We designed a human biology course that interests nonmajors while improving science literacy through student engagement, using a constructivist-inspired, topic-centered approach. This way of learning highlights common diseases that provide a basis to incorporate specific biological concepts. The topic-centered approach triggers interest and increases positive perceptions of learning science, and students find applicability in what they learn. In alignment with the Vision and Change report of AAAS, this course addresses the need to focus on connecting biology principles with real-world concerns, while incorporating students’ experiences into the learning process.

Introduction

Undergraduate students typically enroll in a nonmajors science course in order to fulfill a general education requirement. Too often, these courses fail to engage the interest or meet the needs of a non–science major. These students may feel a disconnect between scientific concepts and the direct impact to daily life and real-world events, hindering scientific literacy in this student population (Knight & Smith, 2010). Another obstacle to science learning among nonmajors is “science anxiety,” the negative emotions associated with learning and understanding science experienced by many students (Mallow, 1978; Mallow et al., 2010). Students may be concerned about their ability to succeed in the course or resent having to take a science course instead of a course they perceive as applicable or interesting (Knight & Smith, 2010; Wolter et al., 2013). Interest can be instilled in these students by presenting science in a manner viewed as exciting and relevant to undergraduates (Wright, 2005; Wolter et al., 2013).

One approach to maintaining student interest is inspired by the constructivist view of learning, which posits that individuals interpret new experiences on the basis of previous knowledge and established ideas (Dewey, 1916; Crowther, 1999; Michael, 2006). Constructivism in an educational setting is defined as an active process of learning that incorporates students’ experiences and ideas as motivation to generate knowledge and meaning (Hyslop-Margison & Strobel, 2008). Constructivist tenets can be utilized in the classroom by having students draw on previous experiences, identifying misconceptions, incorporating new knowledge, and explaining newly developed conclusions (Hartle et al., 2012). Students are encouraged to test their own ideas and use a collection of real evidence to support these concepts (Yager, 2000). This teaching style is gaining acceptance as an effective method because it uses a student-centered, active-learning approach (Crowther, 1999; Hartle et al., 2012). Student-centered teaching approaches, such as those inspired by constructivism, were highlighted in the Vision and Change report of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as critical components to undergraduate biology education (AAAS, 2011). To retain student interest and mitigate the apprehension experienced by many nonmajors taking science courses (Udo et al., 2004), our course builds upon existing knowledge and perceptions to motivate student activity and engagement.

Because the academic interests of the students enrolled in a nonmajors science course typically differ from those of science majors, courses intended for nonmajors should be designed with the needs and concerns of these students at the forefront. With the challenge of relevancy and accessibility in mind, we created a novel nonmajors biology course that was not an abridged version of the traditional lecture taken by biology majors. Human Biology 125 fulfills general-education requirements for non–science majors using a topic- centered approach to introduce fundamental biological principles. This course utilizes the familiarity of health-related diseases to engage the target students while linking biological principles and scientific methodology to real-world issues. The familiarity of these diseases provides a real-world context for the ensuing discussion of anatomy, physiology, cell biology, chemistry, genetics, microbiology, and/or immunology. The lecture units, centered on the biological components responsible for a chosen disease and its presentation in the human body, include etiology and epidemiology. Most topics incorporate a discussion and examination of misconceptions in biology.

By organizing a biology course around widespread diseases, we hoped to engage nonmajors in science learning. We hypothesized that this topic-centered approach provides students with the tools and confidence to relate and apply biology and science to their own personal experiences as well as to real-world events. Students should have some recognition of the disease-driven units by either knowing someone with the disease or through popular media such as television and movies. We anticipated that this prior exposure would motivate students to apply existing information and expand on their perceived knowledge. In addition, we sought to dispel existing misconceptions through class discussion and evaluation of previously held concepts. By organizing biological principles within a familiar disease topic, we hoped to reduce or eliminate the intimidating perception of science held by many students and directly demonstrate the real-world relevance of science. Because students are more receptive to learning science when they can directly relate the material to real-life situations and events (McClanahan & McClanahan, 2002), we aimed to retain student interest and generate informed citizens in the scientific world. We predicted that students would complete the course with an appreciation for the role of science in the world around them and with an increased confidence in their ability to understand science. Classroom assessment and preliminary survey results suggest that a topic-centered curriculum enhances scientific learning.

Course Design

Traditional topics taught in an introductory biology course for nonmajors were grouped into units to maximize course content in biological principles. Students attended a weekly total of 3 hours of lecture plus a 3-hour laboratory during the 14-week semester. The six diseases chosen and used as reference points for the instruction of each unit include diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, cystic fibrosis, coronary artery disease, obesity, and breast cancer (Table 1).

Table 1.

In Human Biology 125, the topics were organized into units centered around one disease.

Disease TopicBiological Themes AddressedContent & Activities
Diabetes Metabolic processes
Osmosis
Endocrine system
Urinary system
Etiology and epidemiology 
Enzyme kinetics
Dialysis
Microscopy
Simulated urine formation/testing
Student survey on disease factors and treatments
Current statistics
Sharing of personal stories and experiences 
Sexually transmitted disease: genital warts/cervical cancer Virus structure
Immune system/vaccination
Reproductive system
Etiology and epidemiology 
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Serology
Anatomy/microscopy
Vaccine development and ethics (Gardasil)
Student survey on sexual partners and barrier methods
Current statistics and media 
Cystic fibrosis DNA
Mendelian genetics
Recombinant DNA/gene therapy
Etiology and epidemiology 
DNA building blocks
Phenotypic inheritance among students
Simulated blood typing
Personal DNA extraction and PV92 analysis
Current statistics
Guest speaker: genetic counselor 
Coronary artery disease Cardiovascular system
Blood
Biochemistry
Etiology and epidemiology 
Cardiovascular system and relationship to body systems
Biochemistry of blood
Development of atherosclerosis
Treatment options
Current statistics
Blood pressure activity 
Obesity Nutrition
Chemistry
Biochemistry
Digestive system
Etiology and epidemiology 
Macronutrients/micronutrients
Metabolism of biological molecules
Viewing/discussion of the movie Supersize Me
Analysis of a McDonald's meal
Energy input/output
BMR/BMI and obesity range
Identification and analysis of diets; comparison
to http://www.myplate.gov
Current statistics
Guest speaker: nutritionist 
Breast cancer Cell cycle progression
Cancer progression
Immunology
Etiology and epidemiology 
Interactive video of cancer development
Mutagens and genetics
Detection of breast cancer; options and ethics
Student survey on lowering risk of cancer
Current statistics
Guest speaker: cancer survivor/support group leader 
Disease TopicBiological Themes AddressedContent & Activities
Diabetes Metabolic processes
Osmosis
Endocrine system
Urinary system
Etiology and epidemiology 
Enzyme kinetics
Dialysis
Microscopy
Simulated urine formation/testing
Student survey on disease factors and treatments
Current statistics
Sharing of personal stories and experiences 
Sexually transmitted disease: genital warts/cervical cancer Virus structure
Immune system/vaccination
Reproductive system
Etiology and epidemiology 
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Serology
Anatomy/microscopy
Vaccine development and ethics (Gardasil)
Student survey on sexual partners and barrier methods
Current statistics and media 
Cystic fibrosis DNA
Mendelian genetics
Recombinant DNA/gene therapy
Etiology and epidemiology 
DNA building blocks
Phenotypic inheritance among students
Simulated blood typing
Personal DNA extraction and PV92 analysis
Current statistics
Guest speaker: genetic counselor 
Coronary artery disease Cardiovascular system
Blood
Biochemistry
Etiology and epidemiology 
Cardiovascular system and relationship to body systems
Biochemistry of blood
Development of atherosclerosis
Treatment options
Current statistics
Blood pressure activity 
Obesity Nutrition
Chemistry
Biochemistry
Digestive system
Etiology and epidemiology 
Macronutrients/micronutrients
Metabolism of biological molecules
Viewing/discussion of the movie Supersize Me
Analysis of a McDonald's meal
Energy input/output
BMR/BMI and obesity range
Identification and analysis of diets; comparison
to http://www.myplate.gov
Current statistics
Guest speaker: nutritionist 
Breast cancer Cell cycle progression
Cancer progression
Immunology
Etiology and epidemiology 
Interactive video of cancer development
Mutagens and genetics
Detection of breast cancer; options and ethics
Student survey on lowering risk of cancer
Current statistics
Guest speaker: cancer survivor/support group leader 

Within each unit, multiple instructional approaches were implemented to promote active learning and foster an appreciation for the biological processes discussed. Every unit involved topic-centered group work and student-driven dialogue, both in class and as part of discussion on the course website. Personal response systems or “clickers” contributed to an active-learning environment by enabling anonymous participation in student surveys and discussions during the lecture. Depending on student interest, the biological focus could shift from molecular to organismal concepts. Although traditional lecture- based teaching with PowerPoint slides was implemented, >65% of any unit used other methods of exposure to materials. Lessons were supplemented with group projects or surveys (often spurred from class discussion), specialized guest speakers, videos, and other visual aids where appropriate. The invited guest speakers, all nonscientists, described the application of biology and the unit topic to their personal or professional life. To complement the lecture, the corresponding laboratory for each unit assessed critical thinking through case studies and scientific methodology through experimentation.

Upon successful completion of this course, students meet the learning outcomes described in Table 2. Attainment of these learning outcomes was measured through lecture exams, the TopHat student response system, group work, oral presentations, and laboratory activities. To clarify learning expectations and aid students in group work and presentations (Atkin et al., 2001; Allen & Tanner, 2006), detailed rubrics were provided for these activities. These various activities assessed multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, including synthesis and evaluation (Lord & Baviskar, 2007). Lecture exams consisting of a combination of multiple-choice, true–false, and fill-in questions were given after each unit. Exam questions reflect multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, including knowledge, application, comprehension, and analysis (Lord & Baviskar, 2007). The overall course grade consisted of the student’s exam scores, participation using a student response system, the corresponding course laboratory assessments, plus a team presentation demonstrating a new disease topic with understanding of scientific methodology, research, and applicability.

Table 2.

Expected learning outcomes for Human Biology 125.

1. Application of the scientific method to solve problems 
2. Critical reading and analysis of scientific investigations 
3. Familiarity with metric measurement 
4. Comprehension of the broad biological concepts that underlie the chemical, cellular, and physiological basis of specific diseases 
5. Knowledge of anatomy and physiology in relation to specific diseases 
6. Familiarity with nutrition and its role in the human body and disease 
7. Implementation of basic experimental tools in human biology 
1. Application of the scientific method to solve problems 
2. Critical reading and analysis of scientific investigations 
3. Familiarity with metric measurement 
4. Comprehension of the broad biological concepts that underlie the chemical, cellular, and physiological basis of specific diseases 
5. Knowledge of anatomy and physiology in relation to specific diseases 
6. Familiarity with nutrition and its role in the human body and disease 
7. Implementation of basic experimental tools in human biology 

For example, the topic of obesity serves as a starting point for group work centered on nutrition and popular diets (Table 3). In class surveys, identify diets in which the students have previous or perceived knowledge. The diets are commonly mentioned in magazine articles and shown on television, emphasizing a direct relationship between science and real-world issues. Working as a group, students analyze assigned articles describing a particular diet. The members of the group summarize the main tenets of the diet and answer guided questions promoting the application of unit material to show understanding. For this unit, students also examine food products for nutritional content and review body metabolics to understand a variety of etiologies that lead to obesity. A nutritionist guest speaker further supports the concepts presented in lecture and reinforces the applicability of these biological principles in daily life.

Table 3.

Obesity unit curriculum.

Lecture Content Obesity
Epidemiology; statistics from World Health Organization (WHO)
Macronutrients and micronutrients
Metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins 
Discussion & Lecture Activities Definition of BMI vs. BMR
Short video/discussion and overview
Defining and measuring calories
Examples of saturated (including hydrogenated) and unsaturated fat
Complete vs. complementary proteins
MyPlate activity (http://www.myplate.gov
Group Activities Comparison of energy input and output
Popular diets and cravings: survey
Typical food(s) in popular diets; caloric values
Evaluation of differences in macronutrients/micronutrients and food variety
Comparison of various diets to http://www.myplate.gov 
Guest Speaker Nutritionist 
Laboratory Content & Activities Movie: Supersize Me
Analysis of a McDonald's meal as chosen by student group
Exploration of portion sizes in the United States 
Lecture Content Obesity
Epidemiology; statistics from World Health Organization (WHO)
Macronutrients and micronutrients
Metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins 
Discussion & Lecture Activities Definition of BMI vs. BMR
Short video/discussion and overview
Defining and measuring calories
Examples of saturated (including hydrogenated) and unsaturated fat
Complete vs. complementary proteins
MyPlate activity (http://www.myplate.gov
Group Activities Comparison of energy input and output
Popular diets and cravings: survey
Typical food(s) in popular diets; caloric values
Evaluation of differences in macronutrients/micronutrients and food variety
Comparison of various diets to http://www.myplate.gov 
Guest Speaker Nutritionist 
Laboratory Content & Activities Movie: Supersize Me
Analysis of a McDonald's meal as chosen by student group
Exploration of portion sizes in the United States 

The obesity unit incorporates activities that meet several of the course’s learning objectives, including an understanding of human nutrition and disease as well as the application of the scientific process (Table 2). This unit also exemplifies how the core competencies identified by Vision and Change (AAAS, 2011) can be integrated into a nonmajors biology course (Table 4). For instance, students link concepts from nutritional, physiological, and biochemical disciplines, along with scientific methodology, to assess the nutritional content of popular diets. During the analytical process, students use quantitative reasoning to evaluate energy, calories, and food intake. Students practice verbal communication of scientific concepts and reasoning through group presentations on a popular diet. The connection between biology and society is consistently emphasized in the obesity unit. The implications of genetic modification and chemical processing in the food industry, obesity and healthcare, and the socioeconomics of food spark vivid classroom discussions and foster opportunities to identify and dispel biological misconceptions.

Table 4.

Core competencies integrated into the obesity unit.

Core CompetencyApplication in Obesity Unit
Application of the scientific process Evaluation of popular diets for nutritional content
Predict expected short- or long-term outcomes 
Quantitative reasoning Body/food measurements
Development of strategies to maintain homeostasis (energy input vs. output)
Analysis of a McDonald's meal 
Effective science communication Comparison of U.S. diet and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations
Organization and oral presentation of diet analysis 
Understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of science Visualization of biochemistry of macromolecules and metabolism
Understanding of nutrient transport physiology
Relevance of microorganisms in food (food poisoning and food industry) 
Forming a relationship between science and society Evaluation of ethics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Examination of effects of body weight in society
Connection between farm/processed food and effects on the body
Gauging of health-care costs of obesity
Discussion of the socioeconomics of food 
Core CompetencyApplication in Obesity Unit
Application of the scientific process Evaluation of popular diets for nutritional content
Predict expected short- or long-term outcomes 
Quantitative reasoning Body/food measurements
Development of strategies to maintain homeostasis (energy input vs. output)
Analysis of a McDonald's meal 
Effective science communication Comparison of U.S. diet and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations
Organization and oral presentation of diet analysis 
Understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of science Visualization of biochemistry of macromolecules and metabolism
Understanding of nutrient transport physiology
Relevance of microorganisms in food (food poisoning and food industry) 
Forming a relationship between science and society Evaluation of ethics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Examination of effects of body weight in society
Connection between farm/processed food and effects on the body
Gauging of health-care costs of obesity
Discussion of the socioeconomics of food 

Methods/Survey

At the end of the semester, students completed a voluntary and anonymous exit survey outside of class time. The attitude survey consisted of a variety of statements related to study habits, evaluation of the course, and views on the field of science. Several diagnostic questions were included throughout the survey to ensure the accuracy of the responses. Students had the option to not answer or select a value between 1 (least agreed) and 4 (most agreed), creating a forced-choice response that best represented their opinion of each statement. Although these survey questions may have created a bias, we sought to use the information provided to gain preliminary feedback and elicit an opinion from students. Figure 1 contains the survey questions most relevant to students’ experiences and perceptions of the course. All procedures were reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Research Participants (IRB protocol HC-1 10-04-152-4471). Hunter College serves an urban population that is diverse in ethnicity and background, which is reflected in the students who completed the survey data used here (Hunter College, 2013). Of the 23 total respondents, 39% were male and 61% were female, with ages ranging from 18 to 39 (average = 23, mode = 21). These data represent a respondent rate of ~55%. No incentives were offered for participation in the survey, creating potential sample bias from participants. This course consisted of 41 students, 28 of whom successfully completed the course toward the required general-science-education credit for “broad exposure in natural science” (with laboratory science). The students’ majors included Psychology, Media Studies, English, and Sociology. Several students indicated an interest in prehealth programs such as nursing and health sciences. Sixty-five percent of the students did not have a declared major or left this question blank.

Figure 1.

Selection of student survey questions and responses related to course evaluation.

Figure 1.

Selection of student survey questions and responses related to course evaluation.

We constructed 95% confidence intervals (CI) around the mean response of sampled students in Human Biology 125 in order to summarize the average student response and its associated variability. As depicted in Figure 1, students responded favorably to questions about the content and applicability of this course. Notably, 87% (mean = 3.52 ± 0.30 [95% CI]) of respondents indicated that they would recommend Human Biology 125 to a peer.

Discussion

The Vision and Change initiative of AAAS highlights critically needed changes in undergraduate biology education (AAAS, 2011). At the forefront of these changes is a focus on student-centered instruction that connects biology principles with real-world concerns, while incorporating students’ experiences into the learning process (AAAS, 2011). We created Human Biology 125 to teach biology concepts to non–science majors using a format that enables students to build upon previous knowledge and experience (Lord, 1997). Our topic-centered approach motivates students by building upon their previous knowledge of prevalent diseases while relating it to scientific methodology, human anatomy, physiology, and biological principles such as genetics, reproduction, and cellular interaction. With this method of learning in mind, newly introduced material can be assimilated with students’ previous understandings (Hartle et al., 2012).

Because many students are uninterested or nervous about taking a science course, it is essential to provide a student-centered and interactive classroom setting to in order to make an impact with students. As illustrated by the obesity unit (Table 3), active engagement using multiple instructional approaches incorporated in each lesson stimulated student interest and retention visually, aurally, and kinesthetically. To avoid the passive nature of a traditional lecture course, lectures included PowerPoint but also group discussion, handouts, guest speakers, class/group surveys, and videos. As described in Table 4, the discussions and activities for each unit provide opportunities for students to develop the key competencies described in Vision and Change (AAAS, 2011). These interactive lectures enable students to effectively interpret and internalize new information (Leonard, 2000; Yager, 2000; Knight & Wood, 2005). Lecture assessment and a brief attitude survey support our belief that students complete this course with a positive outlook on their ability to learn science as well as an appreciation for the role of science in their own lives. Our findings highlight that presentation of fundamental science concepts in an accessible format promotes student learning and increases scientific literacy among non–science majors.

We plan to pursue a multisemester study to identify practices that engage and inform non–science majors in biology with a more extensive attitude survey, including both precourse and postcourse surveys. The overall findings indicate that this course methodology has a positive and significant impact. We hope to present a broad assessment comparison between nonmajors science courses that demonstrate consistencies in student learning and perception. Ultimately, we aim to find more ways to increase subject-matter retention and confidence in being an informed world citizen in science.

Acknowledgments

Fellowship funding to support the research of Alvina Rahman was provided by a grant to Hunter College from the Alfred Harcourt Foundation to assist students preparing for careers in the sciences and teaching.

References

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