I am currently in the process of designing a new upper-level course that I’ll teach this coming Winter semester (which, in the terminology of just about every other school, is the Spring semester). The course will focus on Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine. Evolutionary Medicine is a reasonably well-established field by now; I’m kind of making up the term Ecological Medicine, but it seems to be a reasonable term to me and to others that I’ve run this idea by. Basically, this course will cover topics like ecological drivers of disease dynamics, zoonoses and disease spillover, global change and disease, the hygiene hypothesis, ecological and evolutionary aspects of vaccine use, and ecological and evolutionary perspectives on cancer. My goal is to use these topics to introduce students to key ecological and evolutionary concepts (e.g., competition, tradeoffs), and to show how ecology and evolution can be relevant to human health and disease.
My plan for this class is to have it be discussion-based. I taught a few discussion-based classes at Georgia Tech, including one where I only gave very short (5 minutes or less) lectures to introduce concepts. Watching the students work out virulence-transmission tradeoffs on their own was incredibly rewarding, and really helped convince me of the value of student-centered learning and flipped classrooms. It was clear that the students were engaging with the material in a much deeper and more meaningful way. It was also my favorite class to teach – so much more enjoyable for me than lecturing! So, this new class will have a similar set up: minimal lecturing from me (this time, I will aim to give them the mini-lecture at the end of the preceding class period, to introduce concepts that will help them with the readings) and most class time devoted to student-led discussions of papers.
What are my goals for the class? As I said above, my primary goal is to introduce students to basic concepts in ecology and evolution, and to help them understand how ecology and evolution are relevant to human health and disease. My secondary goal is to have the students learn how to read and critically evaluate the primary literature. We are all bombarded with information on a daily basis; knowing how to critically evaluate it is an essential skill, in my opinion.
So, I am now at the stage of choosing the readings, deciding what activities to include, and how to assess learning. Choosing readings takes a lot of time (especially for a topic like evolution and cancer, which is not one that I’ve read a lot about), but is a great excuse to catch up on various aspects of the literature. Deciding on activities and assessments is also taking up a lot of my time, in part because I can’t decide exactly what to do. I’m pretty sure I want to work in a few readings that are not from the primary literature (e.g., this NY Times piece on evolution and cancer by Carl Zimmer) and also have them listen to some podcasts (e.g., parts of the Patient Zero and Parasites episodes of RadioLab). I don’t know exactly how I will incorporate the podcasts, yet – probably just as another topic of conversation, though I’m quite interested in hearing other ideas of how to use them. And, of course, there’s likely to be an early activity that uses MythBusters to teach about experimental design!
In the class I taught that was most similar to this, we had exams that were based on the primary literature. These worked really well. They were open book exams, and asked questions such as:
McCallum et al. 2009 studies whether transmission of Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) is more likely to be density or frequency dependent. What is their conclusion? Why do they conclude that? What are the implications of this conclusion for the likelihood of extinction of Tasmanian devils?
What is the most important result of Ebert 1994? Justify your answer with the data he presents. In addition, suggest a way in which this study could have been improved (e.g., what additional comparisons could he have made?) and explain why that would be an improvement. For this last part, suggest something more creative than simply increasing the number of replicates.
I think they worked pretty well, and I plan on using a similar design for exams in this class.
In terms of other activities and means of assessment, I’m still up in the air. So, I turned to twitter, saying
In response to that, Karen Lips suggested also considering a blog post or video and also an assignment where students compared science vs. media coverage of the same article, both of which I think are interesting ideas. Jarrett Byrnes suggested having students read a ‘controversial’ paper, what came before and after, and then writing a persuasive essay on the topic. Mike Sears suggested having them write popular articles of science pieces, and, conversely, having them critique popular articles related to science. This was similar to the suggestion from the Lab and Field, to have students write a “New Scientist”-style review or summary of an article for the general public. And, finally, Andrew MacDonald suggested having them build/edit a Wikipedia page. All excellent ideas!
Considering these different ideas:
1) News & Views style paper: I’ve had students do this before, and it has worked pretty well. But it basically has students engage in the papers in a way that is similar to what they do in the other aspects of the course (in that it’s thinking critically about a scientific paper and explaining it to a scientific audience). It does have the students work on writing, but, since there isn’t enough time in the class to do this iteratively and really work on the writing, those benefits are somewhat limited.
2) A debate: I’ve never done this, but one of my colleagues at Georgia Tech did this with a grad class of his. It seems like it would be key to choose a topic that is truly up in the air (one possibility I thought of for this class would be something like “Is global eradication of polio possible?) But I think my class will be too big to implement this well. Because, unless I am able to come up with a lot of topics along those lines, we would need to have multiple debates on the same topic. And, as Rachel Tell pointed out on twitter, that would be the definition of “to the pain”; plus, it’s hard to grade after having gouged out ones eyeballs after listening to the same debate 10 times!
3) A presentation: I’ve used these in classes before, but, again, it seems a bit like the News & Views approach in that it doesn’t really have students engage with the material in a different way than they would otherwise. It also suffers from what I think of as the “divide and conquer” approach, where one person introduces the disease, one person talks about challenges to eradication, etc. I’m sure there are techniques to helping avoid the “divide and conquer” approach with group work, and I would love to hear more about them!
4) Blogs: in some ways, this makes a ton of sense. I mean, I write for a blog – I know something about this! Plus, it would have the students present the material for a lay audience, which would be a different way of talking about the studies. So, I like this idea a lot. I know that Jessica Green and Joshua Drew both use this approach in classes of theirs. And Ethan White pointed out that writing for the public can be more motivating for students, which makes sense to me. One potential issue, raised by Ethan, is that there might be FERPA issues with doing this now. This had not occurred to me, and is something I’ll need to look into.
5) Wikipedia page: has many of the same benefits and potential drawbacks as a blog post, in my opinion, but I know so much less about doing this. I also don’t know how I would grade such a thing. Thoughts on that?
6) Comparing scientific article with the media coverage of that article: I really like this idea, in part because it could help students realize that they need to approach press releases and media articles skeptically! I imagine that I would let students choose their own pairings of press release/popular press article and scientific article, and then would ask them to compare the two. This could end up being really interesting, I think! It also could be linked with a blog post – that is, they could do the comparison in a blog post. This might be my favorite option so far, perhaps because I think it links well with one of my course goals – learning how to think critically about material they are presented with.
7) Check sources in a popular press article: This would be similar to the above, but would have the goal of teaching students that, if they read something interesting in a popular science article, they can follow it through to the primary literature. For this, I would give them a well-written popular science article (two that I was planning on using in this class anyway are When You Swallow a Grenade by Carl Zimmer and Some of My Best Friends Are Germs by Michael Pollan, both of which deal with the gut microbiome). I would then have them find one of the articles cited in there, read it, and write a summary of it (or something to that effect).
8) Write a popular science article related to a scientific article: this idea is similar to #6, though doesn’t require the comparison. It certainly would be a good exercise in seeing how well they can digest and summarize concepts, which would be interesting. I could set this assignment up so that they have to do it about one of the papers we’re already reading in the class, or that it should be on a new paper of their choosing. Again, this could link with a blog post assignment.
9) Controversial paper: this assignment seems more geared towards a grad-level class to me, because it requires more extensive background reading and placing of the study in a broader context of studies that came before it and that followed it. But maybe I’m selling my students short?
10) Videos: This isn’t something I’ve thought much about, though I wonder if students would be more hesitant to do this than a blog post. Or maybe I’m just projecting! I have heard that the library here at Michigan will help students learn how to prepare a short video for the general public, which would definitely be useful.
Right now, I think I’m leaning towards option 6 (or maybe 7), but I’m still deciding. I’ve scheduled a consultation with someone from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. It turns out they do course planning consultations, which seems like an excellent resource. But I’m also very interested in feedback from our readers. So, if you used these approaches and they’ve worked well or have been disasters, I would love to hear it!