Teaching Genetics in an Active Learning Classroom

This article describes my experience teaching a complex biological concept in an innovative manner using the new features in one of the pilot active learning classrooms this semester. This was part of the 200 level Genetics course that is a core requirement of the Biology major and that I have taught since fall 2017. DNA replication is an important unit of the course that I have previously taught using  aActive lLearning in order to promote group work.

A challenge in teaching biology

Faithful duplication of DNA is a formidable task faced by cells given the size and structural complexity of the genetic material. Specific challenges at sites of DNA duplication (replication forks), include DNA unwinding, single strand DNA stability, direction of DNA synthesis, accuracy of DNA synthesis and DNA topology. To teach these concepts, I created a group activity, where five groups of four to five students were assigned one of these challenges to consider. Using the short multiple throw projectors available in the Active Learning classrooms, the image shown below was displayed to the five groups of students. The short throw projectors allowed each group of students to work on a different task on their own “screen”. 

Each group of students was provided with digital pens and asked to use the interactive features of the projectors to demonstrate how their assigned challenge is overcome by cells. The students were instantly engaged and worked collaboratively to complete their assigned tasks. Below is a collection of images of the different groups at work:

Once the task was completed, students were asked to briefly present their work to the rest of the class. The images below show the completed work of each group:

The classroom activity described here was greatly aided by the use of the Active learning Classroom and the short throw interactive projectors. 

Previously, when teaching this concept, students were split into groups and asked to draw out the process of DNA replication, focusing on one aspect in particular. Although this worked well, there were some difficulties. Namely, the canvas the students were working on wasn’t big enough to allow good visualization of the process and didn’t promote participation by all members of the team. Typically, one member would take the lead and the rest of the students would provide little input. In addition, correcting errors and making changes was also difficult as was presenting the work to the rest of the class. This time, I was able to use all six projectors in the Active Learning classrooms to provide each group with a large canvas to work on. All groups started with the same projected image and were supplied with multiple digital pens. The large canvas helped with visualization, student interaction and participation, engagement and enabled the students to present their work to the rest of the group after the completion of the activity.

Having multiple projectors allowed for several groups to work simultaneously on different aspects of the same problem and to then come together at the end of the class to see how everything fits together. The level of student engagement was very high and there weren’t any major difficulties with using the technology which the students also found intuitive to use. While this is a pilot activity that doesn’t make full use of the features provided by the classroom technologies, it provides a snippet of what is possible. The  activity was very well received by the students and feedback was excellent, emphasising in the final student evaluations the value of the interactivity in the class, and the “educational yet fun” atmosphere, which was enhanced by the setup of the classroom. 

In Spring 2022, I plan to conduct a Classroom Action Research project to explore how particular activities can help increase student retention of difficult concepts. The project involves students taking a quiz shortly after the completion of an activity and then again at the end of the semester. Comparison of student performance will be used to assess the effectiveness of using active learning activities on information retention. Students will also provide feedback in the form of an end of semester survey. 

Note from CLT: The Active Learning Classroom described in this article is one among a small number of pilot learning spaces AUC has redesigned with special flexible seating and multiple touch screens.

To learn more about how Andreas and others are using these Active Learning Classrooms, visit us during the Symposium on Wednesday March 9th. During the 1-2pm slot, we will have a “Spotlight on Active Learning Classrooms” session. Register here for the Symposium. 

If you are doing something innovative in your classes and would like to consult with CLT on how to assess its impact, or conduct Classroom Action Research, please sign up for a consultation here.

Andreas Kakarougkas

Assistant Professor, Department of Biology

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