Saturday, March 10, 2018

Earth First: No Wonder Students Forget Biology

Nearly every biology textbook and course begin with molecules, then cells, and work their way up through genetics to organisms, then if there is time a brief look at ecology and evolution, followed by a big section on human anatomy and physiology. If a student wants to know the relevance and importance of something, they quickly learn by the end of the first week to shut up and memorize molecules.

There have been some exceptions. Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine wrote a Prentice-Hall biology textbook in the 1990s that began with ecology, and worked its way down to cells and molecules. There is a 2010 edition of the high school version of book still available on Amazon. The college version has, as far as I can tell, gone extinct, because college biology teachers didn’t learn biology that way and do not want to teach it that way.

I also had a textbook contract for a while, and I wrote the book (and received part of a nice advance), but the book never went into production. I used a wholly original approach. I began and ended with ecology. The first chapter (after an introduction about what science is) was about the flow of energy from the sun, through the food chains, and into outer space. The second chapter was about the cycling of nutrients through the food chains. But, you may ask, how can students learn about these things without first learning about molecules and cells? Well, you don’t have to know much about molecules and cells in order to understand food chains. Then, starting with the third chapter, I worked up from cells to organisms and then ended with communities and ecosystems. That is, I began with autecology and ended with synecology. For synecology, you do have to know a lot about organisms, but for autecology, all you have to know is that plants eat sunshine and hawks eat little animals and decomposers eat everything after it dies.

By beginning and ending with ecology, I placed humans in the context of the Earth. Earth first. There was no escaping it. Ecology could not be skipped.

I did some other original things also. The anatomy and physiology chapters were built around certain ideas, such as exchange of molecules coming in and going out of the organism; integration of processes within the body; and response to environment. Both plants and animals have to do all of these things, but in different ways. Therefore, each chapter had both plant and animal anatomy and physiology. In this way I could explain how, in many ways, an animal is an inside-out plant.

At first, the publisher signed me up and was excited about how different my approach was. Then one of the editors did a chapter-by-chapter lineup of my book with other texts and said, “Um, your chapters don’t line up with theirs.” Of course, that was kind of the point, I thought.

In general, the reviewers were positive about the book. They probably would not have been positive enough, however, to change their whole class and lab schedule to fit in with it. My book would probably have gone the way of the worthy efforts of Miller and Levine. Alas, for marketing reasons, the publisher probably made the right decision to just pay me off and not go into production.

Gordon Orians also took an original approach in his biology textbook. It had three parts: Time, energy, and information. He built the whole science of biology around these three organizing principles. He said, in a symposium I helped to organize back in 1993, that his book got no adoptions, “and I mean that literally.”

All of us maverick textbook writers, however, might be able to trace our roots back to the “BSCS Green Version” of High School Biology. (BSCS was the Biological Curriculum Study Committee.) There was also a Blue Version, which followed the “molecules to man” organization. The Green Version, however, began with placing the student out in nature and having him or her look around and think about what they saw. It began with a rabbit and a raspberry bush. Right there, you have all the ecological interactions, including the rabbit hiding from predators under the bush. Before the end of the first chapter, the student’s eyes were opened to the wonder of the world. Well, that’s the way it worked for me, when I read that chapter back in high school.

“Rabbits. They keep turning up, in nursery tales and comic strips, in candy shops and cabbage patches....and we know about raspberries...about the bushes along the roadside, which tear skirts and trousers and make a fine place for rabbits to hide.” Page one! And by page two the concepts of producers and consumers, and ecological balance, are introduced.

Modern biology textbooks are thick with condensed information. The textbook we use in general biology at my university is "short," a MERE 620 pages not counting glossary and index. But it is short because the information is crammed in, not because it is readable. My students don’t read them. I don’t read them. We use an occasional diagram, such as the genetic code. The only thing we use is the online, computer-graded assignments. If I had begun science with one of those books, instead of a rabbit and a raspberry bush, I might not have become a scientist at all.

This is Stan Rice, reporting to you from the graveyard where I sit with Miller, Levine, Orians, and BSCS.

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