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Model building as a pedagogy approach in biology

Kundan Sengupta

Model building proves instructive for students and teachers of biology. 

Students at IISER Pune build a model of DNA Structure
Students at IISER Pune build a model of DNA Structure  (Photo: Kundan Sengupta)

It is a constant challenge for instructors to develop novel approaches of pedagogy, especially for introductory biology (Bio101) for the first year undergraduate students. Every year about 200 students are admitted into the five-year Integrated B.S/M.S program of IISER, out of which at least 60% of the students have not studied biology at their high school level, while the rest of the students have studied advanced biology. It is therefore a formidable task for the instructors to keep students engaged in class and interested in biology. Reasonably well-structured course content with periodic evaluation serve as useful indicators of the level of comprehension of biology by students from diverse backgrounds. 

As a test case, we considered a novel approach for students to build models to represent any biological process or phenomenon as a part of their continuous evaluation instead of the usual quiz and exams for the first time at IISER Pune. There were no pre-conditions in terms of selecting topics. However, an important criterion was to ensure cost effectiveness and eco friendliness in terms of concept and design of the models. The class of 200 students was sub-divided into smaller groups of 10 students each. Each group sent in a title and abstract of the model that they intended to prepare. 

Needless to mention, the momentum of building novel models built up closer to the deadline. A palpable sense of excitement prevailed on the morning of the exhibition. All students arrived early to set up their models. Amazingly, models ranged from demonstrating fundamental concepts of evolution from evolutionary bottlenecks to cell division, motor protein function, image formation on the retina, nerve impulse conduction and many more. What was particularly striking was the extent of innovation and simplicity that each model brought forth, using simple hand crafted material from paper and Styrofoam. Students also unleashed their artistic potential. This event underscored that even students not initiated or interested in biology were extremely motivated scientists to apply their skills across disciplines from math, physics and chemistry in devising novel approaches to demonstrate fundamental concepts in biology. A distinct advantage with first year students is their unbridled and unfettered thoughts that translated into action. Students were truly excited to discuss the science and the concept behind each of the models that they had created. 

For instance, a group created a model demonstrating protein synthesis from a strand of mRNA as template. Remarkably, the model was fashioned out of a cardboard box, with a strip of paper representing mRNA with the codons indicated. Pushing the paper through one end of the box spewed out a chain of styrofoam balls from the other end depicting protein synthesis! A simple demonstration clarified a fundamental concept and any amount of lectures wouldn’t help drive home this concept as well. Another elegant model demonstrated reflex action. A simple battery operated circuit with a live wire flinched instantly when brought closer to water. 

All in all this event was truly a learning experience for the instructors as much it was for the students, since this highlighted the fact that students really do not need constant spoon-feeding and leaving them alone from time to time goes a long way in harnessing their latent talent, creativity, and curiosity.