Advancing Science Instruction on a Rural Campus

Orianna Carter, Ohio University

To be an effective educator, one should embrace openness to learning. Thus, it is fortunate for me to teach in a discipline where I must constantly keep abreast of new knowledge and advances in technology. Outstanding teachers and mentors, who motivated me through their passion for the study of life, with its myriad levels, nurtured my own enthusiasm for biology: from the miniscule to the magnificent ecosystems. As an educator, my primary motivation is to evoke similar feelings in my students, science majors and non-majors alike, while caring for their intellectual and emotional growth.

"The only obstacle to discovering the truth is being convinced you already know it."
— Ashleigh Brilliant

Appalachian Medicinals Field Trip
To accomplish this goal, I use teaching strategies highlighting interdependency among organisms: integrating the study of plants and animals through examples of symbiotic relationships and shared evolutionary survival strategies. This holistic approach to teaching biology lends itself towards implementing themes in environmental sustainability and community stewardship. I believe a global thinking approach encourages awareness in the general student population and brings real world relevance to the discipline. Sustainability themes (problems, examples, projects) offer an attractive template for all students to engage and think critically in complex and capacious issues (civic engagement and responsibility). My commitment to this pedagogical approach is exemplified through serving as a SENCER Leadership Fellow (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities). The SENCER teaching philosophy is based on active engagement in matters of civic importance in the community and stimulates student involvement in a value based, multidisciplinary learning experience (SENCER 2011). Consistent with SENCER's goals, I deem my educator role at Ohio University Southern is to (a) get more students interested and engaged in learning in STEM courses, (b) help students connect STEM learning to their other studies, and (c) strengthen students' understanding of science and their capacity for responsible work, citizenship and their place in a greater environment.


To be an effective educator also means that I must understand the local value system and learning modalities. Thus, I have been incorporating a storytelling format, particularly in our introductory biology courses, to reach our unique student body within its own historical framework (Carter, 2011). Most of our students reside in poverty-stricken Lawrence County, Ohio, and have limited access to travel outside of their communities. We represent one of the least educated regions in the nation. Located in the Appalachian Southeastern Ohio region, our students often have inadequate science backgrounds, are the first of their family to attend college, and are simultaneously juggling single parenting and full-time job responsibilities (Spohn, et al, 1992; Schwartz, 2004). Appalachian residents demonstrate lower academic achievement levels than the national average (Haaga, 2004). For example, in 2006 only 78 percent had graduated from high school, and while 30 percent matriculated at a college or university (compared to the national rate of 62 percent), only 7.9 percent eventually attained a baccalaureate degree (Harmon et al. 2003). County-level 2008 data from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that 27 percent of children under 18 in the region were impoverished, compared with state and national averages of 18 percent. In this socioeconomic climate, residents of the region who do enroll in college are in danger of failure.

The Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative (ARSI) ten-year study reports there exists an underlying ambivalence towards schooling in Appalachia and that, "Many of the few jobs in this region have centered on mining and more recently the penal industry, both of which only offer relatively low paying, hourly wages to workers. So for many Appalachians there is no strong immediate evidence that schooling and success in schooling leads to better economic opportunities or life style" (Inverness Research Associates, 2009). Furthermore, Haaga reports that a greater risk of college drop out is observed in distressed Appalachian counties, "partly through family environment (limited expectations for educational success), and when not counteracted by encouragement from teachers and other early mentors can be as great an impediment as the direct and opportunity costs of college attendance".

Engagement through Stories and Community

With fewer opportunities available for training scientists, my approach shifted towards developing active learning and regionally relevant studies. According to Dr. Greenley, Director of the Appalachian Ohio Scholars Program (personal communication), the regional population is steeped in a 'hands-on' culture that has traditionally shown little regard for theoretical models of learning. In the classroom, I elaborate on unfamiliar concepts through use of analogies among various biological systems and the human species (most interesting to students), e.g. highlighting common strategies in plant and human defenses. I take care to introduce, reinforce and then build upon the major concepts of the sub discipline throughout each term. The most difficult to conceptualize and complex ideas are delivered in a storytelling format with relevance to the region's history. This approach allows students to move beyond rote memorization and begin to truly comprehend the guiding principles of life sciences. The impact of this technique has been proven to successfully cross learning barriers fostered from years of cultural preconceptions and/or negative learning experiences (NRC, 1999; Mansouri, et al, 2009). My storytelling approach is often used as a springboard for addressing civic consequences, i.e. connecting the rich tradition of medicinal plants in Appalachian culture and the devastating effects of coal mining to environmental health.

It is always a good practice to stimulate student interest in the topic through involving them in their own instruction, e.g. breakout sessions to discuss thought provoking study questions. I attempt to explain challenging concepts concisely and in the most accessible way available, incorporating online discussion blogs, YouTube visualizations and textbook publisher-provided student tutoring sites. In a content-rich course, I look for cues that students have become "lost" in the course of explanation (especially in biology where ideas tend to build upon a growing foundation of knowledge). My non-traditional students are frequently more prepared for class and can be relied upon to share, not just their understanding of the subject matter, but also their experiences. Participation in this manner engages younger, less prepared students who are easily frustrated. Establishing open dialogue removes the isolating factor, as the 'smart ones' are more than happy to mentor their peers. This technique might not be effective in all learning environments, but rural students are still courteous to the viewpoints of elders in their community. Due to the controversial nature of teaching biological science in rural America, the value of this approach cannot be overstated.

Innoculating Agar Broth

Teaching Evolution in Rural America

The science community recognizes that success in the biological sciences is predicated on acceptance of its two major themes: the basis of evolutionary life and the cell theory (NABT, 2011). A negative outcome of rejecting either concept would logically present a limiting factor in student learning and progress in the sciences. In my experience with Appalachian rural students (even those choosing a career in the sciences), the topic of evolution has traditionally been met with considerable resistance. I attribute this attitude to the predominance of local faith-based community acceptance of Intelligent Design (Discovery Institute). A nearby, long-established Creation Museum (Petersburg, KY) accounting for the origin of the universe with humans and dinosaurs coexisting has never been demonstrably challenged within the hierarchy of a colloquial educational system (ARSI). Just ten years ago, a poll conducted by the Science Excellence for All Ohioans (SEAO, 2002) and Intelligent Design network sought support for design theory and origins science to be accepted by the Ohio Department of Education for 10th grade science students. According to SEAO, 'of the 309 pollsters, 84% respondents that are or have been engaged in biological sciences (n=98) favor objective origins science, and that 91% of those engaged in teaching or education are of the same mind.' Although SEAO's bid for modification of the science curriculum was not successful, sentiments against teaching natural selection in human evolution remains high. Biology professors in this rural setting understandably approach the teaching of evolution at the college level with a carefully stated, non-confrontational, 'I accept the scientific evidence for evolution'. In this context, teaching evolution is diverted away from waging belief system battles, which statements such as, 'I believe in evolution' might generate, and facilitates guiding our students to focus their scientific learning on testable hypothesis. There are still fractions of students that will shut their minds or angrily walk out when the subject is taught. However this approach averts the establishment of a community identity estranged from the expert in the classroom.

Students who have no interest in pursuing a science education may harbor multiple misconceptions about scientific principles and hot topics, such as climate change. Ideologies, which contradict accepted science-based positions, are reinforced through cultural/media articulations. Such ideologues are representative of learning modalities lacking individuality and critical analysis skills and which pose further challenges to educators in the sciences (Bashker and Frank, 2010). When I was asked to teach a human biology course for non-majors, I was initially stunned to discover that some students got angry when I told them men and women have the same number of ribs vs. the literal interpretation that Adam gave Eve a rib. Again I lost attendance, with the sound of an angry book closing, as I challenged preconceived beliefs. Realizing I was facing an upward battle to teach the scientific method to non-majors, I developed a new approach using a participation exercise. I inserted into my PowerPoint presentation a photo that I remembered taking during the medieval revelry-themed County Fair located in the western United States. The image was of a costumed couple, walking on stilts and angled in such a manner that they appeared twice as tall and wide as the crowds in the 'Sherwood Forest' trees. I referred to the couple as giant people (not one student challenged this). As I introduce the subject matter (scientific method), the 'giants' are dissected through a simple inductive reasoning and hypothesis testing. We can easily agree on the camera angle being misleading and infer new observations through inductive reasoning. The earlier (and false) interpretation given, based on a single observation and my authoritative opinion alone, is happily proven false. The class was then asked to collect their own 'giant people' stories from media sources to present to the class as an activity 'WWYB-What would you believe?' This fun exercise serves a dual purpose: to help students relax and become familiar with classmates in small teams and to question knowledge sources. The class is asked to assess whether each news report presented is believable, i.e. sightings of pink dolphins (true) or bats being blind (false). This exercise is a simple but effective early step toward inquisition and challenging conventional knowledge.

Applying SENCER Approaches

For science majors and non-majors alike, most students naturally realize the scientific process in the laboratory setting (NRC 2010, Popichak, 2008). Laboratory courses provide students with an excellent opportunity for multi-faceted and engaging learning experiences. Thus, I redesigned and expanded our laboratory experiments with visual aids and new laboratory equipment through NSF funding awarded to improve the learning experience in this underrepresented population. My laboratory format integrates problem-based and hands-on experiments designed to provide (a) introduction of the strategy to be employed with appropriate theoretical framing, (b) participant practice in the strategy in small groups and (c) whole group debriefing of the strategy and its use in the groups. Experiments in teaching are not necessarily successful. My criteria for success in the laboratory focuses on a demonstration that learning teams have synthesized information, have applied critical higher order thinking and were able to conceptualize what could have been done differently. Turning student frustration into great teaching moments is often possible, while obligatory rigor in applying the scientific approach helps them acquire a greater appreciation for how biological questions are answered.

To produce the science experience on our small campus, I have generated numerous undergraduate research projects and have several IRB and IACUC approvals on record to perform student research. These projects are always SENCER based, providing meaningful activities that address environmental issues in the region, i.e. collecting amphibians to test herbicide affects on reproductive development and studying micropropagation of an endangered medicinal plant. Developing sound ideas and feasible experimental methods through hypotheses testing and specific learning goals is vital to the success of student driven projects. My undergraduate researchers are exposed to this challenging approach to learning science. Currently, our campus has increased from just a handful of STEM students every few years to a significant improvement in science education that includes preparing posters and oral presentations, participating in plenary sessions at scientific meetings and performing SENCER orientated field and laboratory studies. By word of mouth around campus, students have begun dropping by my office seeking projects to increase their graduate school preparation. It's just a handful so far.

Student Impact

The personal impact of my job has been a renewed sense of purpose and satisfaction. I truly enjoy awakening the investigators within my students, and find pleasure observing an emerging inner confidence whenever a student begins to question and challenge the environment in which we live. One of my undergraduate researchers, a senior science education major, shared with me that taking my zoology class was the first opportunity he had been given to look under a microscope! Had he not chosen the path to take the more difficult majors level biology that I teach, and instead followed state minimum requirements (a couple non-majors biology course), he would never have experienced working in a laboratory, collecting scientific data or applying the scientific method. This senior later found himself the envy of his education classmates upon reciting his experiences in the field performing real research.

Lab Instruction
My hope is that the ideas and concepts I have exposed students to will have a lasting impact even once their formative years of study have passed, and regardless of whether continuing in a STEM discipline or contributing to their community in another manner. In closing, no discourse on effective teaching would be complete without commenting on the essential reality that we educators must care enough about the weight of our influence to refrain from treating students as children to please or entertain. Rather, it is imperative that we treat those we educate as responsible adults, and earn their respect and trust through caring enough to give them challenges. In this harder won approach, I believe, we best succeed to effectively foster and guide their intellectual growth.

About the Author

Orianna Carter
Orianna Carter received her bachelor's degree in biology from Keene State College and her doctoral degree in plant biochemistry and molecular sciences from Washington State University. Her published research has focused on studying the effects of natural products in human disease and the toxic effects of chemicals in the environment using cell culture and animal models. Carter teaches biology and pre-professional students at Ohio University and has been developing new general science education courses which incorporate engaging research experiences on sustainability with civic components.


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