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“STUDY, you will be surprised with what you can know if you dig deep and question EVERYTHING. This class will have you thinking like a scientist in no time!"
Student comment from the Introductory Biology I course taught by Prof. Alenka.
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Alenka Hlousek-Radojcic is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. She holds a MSc from the University of Zagreb in Croatia, and a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology from Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. Dr. Hlousek-Radojcic, known to her students as Prof. Alenka, is a science educator whose passion for and excellence in education have been recognized with an Outstanding Teaching Award from the 2015 College of Arts and Sciences, and the 2021 Excellence in Honors Teaching award. She was a Fulbright Senior Lecturer who taught at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Soon after she became a Blue Hen, Prof. Alenka joined the team of preceptors, faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and laboratory coordinators to develop and deliver Introductory Biology curricula integrated with General Chemistry for Life Sciences. The integrated format of the Introductory Biology I and 2 curricula is result of many years of collaborations with chemistry faculty. In particular, the rich and rewarding partnership with Prof. Jacqueline Fajardo, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, resulted in a unique Honors Integrated Introductory Biology and Chemistry course sequence that enables students to develop an understanding of the power of natural laws in shaping living systems. Prof. Alenka also teaches the upper-level Introduction to Microbiology course, and co-teaches the graduate level science communication course, Making Science Make Sense, with Dr. Lydia Timmins, Associate Professor of Communication.
As a pragmatic realist, Prof. Alenka acknowledges the power of behavioral responses to environmental stimuli (affective responses). However, she considers that meaningful learning occurs when it includes the processes of discovery by a learner (cognitive constructivist) in a collaborative environment (social constructivist). It is her student, the learner, who constructs a personal knowledge map, not she, the educator, who presents it. Although Prof. Alenka's own education emphasized didactic styles of instruction, with roots in medieval times, these experiences prompted her to part ways with that tradition. While she understands the historic role educators had in refining, condensing, and transferring knowledge for centuries, she is aware of the profound effects of the technology revolution. Moreover, she recognizes the diverse skill sets required to develop comprehension of biological systems. Thus, drawing on her personal experiences and on the findings from cognitive science and discipline-based education research, she has evolved into an ardent practitioner and a promoter of student-centered active learning pedagogies.
The members of the Honors Integrated Introductory Biology and Chemistry teaching team, TAs*, preceptor#, and faculty^, prepare for the residential lab on solutions by constructing home-made hydrometers. Zoom panel – top: Carly Byron*, prof. Alenka^, middle: Ryan Lapointe*, Vivek Gogineni*, Prof. Fajardo^, bottom: Jordan Mohr#.
While Prof. Alenka understands that two semesters of student-centered curricula are not a panacea for the transformation of an apprentice into an expert biologist, she is a firm believer of the benefits of activities that facilitate development of student communication, science processing, metacognitive, problem solving, and collaborative skills. A student who claims to know, but is unable to verbalize their knowledge, is mis-leading. A student who diligently incorporates numbers in the formula to generate an answer that makes no sense, is most likely not thinking. A student who, when presented with a problem, is unable to ask questions to unpack the problem, may get discouraged and give up. Even a conscientious student who reads the assigned resources and makes copious notes needs help. While this student's work ethic is commendable, it is time consuming and often ineffective.
How does Prof. Alenka facilitate development of the skill and knowledge base that helps her students form better organized, more easily retrievable, discipline-specific content knowledge? Her students:
Two straw hydrometers are tested in 0.1% table salt (NaCl) aqueous solution. The hydrometers were calibrated in a series of salt and sucrose solutions. Calibrated hydrometers were used in guided inquiry chemistry lab and in an open inquiry interdisciplinary cellulosic ethanol module to measure ethanol production by yeasts.
How did COVID-19 imposed limitations affect delivery of these courses? Like most UD courses, the courses Prof. Alenka taught had to be converted to an online format. Recognizing the challenges of introducing first year students to the college environment, the Honors teaching team was prompted to identify essential features of the course. The search of options to preserve the experiential and social learning components led to the development and implementation of residential lab activities; i.e., activities students could accomplish where they lived. With the completion of the second semester the benefits of these organically made, environmentally friendly exercises, were significant. Residential lab activities provided authentic experiential learning experiences (Figure 1). They broke apart the monotony of Zoom sessions while facilitating the development of the sense of the learning community for first-year students. How did this work? Students were involved in a nearly every aspect of the experimental process and the teaching team was there to assist. Students set up their own experiments, and learnt from their own mistakes. Often, students had to adjust the procedure to their own residential setting. With no answers to rely on, they had to sharpen their observational, classifying, measuring, documenting, and communication skills. While students did not use a digital micropipettor or spectrophotometer, they engaged in the complex process of scientific exploration in more intimate ways. They also discovered that failure is part of the research process and that this itself provides an opportunity to expand knowledge.