At a recent session of the undergraduate General
Biology I course, students clogged Homewood's Mudd
Auditorium seats from the front to its very rear rows. Not
a bad turnout for a class that three years earlier had had
trouble getting half its number to show up.
The large-section survey class, which began in 2000,
typically enrolls some 300 students per semester. Faced
with low attendance rates its first two years of existence,
however, faculty felt innovative approaches to the course
were needed to help the students get excited about
With the help of the Johns Hopkins
Center for Educational
Resources and a $300,000 grant from the Howard Hughes
Medical Institute, General Biology in the past two years
has been transformed from a primarily lecture-based course
to an interactive learning experience that features an
electronic in-class polling system, mentoring by upperclass
students and a Web-enabled field study project that
requires students to scour the campus for flora and
Today, attendance rates are consistently in the 70
percent range, and students, according to faculty, are more
engaged in the course content. An account of the retooled
class's success will be published in an upcoming edition of
the journal Cell Biology Education.
The HHMI grant money obtained in 2002 allowed the
Biology Department to secure the services of CER staff in
order to address pedagogical issues in science classrooms,
specifically the large-section survey courses.
The first innovation was the introduction in spring
2003 of hand-held electronic voting units that allow
students to anonymously respond to questions posed by the
faculty. Multiple-choice questions, for example, are posted
on a projection screen, and a student with the touch of a
button chooses what he or she feels is the correct answer.
Once all the votes are in, the faculty can immediately post
the results on the screen to see how many, or few, got them
For the current fall semester, the class introduced
the Biomes of Homewood project, centered on a CER-developed
software program that splits the campus into 60 separate
biomes, which are life zones of interrelated plants and
animals determined by the climate. Through the Web-based
software, students were randomly put into groups of five or
six and assigned a particular biome, or region, of the
campus on which to conduct field study.
Allen Shearn, chair of the
and one of four faculty who collaboratively teach the
General Biology course, said that the department had
previously looked into taking the students on off-campus
field trips but felt that it was logistically near
"But we didn't give up on the idea entirely," Shearn
said. "We said, Why not focus on the nearby area, where
students could walk and not have to deal with
In stepped Rae Brosnan, a senior information
technology specialist at CER, who up until her departure
from the university earlier this month served as lead on
the General Biology project. Brosnan polled students to see
what areas of the General Biology course could benefit from
some technological advances, and she also canvassed other
schools to see what they were doing in similar large
For the Biomes of Homewood project, introduced in fall
2004, the goal of Brosnan and the CER staff was to create
something that would give students experience with
fieldwork and collaborative research.
The Biomes of Homewood Web tool, which students can
log onto using their JHED logins, contains an interactive
map that provides close-up satellite views of the region
selected, with clearly delineated boundaries. The tool also
allows the students to post messages to one another, and
the faculty to post assignments, both general ones and
tasks for specific groups.
At the beginning of the term, each group was told to
follow its assigned biome through the semester to see how
it changed. They also were given specific assignments that
included looking for types and quantities of trees in their
area, the number of squirrels in the region and the number
of acorns produced by oak trees to see what effect the
recent outbreak of cicadas had on their numbers. The
assignments related to class lectures on ecology,
environmental science and ecosystems.
Shearn said that it's all about getting students to
"The idea behind the assignments is that you only see
what you look for. If you don't look for things, you don't
notice them," he said. "But if you know what to look for,
you see a lot more."
The students turn in their team assignments online and
are graded on them. To help them with the assignments, each
group is assigned a mentor, an upperclass former General
Biology student who can help answer questions. Mentors are
also available at drop-in help sessions held on weekday
evenings during the term and through the Biomes software
environment, where they can respond directly to questions
In addition to Shearn, the faculty who teach the
General Biology class are Doug Fambrough and Richard
McCarty, both professors, and Rebecca Pearlman, a lecturer.
Theron Feist, senior information technology specialist in
the CER, led the development of the Biomes of Homewood
application, aided by Lee McDaniel, an undergraduate
student in computer science. Richard Shingles, a curriculum
design specialist working in the CER, composed the Biomes
assignments. Fambrough was the lead author on the Cell
Biology Education journal article that endeavors to make a
case for survey courses in biology.
Pearlman said that students seem more excited about
the subject matter now, as they can apply directly some of
what they are learning.
"I think all the students enjoy that there is some
real-life aspect to what they are learning in class, and
one of the ways we do that is with this Homewood Biomes
project," Pearlman said. "They study the different
organizational and trophic levels of their specific biome.
It's one thing to learn from a textbook; it's another to go
out and actually see a concept in action — something
that is right under your nose on a part of campus that you
walk by every day but never noticed. I can see the students
having all these 'ah hah' moments now. We love those."
Pearlman said that the combination of in-class voting,
group projects and mentoring have made the class more
interactive and lively.
"In a class this size, it's easy to feel anonymous,"
she said. "So being part of a team and also having mentors
to consult with has helped the students make a connection
and feel that there is someone approachable they can talk
to. I also see more collegiality now between the students.
They get to know more of their classmates and seem happy to
come to class. We've had some really nice interaction
between the students in the individual biomes groups. It's
been really great to see."
In class, Shearn said that the voting system has been
an effective way to break up long lectures and keep a
"It provides a wake-up call in the middle of class,
but the other thing it does for both students and the
instructors is to see whether or not the students are
'getting it,'" he said. "We can tell right away if 50
percent of the class gets an answer to a question wrong
that we should stop right there and try to explain the
concept again. But even if just 10 percent get it wrong,
that group knows there is something they've missed and need
to brush up on."
Richard Shingles said the Biomes of Homewood software
was designed in such a way that it could be applied to
other subjects, such as art history or Earth and planetary
sciences. It also allows subsequent classes to take
advantage of the field surveys for students to do
comparative studies, perhaps to determine if, for example,
squirrel populations are rising or declining.
Shearn said that the changes made to the General
Biology course have had a direct impact on the curriculum.
The success of the "tremendously important" foundation
course, he says, has raised the bar in subsequent
"The expectation now among faculty of upper-level
courses, more than ever, is that they expect the students
to know the material from the General Biology class and can
thus challenge the students more," he said. "General
Biology has gotten to be more than a regular course. There
are more opportunities now for the students to get really
involved with the subject. We feel we've always provided a
good product, but now we have enhanced our service even