An electronic biology textbook published in August by three Davidson faculty members is receiving high praise from an internationally eminent scientist. But he isn't impressed so much by the technical feat of creating a "digital learning experience" as he is by the book's novel, highly effective method of teaching students about science.
Professor Bruce Alberts, a prominent UC-San Francisco biochemist with a strong commitment to improvement of STEM education, recently wrote a laudatory Foreword for Integrating Concepts in Biology, an e-textbook published by Davidson faculty members Malcolm Campbell, Laurie Heyer and Chris Paradise.
Alberts speaks with authority. He is a past two-term president of the National Academy of Sciences, Editor-in-Chief for Science magazine, and this year received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama. He is also a longtime acquaintance of Davidson's Professor of Biology Malcolm Campbell, who in 2006 received the American Society for Cell Biology's Bruce Alberts Award for excellence in science education.
When the Davidson faculty members began considering who could effectively write a Foreword to their new e-textbook, Alberts was at the top of their list because of his stature in the field, his acquaintance with Campbell and the vision all parties shared for a better way to teach science.
Alberts once said, "The type of ‘science as inquiry' teaching we need emphasizes logical, hands-on problem solving, and it insists on having evidence for claims that can be confirmed by others. It requires work in cooperative groups, where those with different types of talents can discover them, and at the same time develop self-confidence and an ability to communicate effectively with others."Professor of Biology Malcolm Campbell concurred. "Introductory biology had become a mile wide and an inch deep," he said. "The traditional way of presenting information selects for students who are really good at memorizing, but it excludes students who aren't."
Both the content and intent of Integrating Concepts in Biology address the concern that traditional methods of teaching science were not serving students well.
In his Foreword to the e-text, Alberts offered high praise to the authors. He called the book "an important new experiment in textbook publishing." He wrote, "Hopefully the availability of this text will stimulate even more innovation around the globe, accompanied by scientifically based research to measure effects on learning. Only in this way can we produce the advances in education that are urgently needed to facilitate a much greater appreciation and understanding of science by humanity-an outcome on which the future of civilization may depend."
Alberts testified that "Campbell, Heyer, and Paradise stress the importance of all students learning to appreciate ‘science as a way of knowing,' paying much less attention to laying out the large collection of ‘facts' that biologists have discovered about the living world... This new book represents a very ambitious attempt to rethink how biology is taught, and I commend the authors for their courage and originality."
The Davidson authors launched their e-book project in the fall semester, with Campbell and Assistant Professor of Biology Kevin Smith using it in two sections of the college's introductory biology course.
The e-text leads students to analyze original research, figures and databases to help gain an understanding of five "Big Ideas" that permeate all of biology from molecules to ecosystems–information, evolution, cells, emergent properties, and homeostasis. In addition, 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 Professor of Mathematics Heyer, three-to-five case studies, and ELSI (ethical, legal and social implications) case studies that illustrate the relevance of science in society. For instance, students are asked to consider the ethics 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.
Professor of Biology Paradise said, "It's completely different from other intro biology textbooks. We show students the data as it appeared in professional journals, then ask students to critically think about the experimental evidence. But we don't tell them the answers. This approach puts the process of science back into biology."
More generally, e-books 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 is published by Trunity Publishing, a two-year-old company that exclusively produces and markets e-books. Whereas a typical paperbound introductory biology textbook costs as much as $300, ICB is $35 for each of the two semesters of material it covers. And since the book is modular, purchasers can buy only the individual chapters that interest them, rather than the entire volume.
As a web-based publication, there is no need for updated editions of ICB. The authors can update material and make corrections at any time, and those edits instantly appear on each user's version of the e-text. In fact, individual professors who use Integrating Concepts in Biology can customize the text to address their specific class requirements.
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."
In fact, the Davidson authors have data to support their confidence in the effectiveness of electronic textbooks. 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 Integrating Concepts in Biology. 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.
This e-text puts these three Davidson faculty members in the vanguard of an electronic publishing movement that gives instructional control back to teachers and challenges students to think like scientists. Heyer concluded, "The e-books demonstrate a dedication to new and better ways of teaching, and that's what we do at Davidson."
Read more about science faculty members' efforts to improve student learning.