tricks for teaching

Virginia Berg Virginia.Berg at
Tue Sep 12 18:53:51 EST 2000

Fellow Plant-Edders

While I'm still "up" from teaching, I thought I'd pass on a couple of
"tricks" that work teaching a 1-1/4 hour lecture on systematics/taxonomy.
That is all I devote to the topic in my general education class (120
freshmen nonmajors), and it is not an area I would EVER work in, but it
works well for the students.  It is also a topic that works well for
depicting social influences on the course of science.

1. Introducing the whole idea of  systematics: "We're going to take a field
trip." (Class stirs, says yes.) "To a tropical island." (Oh, boy.) "But our
budget is tight, so it will have to be an imaginary one."  (Awwww.)
"There's nobody on the island but a few general education classes like ours,
and we're going to be stuck there for a long time. Our job, your job, is to
make a list of all the plants and put them into some sort of categories.
What categories should we use?  You tell me, but spend 30 seconds to huddle
with your neighbors and come up with them.."  [The 30-second huddles
multiply the class responses, but I think 20 seconds is actually enough.]
The first category suggested was trees (which I wrote on the board),
followed by flowers, grasses, fruits, etc., all written down.  Then I
suggested that we had a survival problem.  The next answers made me form a
second list: food, clothing, poison, medicine, construction
materials....and, at last, entertainment (much laughter).  Then we took
another field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, and came up with ways to
make categories for a wild flower book for visitors:  different colors,
different sizes, different flower characteristics.  This also made a list on
the board.  Sounds like a field guide to me. So the way we classify plants
depends on what our objective is.  Then into Linnaeus, whom I call Carl to
reduce writing.

2. To explain the difference between a classification system that is
convenient but not ancestry-based (Linnaeus') and one that is ancestry-based
(ours, we hope):  You have a giant family reunion, and in addition to the
whole-group picture, the photographer wants some smaller groups, so people
can see the faces. One way to divide people would be by t-shirt color: all
the red t-shirts in one picture, all the blue t-shirts in another....this
works as a way of grouping people, but doesn't put the most related ones
together.  An alternative system would be to put the Smith clan in one
photo, the Jones clan in another, and the Glen clan in a third...  This is a
different way to group people, but in this one, the related people end up
together.  The students get it.

Some written comments (always solicited) from the class:
"I thought that Carl Linneas was a neat guy & very intelligent."
"I did not know that plants had DNA like animals."
"I am an organized person, so I did enjoy learning how plants are organized."
"I also found it interesting that the history of plants is so vivid."
And, from my angry anti-evolutionist, "We can't find the DNA in most plants.
Well if we don't have DNA evidence then how can you explain evolution"

On the whole, the freshman nonmajors are easy to please, as long as you keep
the vocabulary under control.  And they're so grateful their required
science course isn't awful.

I'm always looking for more "stories."

--Gini Berg

Today three billion people will eat rice. 
The genome is being sequenced. 

Virginia Berg  (bergv at
Biology Department 0421
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA 50614
(319) 273-2770 (phone), 273-2893 (fax)


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