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Dr. Jessica Goldstein, PhD

Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences at Barnard College; Introductory Laboratory Director, Biology Department at Barnard College

Dr. Goldstein teaches the Introductory Biology course at Barnard College. This course is a two-semester series that typically enrolls 250 students each semester and is required for pre-health students as well as a number of different Barnard STEM majors; it is taught as one large lecture section that meets for 50 minutes three times a week. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Goldstein and her colleagues had to rethink course structure and student engagement in this foundational course. Dr. Goldstein met the moment by enhancing a sense of belonging in a large enrollment class, creating opportunities for student collaboration and active learning, and allowing students to form connections between course content and broader social issues. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Goldstein did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia.    

Responding to the Moment 

In preparation for the 2020-2021 academic year, a major change to this introductory series was implemented by a team of faculty and staff who are involved in Introductory Biology curriculum design and teaching. This curricular change addressed two main departmental goals: (1) respond to the formidable challenges of teaching remotely during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and (2) implement DEI-related goals, which were brought front and center after events that transpired in the summer of 2020, such as the murder of George Floyd. Specifically, we piloted a program in which weekly discussion sections were added to the lecture class to provide both a learning community for students as well as a forum for contextualizing the discipline of biology within a broader societal framework. The three main goals of these curricular changes can be summarized as:

  • enhance a sense of belonging in a large-enrollment class  
  • create opportunities for student collaboration and active learning 
  • allow students to form connections between biology and broader social issues 

To achieve these three related goals, we created pilot curricula for weekly 50-minute discussion sections in which students were divided into groups of 15-20 with one discussion instructor. These discussion sections provided students with the opportunity to contextualize material from the lecture class and consider science from multiple perspectives beyond scientific content, such as: who asks scientific questions and how does that impact what type of knowledge is gained? Who benefits from scientific knowledge? Who is left out from scientific spaces and how can that be addressed? For example, when the structure and function of DNA is being described in the lecture class, the discussion assignment focuses on the misogynistic and racist background of James Watson (who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on the discovery of DNA), and the exclusion of Rosalind Franklin from recognition for her contribution to this scientific discovery.  

Enhance a Sense of Belonging in a Large-Enrollment Class 

In addition to the creation of discussion sections, the team of Introductory Biology faculty and staff established a seminar series that was integrated into the Introductory Biology coursework. Through the Barnard College Provost’s Office, course instructors received funding to recruit diverse scientists to give seminars about their work and their scientific journey appropriate for introductory biology students. All seminar speakers are compensated with an honorarium for their time and effort. The seminars are given during class time so that all students can attend. We have hosted speakers both in-person and via Zoom; Zoom provides flexibility for both the students and the seminar speaker, while in-person provides a unique opportunity to have more unscripted interactions with the seminar speaker. Research has shown that incorporating contributions of diverse scientists into the curriculum can help to shift stereotypes and address issues of equity and diversity. Furthermore, we incorporated an optional “coffee hour” with the seminar speaker in which students were invited to interact with the seminar speaker in an informal setting, learning more about both their science and their career trajectory, and humanizing the scientist. 

Encouragingly, preliminary data from anonymous student surveys indicates that these additions to the course (e.g., discussion sections, seminar series) are providing a critical student community to counteract the reduced sense of belonging in a large class. This remains the case, even after the return to in-person learning. 

Create Opportunities for Student Collaboration and Active Learning 

During the course of the semester, students are exposed to diverse perspectives from assigned topics, readings, and peer-discussions. They actively engage with the material by participating in small group discussions (2-4 students) within their discussion classes. Furthermore, discussion instructors received training on how to facilitate conversations on difficult topics in the form of workshops developed in collaboration with Barnard’s Center for Engaged Pedagogy and Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Participation in these discussion sections accounts for 10% of the students’ lecture grade, decreasing the reliance on high-stakes multiple choice exams for the overall course grade. Furthermore, as part of their discussion participation grade, students undertake a values affirmation activity that has been reported to counteract stereotype threat and help URM achievement in large introductory biology classes.  

Allow Students to Form Connections Between Course Content and Broader Social Issues 

To help make connections between the seminar and the curriculum, students actively engage with the seminar material during their small-group discussion sections – they consider both the scientific content of the material and the personal journey of each scientist. As a complement to the seminar series, in the associated lab portion of this biology course, students are asked to research the accomplishments of a diverse scientist highlighted by the Scientist Spotlight Project, an initiative founded by faculty at Foothill College and San Francisco State University. This initiative promotes diversity and inclusion by describing the work of scientists who do not fit the typical scientist stereotype. 

Students have reported that they appreciate the opportunity to make connections between science and society in a way that had not been formalized in their STEM education to date. More formal assessments are in progress to determine the impact that these curricular changes have had on students’ academic trajectories and their feelings about belonging in STEM fields. 

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Start small and use available resources. 

Although it is not feasible for most instructors to rehaul an entire course, advice for the university teaching community could involve implementing a subset of these interventions. For instance, one could imagine intentionally highlighting the work of diverse academics in their field when possible, increasing the number of low-stakes assessments, and/or devoting some class time to helping students make connections between lecture content and broader societal issues. Furthermore, collaborating with the Center for Teaching and Learning can provide helpful assistance with planning and implementation of curricular changes.