Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Visit to High School Biology Classes

Last Monday I went back to my old high school (Nepean High School in Ottawa, Canada) to visit with students in various biology classes. My host was Susanne Gerards who teaches grade 11 biology and grade 12 biology. She's also the lead author on the biology textbook [Biology 12] that the students use in the grade 12 courses.

I was "guest lecturer" in two grade 12 biology classes and one grade 11 biology class. The grade 12 students had just finished the sections on biochemistry and molecular genetics (information flow) so they were up on most things that I blog about. I was surprised at the amount of information they had just leaned—it's comparable to what we teach in our introductory biochemistry course except that there's less emphasis on structures and nothing on enzyme kinetics.

The students were wonderful. Many of them are going to take science courses in university. (They all had their university acceptances.) Only a few of them are interested in medicine.1

The grade 11 students had finished their section on evolution. Most of them thought that evolution was driven by changes in the environment but they had at least been exposed to random genetic drift. It took a little prompting to that get that out of them. (I think Susanne was a bit embarrassed!). My impression was that the students understood quite a bit about evolution and this was a pleasant surprise.

One of the classes had just finished a discussion about junk DNA when a student raised it in class. He claimed that recent evidence proved that most of our genome has a function. I think the students were still a bit confused about genomes but at least they talked about it. (We didn't talk about it much when I was there.)

I'm pretty sure that the most important thing the students learned was that you actually get paid to be a graduate student! They were also surprised about the relatively high salaries that professors earn when they're hired. I'm hoping that some of them will pursue a career in science.

Susanne Gerards and I had an excellent lunch in Westboro where the restaurants and shops are quite a bit more upscale than they were in the 1960s when I lived there. We also had a lot of fun talking about science after class. With teachers like that I'm confident that Ontario high school students are getting a good science education.

1. Hardly any of them were going to the University of Toronto in spite of the fact that it's the best university in Canada. I'm not sure why they were avoiding it. The most popular universities were Queen's, McGill, and Waterloo.


  1. I too have been very surprised by the depth of molecular biology in current high-school biology textbooks. Of course many teachers won't teach this depth, and most students appear to have completely forgotten it by the time thay get to university.

    1. I am biased, but I always thought that they should take some of the time given to details of molecular biology and use it to get students to understand what natural selection is (and isn't). Perhaps it is more important to understand the basics of how evolution works than to know in great detail how the ribosome works, or what a restriction enzyme is. Molecular biologists who have campaigned to get lots of molecular and cell biology into the high school curriculum bear some of the responsibility for evolutionary biology getting pushed off the other end of the curriculum. (I'd be happy to hear that the picture I am painting is an inaccurate caricature).

    2. I'm just heading into teaching high school biology in the southeastern US. I'm getting a lot of ideas about how to address basic biochemistry from Rosie's Useful Genetics class from Coursera(a great class!). But I do think that we need to keep it basic and at the same time tie it into evolution. There is a lot to cover and I could spend weeks on evolution alone!
      It seems that high school biology has moved to a more concept-driven overview of life science. And I think biochemistry and evolution are the biggest overall concepts.

  2. I suspect your footnote about U of T was tongue-in-cheek. Nonetheless, my daughter will be attending there this fall, and she had her College orientation last week. There was also a separate session for parents, and one of the most common concerns expressed there was the perception that U of T is much stingier with the marks than other universities, and students attending there might therefore be jeopardizing their chances of getting into graduate or professional schools. When we compared notes with our daughter afterwards, I was surprised to hear that many of the prospective students expressed the same fear. I wasn't aware of that reputation myself and, anyway, I doubt it would have changed my kid's decision. But I thought you might be interested to hear that, and I'd like to hear your comments.

    1. I am aware of the fact that some universities accept students with lower high school grades but give out grades that are far higher than those you can get at the University of Toronto.

      Most of the good universities have similar grading standards.

    2. I was kind of surprised that the representatives of the University at our session basically confirmed that the perception was accurate, but that it wouldn't matter because graduate programs know the standards of the various universities and judge the grades of applicants accordingly.

      Fortunately, our daughter has the same attitude we do: If there is a school that has higher, tougher standards, that's the school you want to attend, not avoid.

    3. I think the choice depends on the situation. In my home country, at the university were I did my basic degree, grade averages for my course are pretty low because the grading is very demanding. If you plan to stay in the country it's OK, because employers and universities know how grading works. But if you plan to move to another country no one will have any notion of what those grades actually mean. They will simply translate the grades directly to whatever system they use and you will be at a disadvantage. When I moved to another country my grades "sucked" compared to everyone else. Fortunately my supervisor at the time didn't really care. When I started taking compulsory courses for the PhD I got the best grades of my life, which were pretty normal by their standards but were insanely good when compared directly with what I had before. This had nothing to do with having better teachers or anything. It's simply that the grading is much more lax where I am now, which happens to be one of the best Univs in Europe.

      I remember reading a post by professor Moran where he stated that prospective PhD students get thoroughly scrutinized for grades etc before being accepted to a PhD at his department. I guess that I would have never have a chance of joining his department that being the case.

    4. @Larry Moran stated,

      'Most of them thought that evolution was driven by changes in the environment but they had at least been exposed to random genetic drift. It took a little prompting to that get that out of them. (I think Susanne was a bit embarrassed!). "

      Did you read her textbook? I know you didn't. If you did, you would know why she was embarrassed, because genetic drift is not the mechanism that drives the "evolution"-according to her textbook. She is the old school mate that relies on moron Dawkins fairy-tail of random mutations and natural selection-thank evolution for that. This means, Canadians are taught shit according to your shit hihihi

    5. I read her textbook. The grade 12 course doesn't cover evolution so it's not in the book. The grade 11 textbook is Campbell's biology and it has excellent coverage of evolution.

  3. It must be very nice to be back to the place where you learned after all those years. So, you teach biology... I do love bio and in fact I do high school bio/high school biology tutoring for part time. It's a very interesting subject for me.