"An Interdisciplinary Approach in Statistics Courses for Biology Students"
Ramon Gomez, Florida International University
The National Academies' report of 2003 produced recommendations for a new curriculum in biology that emphasize a strong foundation in quantitative sciences, especially for future research scientists. The report recommended an increased exposure of biology students to statistical methods.
A special undergraduate program for selected biology majors was inaugurated at Florida International University (FIU) in 2007. This undergraduate program identified as QBIC, an acronym for "Quantifying Biology in the Classroom" is rigorous and interdisciplinary. QBIC is a block program with a lock-step curriculum designed to bolster student links between subject areas. The program is intended to improve the quality of education as well as increase the students' likelihood of excelling in Biological Sciences-related careers. QBIC classes do not typically exceed 30 students. The QBIC program highlights the use of statistical methods for analysis of biological/biomedical data and to this end includes two statistics courses during the sophomore year.
The present author developed a teaching-learning approach for these courses based on the use of technology resources and real data to improve students' understanding and motivation, following the program guidelines established by Dr. Samuel Shapiro, now retired and Professor Emeritus at Florida International University. As part of the program's effort to link various subject areas, data generated in the biology and ecology labs by QBIC students are incorporated in numerous examples and evaluation activities. This data is used to illustrate statistical concepts and teach the statistical software.
The traditional approach to teach Statistics consists of using a board during lectures, a textbook as a reference, and supplementary material posted on a website. Two technology resources are integrated in our QBIC courses: the daily use of PowerPoint for lectures as well as statistical software (SPSS) for data computations and analyses. The PowerPoint presentations for all lectures have been created by the present author. A course pack comprising the PowerPoint slides is made available to the students at the beginning of the course, drastically reducing the note-taking process in class. In addition, the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) is very user friendly and has been identified as one of the most commonly used statistical software at college level.
The classroom setting consists of a fully equipped computer lab including about twenty five seats and a projection system. Each student has access to a desktop personal computer. A typical class session begins with a review of the previous lecture contents, from both a conceptual and computational standpoint. Then, the topic for the lecture is introduced and a discussion of the SPSS output for a selected example follows. Accordingly, the instructions for the related software procedure are displayed on the screen as QBIC scholars implement them on a new example, using SPSS and biological-biomedical data previously loaded in their flash memory drives. The instructor supervises this step and provides guidance. When the students complete the SPSS execution of the example, a full discussion is conducted regarding the software output. This type of classes synergistically combines the teacher-centered, student-centered, and interactive styles.
Student evaluations for each course consist of 2-3 partial tests, three SPSS take-home assignments, and a cumulative final exam. The SPSS assignments are designed as team projects, with the purpose of promoting cooperative learning, and account for 20-25% of the final grade. The content of partial tests and the final exam directly related to the use of SPSS is approximately 30% for Statistics I and 70% for Statistics II. The inclusion of statistical software in the evaluation system is anticipated to contribute to the success of this technology-based methodology. Expectations for the students' performance are clearly stated at the beginning of the course. A detailed list of objectives, chapter by chapter, is available in the instructor's website. Likewise, specific objectives for each evaluation activity are described during class time.
Annual cohorts of QBIC scholars have been taking these specially designed Statistics courses since the fall of 2008. While using this methodology QBIC students have been able to learn Statistics more quickly and effectively. This is evidenced by the number of extra topics covered, the acquired knowledge of statistical software, and overall students' performance. The combined passing rate has been 98% for Statistics I (fall of 2008-13) and 94% for Statistics II (spring of 2010-13; present author did not teach the spring of 2009), with combined class average scores of 87% and 83% of total points, respectively. At the same time, retention rates have been 100% during this period.
This interdisciplinary teaching-learning approach has demonstrated to be highly effective and provided QBIC students with a very important tool for future biostatistics courses and research activities in biological sciences. Furthermore, QBIC scholars have used the skills and knowledge derived from these statistics courses while preparing scientific and technical works presented to research conferences.
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