Rejecting a regurgitative science

I have not braved a single course in biology since high school – I am terrible at memorization – but I remember the initial experiments in the first-year chemistry lab clearly: we got to pour water into beakers. A quick survey of my roommates reveals that the dissection of small animals in BIOL111 was “very interesting,” but the excitement of BIOL112 maxed out at “watching bubbles rise.” Each lab is no more than an exercise in following instructions, and the curriculum’s token nod to the importance of experimentation in science. The labs do not delve into what Clark Lindgren, biology professor at Grinnell, a small, selective liberal arts university in Iowa, considers “actual scientific study,” which he defines as “an inquiry in which the answer is not known by anyone (including the instructor).”

In the November 18 edition of ESkeptic, Skeptical Inquirer Magazine’s weekly online newsletter, Lindgren compares the traditional biology curriculum – light on lab work and heavy on lecture slide memorization – to starting off music school with several semesters that focus on the history of music theory. Lindgren explains his solution, which he implemented at Grinnell in 2000: the “upside down curriculum.” Prospective biology majors start off university with BIO150: Introduction to Biological Inquiry, in which they work on a specific research question with a lab team of two peers. The graphic accompanying the article features suggestions of the types of research students can conduct and includes, in the largest and boldest font: “Sex Life of Plants.”

Two months after reading Lindgren’s original article, I still couldn’t quite stop thinking about BIO150. I called him to discuss the subject further.

“You have to be picking and choosing a lot anyway,” Lindgren says of deciding what to teach in any intro level biology survey course. “We said, let’s take this to the extreme and see what happens.”

Students in BIO150 learn a little bit of background information, and then dive into setting up and testing a hypothesis, as opposed to the traditional model where students typically complete research courses in their third or fourth year, already equipped with a solid knowledge of the field. “We teach [information] to the students with all of the awkwardness, the inaccuracies, the roughness that knowledge generally tends to have in its natural state,” says Lindgren. He adds that information in large lecture classes is “predigested.”

Lindgren explains that having an introductory course at the beginning of the curriculum gives students a chance to see if they might truly enjoy a career in biology, or if scientific research is as appealing as they thought it would be from reading the textbook. But not all of the students in BIO150 are biology majors, or even in science – Lindgren says that about half of the class is usually composed of students taking it as an elective. This gives students who might go on to be teachers or writers or lawyers a view into how science works: not just what biology says about the world, but the actual process and approach, beyond the dry lecture slides.

And it’s true. If someone is going to take just one university level biology course, isn’t it beneficial to at least provide the option of a course like BIO150 – four months of the raw, undigested truth? The prospect of hundreds of lecture slides and Scantron exams deterred me from ever setting foot in a McGill biology class; it seemed boring. Had I been given the opportunity to engage in the type of exploration and execution that happens in real biology labs, I think I would have taken it.

Shannon Palus’s column appears every other week. Send emails with raw, undigested thoughts to