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The world is a messy place! That’s one of Nancy Pelaez’s major messages for her students. Pelaez, an Associate Professor of Biology at Purdue, participated in the Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation (IMPACT) course redesign initiative, where she  redesigned the foundational course Biology 131 (Biology II: Development, Structure, and Function of Organisms) with the goal of getting her students to think more like scientists. Rather than giving them the answers, Pelaez asked her students to explore different sources of information– to share and compare possible answers.

Taught in the spring of 2012 for the first time, students in BIOL 131 attended a lecture once a week, then worked in small groups online to solve problems, which they then shared and discussed with the rest of the class. Some of the problem set questions required students  to find fresh, relevant information to further inform what they  were learning about in the lecture and by reading the textbook. In their small group discussions, the students discussed what they found and collaborated to come up with the best possible answers.  The problems were scaffolded, beginning the first week with finding images or videos on the Internet to help understand a concept, to later examining experiments to understand what kind of evidence biologists use to solve problems. BIOL 131 students learned how to navigate the Purdue library databases, define scholarly primary research, and distinguish primary research from meta-analysis–all while learning more about the course content. During the second half of the semester, the students applied what they had learned to create their own academic posters.

Pelaez and her peer mentor assistants have been amazed at the differences they have seen. The quality of the exams and essays have improved from previous semesters and the strongest student work displays a maturity of thought many would not expect from first-year students. The students are actively engaged in making sense of the “messy world” of biological information!

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