Assessment in the Service of Student Learning

Katayoun Chamany, Eugene Lang College of the New School University

My interest in cell and molecular biology combined with my interest in education, lead me to research questions about how students learn biology and how faculty teach biology. My primary focus in science education has been developing, piloting, and evaluating educational biology modules that attract and maintain the interest of non-science majors. These modules teach basic scientific methods and principles in social context. I am particularly interested in determining whether biology curricula that incorporate issues of race, gender, and geopolitics are better able to increase student retention of the basic principles of biology than curricula devoid of these perspectives.

Upon joining the faculty of Eugene Lang College (ELC), I was charged with designing and implementing a science program for liberal arts students, many of who would go on to become secondary or primary school educators. In this non-science majors setting, science needs to be taught as one of the liberal arts, or "Science as a Liberal Art." This environment also forces me to address the needs of students who are accustomed to seminar-style courses that use an active learning format and cross disciplinary boundaries. By using case studies and scenarios to teach biology in this environment, I find that these students are capable of learning as much as traditional science majors but, perhaps, are better able to apply what they have learned to real-world problems. Given this success, I began to seek avenues in which I could learn and develop innovative teaching modules, paying close attention to assessment and evaluation tools tailored to these pedagogies.

My first formal educational project began while I was attending a Case Studies in Science workshop at SUNY Buffalo. This annual workshop seeks to train faculty to develop cases that are peer reviewed and showcased at the SUNY Buffalo Case Studies in Science web site; a national clearinghouse of cases that is freely available to science faculty.

My first case, "Ninos Desaparecidos," merges the scientific and mathematical principles of genetic identification with human rights ( and I chose the subject of the disappeared children of Argentina and El Salvador because many students are interested in global politics and human rights violations, especially those against women. By demonstrating that science can solve a variety of social problems, I was hoping to reach Latino and Hispanic students who often consider science a purely academic discipline. The assessments and forms of evaluation that accompany this case include data analysis, decision-making projects, and role-playing. This case has received a great deal of attention due to its political nature and its focus on cutting edge genetic technologies and was selected as one of the cases to appear in the special issue of case studies in the Journal of College Science Teaching this past fall.

In conjunction with Garland Publishing, I am currently working on a collection of case studies in cell biology, titled Cell Biology for Life. This project will be completed this summer and will accompany the new editions of the textbooks Molecular Biology of the Cell and Essential Cell Biology in fall of 2003. Briefly, the project is composed of three modules, each of which asks students to integrate information from many textbook chapters using guided inquiry, and to apply what they have learned in designing and evaluating a variety of applications. The modules focus on the following topics: botulinum toxin; stem cells/cell differentiation; and HPV and cancer.

Each module contains five or six learning activities designed for different levels of scientific background and understanding, class size, and course goals. The learning exercises ask students to build on previous knowledge and to integrate knowledge across academic disciplines using the learning cycle (engagement, exploration, and application). Some of these exercises use information technology supplied by a variety of media: Internet, CD-ROM, video animation and microscopy, on-line discussions and 3-D modeling programs. Other methods encourage students to improve their communication skills, both oral and written. The activities can be used in sequence or individually. Assignments are tailored to each activity while general tools such as tutorials, self-assessments, and in-class assessments appear in the appendixes. A table of these activities appears below.