Reflections on Flipping a Bioengineering Course

April 9, 2014

IMG_1892We are happy to introduce our first contributor, Michael Jaeggli. Michael graduated from Clemson University with a BS in Biochemistry in 2006. He then worked as a scientist at Poly-Med Inc developing polymeric medical devices. He is a former undergraduate researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Michael is currently a PhD candidate at Clemson University developing tissue engineered aortic heart valves. His post is a reflection on flipping Bio# 1010 “Biology for BioEngineers”.

I teach BioE 1010, “Biology for BioEngineers.” BioE 1010 is a one credit course taken by second semester general engineering students; most of whom are interested in becoming BioEngineering majors. The goal of the course is to introduce elementary biology concepts that students will explore in more depth in subsequent courses. Basic cellular biology is taught, including topics such as DNA replication and translation, protein structure and function, cell membranes, metabolism, and cell signaling. For many students, this is the first time they’ve thought about biology since their sophomore year of high school.

flipped classroom image

Image created by Coetail

As TA-Instructor I am responsible for giving lectures, updating exams and homeworks, and holding office hours. The core of the course is a series of PowerPoint lectures based on, and featuring figures from, the textbook Essential Cell Biology. The first two semesters were taught using a traditional lecture style. However, because the class only met once a week I felt disconnected with how the students were learning. There was essentially a two week lag between teaching and being able to correct any misconceptions found during evaluation of homeworks and exams. Due to the amount of material I had to cover I never had class time for anything but lecturing. I needed a way to incorporate in-class active learning assignments without sacrificing course content. I found the answer to this dilemma in the flipped classroom – where lectures are delivered online and class time is used for group discussion and problem solving.

I faced two big challenges in flipping this class. First, I had to turn my lectures into videos. I’m comfortable writing and lecturing, but I had never produced a video before. Thankfully Clemson has a great office of online education that helped me get the software and microphone I needed. After I was set up I found that recording a video was remarkably easy. I started out by showing my PowerPoint slides while I recorded my traditional lecture through a microphone. I felt that this approach was producing dull videos so I changed to a Khan academy-esque style of presenting key figures and using a tablet to record myself working through problems or drawing diagrams. The second big challenge was figuring out what to do with all my extra class time – what a great problem to have! I now start each class with a short mini-lecture that usually lasts 15-20 minutes. I spend most of this time reinforcing what was taught in the online videos. I then let students form groups of 3-4 and work on in-class assignments. The in-class assignments cover more open ended problems that have a higher degree of difficulty than the homework or exam questions. If a group gets stuck on an assignment, I’m available to talk with them and guide them through it. I’ve found these interactions to be helpful in identifying key stumbling blocks in the students’ understanding of the subject matter. When these difficulties come to light, I temporarily stop the assignment and walk the whole class through the issue.

The flipped class format has shown several benefits so far. As previously mentioned, in-class assignments allow for immediate recognition and correction of misconceptions. Furthermore, they allow for a deeper understanding of the subject material. A third and unexpected benefit was that my class schedule was not disrupted when week 3 was cancelled due to snow. A traditional class would have been set back a class period, but my students were able to watch the lecture online. I was planning on giving the class a review for the exam, but instead I made an additional video on how to prepare for exam one. The grades for exam one demonstrated that this method of review was still helpful. Overall, flipping this course seems to be extremely beneficial to the students. It has also been a great experience for me as an instructor. I enjoy this course structure much better than the traditional lecture format as it allows me to interact more with the students and become a more effective teacher.

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