Providing Multiple Ways for Students to Demonstrate Mastery of Concepts With BioInteractive’s Stickleback Resources
In the spring of 2020, teachers everywhere engaged in a sort of educational triage as we all entered crisis teaching mode. During the summer, school systems made decisions about how they would conduct classes for the fall, ranging from full in-person instruction to fully remote instruction.
In between lies hybrid teaching. For my school district, hybrid teaching meant teachers would be teaching students remotely and in person simultaneously. This year, I have conducted instruction for what are essentially two different courses at the same time — no easy feat.
The biggest challenge my team (which is composed of three AP/IB biology teachers, including myself) encountered was providing both in-person and remote students with an equitable science learning experience (80% of our students elected to be remote learners). Thankfully, BioInteractive resources made this possible. Because BioInteractive resources are fully digitized, often as Google Docs or PDFs, we could very easily integrate them into the learning management system (LMS) used in our district. This allowed us to use some of the activities we would normally do in person with card sorts or modeling, as digital versions with no loss in instructional fidelity. In fact, it actually allowed us to utilize alternative methods of assessment that we would not have otherwise used with these activities had all our students been in person.
For example, the classic “Modeling the Regulatory Switches of the Pitx1 Gene in Stickleback Fish” activity is a perennial favorite of AP Biology teachers everywhere when they teach gene regulation. We began the activity by having all students view the short film. Now, in a normal school year, we have students construct a series of physical models as indicated in the last part of the activity. We didn’t feel it would be fair for our in-person students to do so while our remote learners would not have the same opportunity. So, to level the playing field, we offered students two options:
- They could construct digital models, as shown here:
- Or they could construct physical models, using whatever was available to them, as shown here:
Students were also required to create a slideshow with recorded narration, in which they explained how they constructed their models and the rationale for their designs, as well as how and why the model would operate under the present conditions. We felt that this form of assessment was an excellent way to determine whether students really understood how activators affected Pitx1 gene expression, and why this gene was expressed in some fish and not others. The kids did an outstanding job of describing and explaining their models and hit the targets we’d hoped they would.
In their recordings, students talked their way through their models, explaining what the components of each model did and how gene expression impacted pelvic spine production in each one. To do this, students had to describe and show step by step, using their models, what happened when the gene switches were present or absent in sticklebacks with or without pelvic spines. Their descriptions were clear and showed that they understood that the presence of a Pitx1 switch and its associated activator were necessary for the fish to produce pelvic spines. Their descriptions also showed that they understood that these activators had specificity — not just any activator could bind to any switch and cause expression of associated genes. These two key takeaways from this activity were critical in being able to gauge what students truly understood about gene regulation. We then asked them to compare these models of eukaryotic gene regulation that they constructed with a prokaryotic model so that we could determine if they understood the differences and similarities between them.
Regardless of how students chose to produce their models, they were still provided with the same opportunity to demonstrate that they understood the function of the models, how the various components interacted, and the result of the interactions among the components. The key here was providing every student with the opportunity to demonstrate the same competencies in different learning environments.
This was not the only activity we had students complete with our hybrid instructional structure. To introduce students to the chi-square test, we had them work through the “Using Genetic Crosses to Analyze a Stickleback Trait” card activity. Normally, we would have students work in pairs to sort the cards and record data. We could not print and send cards to our remote learners, and we were not about to ask them to print the cards themselves. Instead, we made a slide presentation using the images of the cards and distributed that presentation through our LMS. We had our in-person students pair up with our remote learners in Zoom breakout rooms and had them work together to examine the cards and collect data. I monitored the breakout rooms and visited each one to answer questions and clarify anything students found to be confusing.
As a team, we strive to have all students reach the same goal, and providing them with some agency and choice in how they get there is a key component in achieving that success. The digitization of BioInteractive resources truly helped make that possible during this long, strange school year.
Lee Ferguson teaches AP and IB Biology and serves as the team lead for these courses at Allen High School, Texas’s largest high school, where she’s been for 18 of her 24 years in education. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys cooking, baking, traveling, reading nonfiction, and spending time with her husband, who is also an educator.
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