Thursday, December 8, 2016

Microbiology, Student Learning, and Creative Extra Credit

For a number of years now, I have been interested in exploring unusual strategies to promote ownership from my students in the classes I teach.  I find that lists of facts, conceptual maps, frequent assessment, group work...all of these have positives and negatives. But the real spark, I believe, is getting the students to become engaged in topics because of the choices they make---to "own" their work.

One approach I have tried is via the time-honored inducement of "extra credit." Students always pay attention to those words as well they should. But I add to it "creative projects."  

Thus, for that precious precious extra credit, I tell students to come up with a creative form of extra credit that is relevant to the concepts we have been discussing in lecture and laboratory.  

I scaffold the assignment in the following fashion.  First, the students need to get my verbal approval of an idea for their project. In this way, I can keep the project reasonable, topical to class, and not a "time-sink" that will take away from their other classroom responsibilities.  After two weeks, I have them turn in a one page description of their project, and justify it in terms of topics we have covered in lecture.  Again, this helps me make certain the projects are reasonable, topical, and helpful to the students.  The students also think more deeply about their projects.  Finally, at the end of the semester,  students turn in the projects.

And the results are gratifying.  

Here is Juniper's artistic interpretation of Carl Woese's greatest discovery.  I turned the pages she wrote and illustrated into a video, and added some jazz music in honor of Brother Carl.

Erin created a Bacterial Phylogeny of Many Colors.

Mara created a mobile depicting the human microbiome.

Carly and Anne made #MicrobialCookies (and wrote a long "key" to explain each choice).  Always a crowd pleaser.

Makenzie created a knit phage that fit inside a knit bacterium.

Renee created a flip book that shows how the Type 3 Secretory System is assembled.

Emily created a paper mache mobile of microbial wonders.  A phage wearing a Santa hat can never, ever be wrong.

Kyle adapted "My Shot" from the play "Hamilton" to the armament wielded by Vibrio cholera's Type 6 Secretory System.

Austin made very intricate shadow boxes displaying the different parts of the bacterial cell wall.

Josh painted an epic bacteriophage.

Cooper wrote a short-short story, in the style of Edgar Allan Poe (or as he put it, "Poe-karyote"), about the endosymbiotic model of eukaryotic cell evolution.

Jesse created a plush Euprymna scolopes, complete with remote controlled LED lighting to represent Vibrio fischeri in that wondrous symbiotic relationship.

Trini drew various microbes as "Micro-Avengers."

Anna decided to adapt Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" to "Plate It Out."  Complete with, yes,  backup dancers.

Molly cross stitched one of my favorite sayings that reminds me of Pasteur's famous line:  "In the end, the microbes will have the last word."


I have found that some educators shrug at this approach, or think it is trivial.  I respectfully disagree.  There are many roads to learning, and teaching, effectively; we spend a great deal of time judging and less time listening, in my opinion.

What I do know is that my students---my micronauts---enjoy this kind of assignment, and learn a great deal from it.

One further thing, something that may be the most important point of all.  Year after year, a quiet student will tell me that she or he lacks any kind of talent.  Then, I discover that they can sing well, dance, draw, paint, write poetry....and the look on their faces when fellow students (and I) applaud their project is worth it all.

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I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!