Faculty Club / Course Design / Teaching Science to Nonmajors? Rethink the Goals and Assessments

Teaching Science to Nonmajors? Rethink the Goals and Assessments

Role-play. Personal essays. Infographics. These make up half of the grade in Dr. Katelyn Butler’s biology class. The goal? To create savvy consumers.

Role-play. Personal essays. Infographics. These make up half of the grade in Dr. Katelyn Butler’s biology class. The goal? To create savvy consumers.

Katelyn Butler, PhD


Assistant Professor of Biology,
Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana

PhD in Plant Pathology, BA in Biology

Katelyn Butler, PhD, teaches mostly nonmajors in her Principles of Modern Biology course at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana—and they can be a tough crowd. “I often hear, ‘Biology was terrible in high school. It’s all memorization [of] facts that don’t matter,’ which is not true at all,” Butler says.

As a result, Butler has adopted a different approach when teaching nonmajors. “The goal of this class is to give students a firm understanding of biology so that they can be informed scholars, consumers, patients, and citizens,” she explains. “So I don’t care if a student can tell me all the stages in mitosis, but I do care that they understand how mistakes in the cell cycle can lead to unrestricted cell division and cancer. I care even more that they can critically analyze the latest news story about ‘X causes cancer’ or ‘Y cures cancer.’”

To achieve this, Butler focuses on using real-world examples concerning topics that students can relate to—and checking for understanding in unconventional ways. “I use a variety of assessments that both meet my learning objectives and give students a chance to shine with their strengths,” she says. “This reduces test stress, increases deep learning and application, and provides students with a much more pleasant and fun experience in a biology class—a course many of them dread.”

Below, the professor shares details on a few of her most successful “experiments” with nonmajors.

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“When teaching nonmajors, I don’t change my style, but I do change my goals. The goal of this class is to give students a firm understanding of biology so that they can be informed scholars, consumers, patients, and citizens.”
-Katelyn Butler, PhD

Course: BIOL 1000 Principles of Modern Biology

Course description: Fundamental ideas in the science of biology, including molecules, cells, genetics, ecology, the diversity of life, and the human body.

Butler’s best practices for teaching science to nonmajors

“Teaching nonmajors is probably one of the most fun, and most important, parts of my job,” says Butler. “For many of my students, this will be the only time they have to critically think about important biological concepts—issues that will impact their lives as citizens, consumers, and patients.”

In addition to introducing them to a variety of relevant topics (such as cancer, genetic disorders, modern agriculture, and environmental care), Butler has created assignments that involve creativity (such as essays, debates, and infographics). Each of the assignments has its own grading rubric and, taken together, they account for 50% of a students’ grade in the course.

In every case, the assessments “create opportunities for students to have more fun, to engage with their peers, and then to see how [science] applies to their life,” Butler says.

Below, she shares some of her most effective projects and practices.

Kick off the semester with a universally compelling infographic

In the first unit of the class, Butler teaches a unit on cancer—something that affects almost all students in some way. Then she allows students to select a specific type of cancer that interests them. “I get an initial buy-in of, ‘I’m going to think this is interesting because I get to pick it,’” Butler says.

Students create an infographic that outlines a suite of noteworthy aspects of the cancer, since each type of cancer behaves and presents differently. They must also be able to communicate general cancer biology and delve into science news for information about current research.

“The news research helps them see that science is happening all the time,” Butler says.

Use an essay assignment to appeal to English majors

“I’m at a faith-based institution, and so we spend a unit talking about how to integrate science and religion,” Butler says. “We read a book called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, and then students have to write an essay that synthesizes the ideas in that book and connects it to their own life. This assignment provides students a space to think about this issue, which many of them have never given much thought to.

“I’ve also included this because I get a lot of students who prefer to write, and their essays are so much fun to read because they’re so well written,” Butler adds. “I want to give those students an opportunity to use those skills as well.”

Provide a take-home “puzzle book” on tough topics

To reduce anxiety on the topic of genetics—which can be one of the tougher units—Butler allows students to work on problem sets at home instead of taking a test. “I do it as a take-home because, again, they’re nonmajors. I’m not expecting them to necessarily remember how to do a pedigree,” she says. “I find that students actually enjoy it because they think Punnett squares and pedigrees are fun, so it’s kind of like a puzzle book for them to work through.”

Have students showcase research in a group presentation

For a discussion of genetic engineering, Butler has students form groups to investigate genetically modified organisms (GMOs). First, Butler assigns a genetically modified crop for them to research, and then they analyze how it was created, along with its benefits and risks. Finally, they present their findings—in the form of a group presentation—to the class.

“For example, students recently discussed a banana that was modified to resist disease. They talked about the problem of this disease, and the method that scientists used to create a resistant banana,” Butler explains. “Students often say, ‘I didn’t know that GMOs could be used to solve so many problems.’”

Allow students to apply interdisciplinary insights in a debate

One of Butler’s favorite assignments is for students to debate hot topics in the news. This supports her assertion that science is applicable to their everyday lives and—in many cases—their field of study.

Recently, for instance, she asked students to discuss offshore wind farms. In this debate, the students adopted various stakeholder positions: Some were electric companies, while others were residents or builders. “This allowed them to practice seeing something from another person’s point of view and to learn how to support their point of view with evidence,” she says.

It also allowed nonmajors to leverage their own areas of expertise. For instance, business majors offered up cost projections for a proposed wind farm. “It’s a very interdisciplinary assignment,” she says. “So it allows students in any major a chance to shine.”

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