Are We Alone? A New Take on Bio 101

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Image Credit: Smart Sparrow

College students studying mitosis and meiosis next semester will ditch textbooks and immerse themselves in a journey to answer the big question: Are we alone? They’ll explore evolution through a virtual field trip to the Galapagos Islands and use simulations to understand cell life. Far from the traditional Biology 101 lecture, their class will be an immersive experience shaped around problem-solving rather than mastering knowledge.

That’s the idea behind “BioBeyond,” an exploration-based course for non-science majors launched by the Inspark Teaching Network, a group of universities, community colleges, scientists and education experts using digital courseware to teach science. Today the Network announced that the new class will be available for instructors to implement in the Fall 2016 semester.

“BioBeyond” was developed to address notoriously high dropout rates in intro-level, general science courses—especially among nontraditional students. The problem with typical science lectures is they emphasize mastery of knowledge as a goal rather than one of many tools for problem solving, says Dror Ben-Naim, CEO of Smart Sparrow, the Sydney and San Francisco-based learning design platform that developed “BioBeyond.” In the new class, “We’re teaching around questions as opposed to around the syllabus,” Ben-Naim says. “Yes, it meets the curricular requirements of Bio 101, but it’s doing it in the coolest way possible.”

From ‘What?’ to ‘Why?’

Instructors will have the option to teach “BioBeyond” fully online, in a blended format or in face-to-face classroom settings. The course is organized into 50 lessons—amounting to more than 100 hours of teaching and learning—and three interactive projects. Students will move through readings, problem-solving activities, simulations and embedded assessments framed around the question, “Is there life beyond Earth?” Faculty and instructional designers will be able to make adjustments to course content and adaptivity on their own and access real-time data on student progress.

BioBeyond Introduction from Smart Sparrow on Vimeo.

Teaching around profound questions about life in all forms makes the course relevant to students in a way that’s absent from many lecture halls, Ben-Naim says. “When students ask themselves why they’re studying this, it’s because it helps them solve a problem they care about—not because they have to pass it for their major.”

Beyond Barriers

Ben-Naim says the courseware is poised to have the greatest impact at community colleges, which have struggled to improve outcomes for students in general science courses. More than 30 such institutions, including Arizona State University, Miami Dade College and Lone Star College, are currently piloting “BioBeyond.” Ben-Naim says he’s found these schools more open to innovation than many four-year, elite universities when it comes to science education. “Why would the Stanfords and the Harvards migrate out of the lecture model?” he asks, adding that high dropout rates are less of a priority for these universities.

At $25 per student, “BioBeyond” is well below the price of traditional biology textbooks and lab fees, making it appealing to colleges that serve low-income students. (Campbell’s "Biology 10th Edition" runs for $214 on Amazon.) The new courseware's relatively low price tag is in part due to a $4.5 million grant the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Smart Sparrow to build next-generation courseware for science education.

In 2014 Smart Sparrow partnered with ASU to launch “HabWorlds Beyond,” an online course featuring game simulations that teaches students about space exploration. The company is also creating exploration-based chemistry and physics courses, according to Ben-Naim. “We’re reinventing the first year of science.”

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