Science Faculty Create E-Books to Improve Student Learning

Davidson science professors have recently published electronic textbooks in biology, physics and astronomy. But the most important aspect of their work isn't the technical process of bringing text, data, video and interactive exercises together as a "digital learning experience." More important is their use of the new format to support more effective pedagogy in science education they have been promoting for years.

The e-books also herald a new model of academic publishing that bypasses traditional publishing houses, delivering to students a more focused and effective learning experience at far lower cost.

Integrating Concepts in Biology and Astronomy: An Interactive Introduction have been created by Davidson faculty members as primary course texts. The biology e-book is being published by Trunity Publishing, a two-year-old company that exclusively produces and markets e-books.

The astronomy e-book has been custom created with open source software by faculty in the physics department. It integrates text, video and interactive simulations in a package that is downloaded once from iTunes, and then runs internally without needing a constant internet connection. The physics professors have also published three additional e-books – Physlet Physics Volumes 1 and 2 and Physlet Quantum Physics – which provide free interactive resources for teaching introductory physics and introductory and advanced quantum mechanics courses.


Traditional Pedagogy Lacking

All five books, however, arose from the conviction of their authors that traditional methods of teaching their disciplines were not serving students well and needed to be changed.

"Introductory biology had become a mile wide and an inch deep," said Professor of Biology Malcolm Campbell. "The traditional way of presenting information selects for students who are really good at memorizing, but it excludes students who aren't. Now, after four years teaching with a new, data driven pedagogy, I hear from students who say they didn't think they could do science, but now realize they are good at science."

Campbell's ideas about teaching began to take shape in 2006, when he served on a committee charged with overhauling the Advanced Placement test in biology. The experience left him determined to write a new textbook for Davidson's popular two-semester sequence of introductory biology. He recruited departmental colleague Chris Paradise and math professor Laurie Heyer to collaborate on the project. Their conviction was further steeled by a 2009 initiative from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to develop a new learning strategy for biology with a special focus on the introductory course.


Seeking "Vision & Change"

The initiative resulted in a document called "Vision and Change" which calls for a multi-faceted, systems-level approach to biological discovery and analysis of research data, rather than memorization of detailed facts. It states, "...undergraduates need to understand the process of science, the interdisciplinary nature of the new biology, and how science is closely integrated within society."

In Integrating Concepts in Biology, Campbell, Heyer and Paradise lead students to analyze original research, figures and databases to help gain an understanding of five "Big Ideas" which permeate all of biology from molecules to ecosystems – information, evolution, cells, emergent properties and homeostasis. It addresses each of those at five levels of organization – molecules, cells, organisms, populations and ecological systems.

Each chapter includes "Bio-Math Explorations" written by Heyer, three-to-five case studies, and ELSI (ethical, legal and social implications) case studies that make science relevant. For instance, they raise the question of using animals in research, and the wisdom of seeding the ocean with iron to promote algae blooms that might help curb rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Paradise said, "It's completely different from other intro bio textbooks. We show students the data as it appeared in professional journals, then ask students to critically think about it. But we don't tell them the answers. It puts the process of science back into biology."


Physicists Keep Innovating

Like the trio writing the biology text, Davidson physics professors Mario Belloni and Wolfgang Christian had for years heard the call to teach in a more effective, non-traditional way. Christian was an enthusiastic innovator of interactive learning at Davidson as far back as 1986, when he established the first Ethernet network on campus to create a physics computation center.

In 1995, he and Belloni began creating online exercises they called "Physlets." The small programs demonstrated concepts in physics such as optics, binary stars, the moment of inertia of solids and rocket propulsion. By manipulating various aspects of the simulation and observing how the outcome changes-instead of memorizing formulas-students develop a more comprehensive understanding of the material.

The Physlet project was so successful that it led to three traditionally formatted books – Physlets, Physlet Physics and Physlet Quantum Physics, and more than 1,000 interactive exercises. The Physlet Physics book also was translated into six languages.


A Long Education Campaign

Christian and Belloni have crusaded for years through publications, workshops and conference presentations to demonstrate Physlets and show the world the better way to teach physics they were developing.

When it came time to produce a second edition of Physlet Physics and Physlet Quantum Physics, the pair decided to make these texts freely available. They began by producing two sites on ComPADRE, the national digital library for physics, to house their interactive curricular material. As companions to these sites, they also created their three e-books. The work was done in house from scratch, without going through an outside publisher. These e-books have been available since July at the Google Play store and through iTunes, and have already been downloaded in 30 countries.

The physicists aren't resting on their laurels. They are already testing use of a small, inexpensive sensor that will allow students to acquire real-time input of factors such as temperature, acceleration, light, humidity, magnetic fields and infrared heat.

Belloni also has collaborated with Visiting Assistant Professor Kristen Thompson on the interactive introductory astronomy e-book. Belloni and Thompson wrote the text, while Belloni and Christian have written about 20 interactive simulations concerning concepts such as planetary motion, phases of the moon and the function of lenses. In order to keep the cost low, the authors have created their own figures, and are using photographs taken by themselves and students.

The preliminary edition of the astronomy e-book is being used this semester as the primary text in Thompson's introductory astronomy class at no charge to students. They can access the e-book anywhere and anytime using an iPad that the college made available to each of them through an innovation grant from the President's Office. Students will turn in their iPads at the conclusion of the course so they can be reused in future classes.


No More Door Stops

The three biology text authors had planned to publish ICB through a traditional textbook company. But following three years of tortuous and tense reviews and revisions with one company, they realized that traditional publishers were unwilling and unable to accommodate the "Vision and Change" pedagogy. Traditional publishers are highly experienced and successful at producing the familiar, door-stop-thick texts that line the bottom row of a bookcase in Campbell's office. Each is well over 1,000 pages long, consists of several editions, and costs students as much as $300. In addition, no teacher can use the entire book. They pick and choose chapters that best support their syllabi.

Production of those traditional biology textbooks can cost up to $1 million. Campbell noted, "You have to sell a lot of books to cover that investment, and publishers are loath to sacrifice their existing cash cows and try something new."

Heyer added, "Early reviews convinced the major publishers it would be risky to publish our book because it was dramatically different from other introductory books. We were trying to change the paradigm. Their stance was distressing. We went through some difficult times."

Campbell, Heyer and Paradise were left with a book they believed was the best way to teach and excite students about biology, but had no way to print and deliver it to the waiting world. The authors consulted with the physicists about their method of publishing, but what worked for physics did not sound promising for biology.


Surprise Funding

Things were bleak until an "angel" appeared to save the day. Noted Princeton geneticist David Botstein, an acquaintance of Campbell, had received a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He was aware of Campbell's prior work in education on a national level and gave Campbell $100,000 "to keep doing what you're doing."

Campbell was eager to use the gift to reinvigorate the book project, but knew that he was still woefully short of funds to produce a typical textbook. In looking for alternatives, Paradise learned of Trunity, a cloud-based self-publishing system that can accommodate text, videos, images and recordings in an e-book. And the $100,000 turned out to be sufficient to hire artists, copy editors and a copyright "wrangler" for a Trunity e-book.

The final version of Integrating Concepts in Biology was ready just a few days prior to the beginning of fall semester classes. Instead of sending students to the bookstore to spend $250 on a hardbound book that would be only partially referenced, students are paying just $35 for each of the two semesters of their e-book.

As a web-based publication, there will be no need in the future for updated editions of ICB. While Trunity supplies the platform, the company leaves all the creation and editing of material to the authors. Authors can update material and make corrections at any time, and those edits instantly appear on each user's version of the e-book.

Among ICB's many interactive features, users can add their own electronic notes to the copy, participate in discussion forums, access social media, execute searches and take quizzes to test their comprehension of the material.

This month, a new Trunity iPad app was launched that allows the e-book to run on smart phones, tablets or desktop machines without the need to remain connected to a network.


Bio Book Sales Flourishing

Though the e-book appeared only a few days prior to the fall semester, the author team's promotion of it at conferences and informal meetings convinced teachers at Gettysburg College, Dickinson, Michigan State, Transylvania and University of Richmond to purchase it. It also has been used by two AP biology teachers at nearby high schools, and one high school AP teacher has signed a five-year contract to substantially reduce the cost per book. The ICB authors are currently working with Trunity to plan a marketing campaign for the book that will include webinars to teach people how to use the platform and the text.

Heyer believes the Davidson experience supports the notion that all academic texts will eventually be published electronically. "The current paper model is not sustainable," she said. "The cost of hard copy books is out of control, and students are demanding something more flexible."

Belloni noted that many students say they still prefer a paper textbook, but most change their mind quickly when they begin using an e-book. "The core question is whether an e-book can support pedagogy better than a printed text," he said. "We believe that features such as interactivity, simulations, reasonable cost and instant links to resources and videos anywhere provide a positive answer to that question."

Paradise added, "We have found students to be very enthusiastic about this approach. Our course evaluations have been positive and we are seeing student retention of content and concepts."


Proof Positive

In fact, the biologists can support that contention with data. They published a study of course outcomes in 2013 in the journal CBE Life Sciences Education that compared a class section that used a traditional text book with one that used a draft of what would become the e-book. The study found that students using ICB acquired a more accurate perception of biology as a discipline and displayed a more realistic evaluation of their scientific abilities than did the students using a traditional textbook. Students using ICB also retained the core concepts longer and improved their data analysis skills better than students using a traditional textbook.

These e-book creations put Davidson faculty in the vanguard of an electronic publishing movement that gives instructional control back to teachers. But Heyer repeated the idea that the real importance of their work is the new pedagogy, which is facilitated by the e-books. She concluded, "The e-books demonstrate a dedication to new and better ways of teaching, and that's what we do here."



  • September 23, 2014


  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Inside Davidson
  • News Headlines