the labs will also help develop a teaching and learning resource library in the fall of 2000 and help instructors evaluate teaching methods and curriculum. "A bridge is being constructed between the past and the future," Button said. "Those travelling across that bridge are the students who enrolled in the new curriculum this summer, but, most strikingly, this fall."