To spice up biology topics, Gloria Miller, PhD, sends students on a series of quests that help them educate themselves—and the wider world.
Assistant Professor of Biology,Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi
PhD and MS in Environmental Science, MPH in Epidemiology, BS in Biology
Gloria Miller, PhD, took the long way around to teaching biology: She spent more than 25 years as a supervisor for Bell South before joining the faculty at Jackson State University. But this is exactly why she has the perfect perspective for helping non–biology majors get excited about the subject.
“These students often have the belief that science is only for scientists,” she says. “My goal is to help students understand that biology is relevant and central to the lives of every individual.” And as a former layperson herself, Miller knows exactly how to make that happen.
“My approach to teaching biology to non–biology majors is to demonstrate to them how science helps to make them better-informed citizens, healthier individuals, and better stewards of our natural resources,” she says. “I do this by creating a fun and engaging classroom atmosphere where students can collaborate, explore, learn, and grow.”
Specifically, Miller uses three innovative approaches:
- Learning team activities: Students collaborate in small groups to find solutions to a set of questions.
- Online exploration exercises: Students go online to explore a topic currently being discussed, then share their findings with the class.
- Knowledge-sharing outreach: Students take a piece of their classroom learning and put it into language so simple that a seven-year-old could understand it, then share this information with someone outside the class (e.g., a roommate, family, friend, or community member).
The result: Students who originally said they “just want to pass the class” reach the end of the semester saying, “I see how my life—and my career—can be shaped by science!”
Below, Miller offers details on how she sets up and carries out each of these types of activities.
“My favorite thing about teaching is watching the students connect to biology. It really is like a light bulb coming on when they start to get it. I just love watching that moment.”
-Gloria Miller, PhD
Course: BIO 101 Introduction to Biology
Course description: Designed to acquaint the student with fundamental principles of biological science and their functional applications. This course is primarily for the general education program.
Miller’s three-pronged approach to making any topic interesting
For each topic she covers, Miller typically uses all three types of activities previously mentioned: learning team activities, online exploration exercises, and knowledge-sharing outreach.
Before diving into any new topic, Miller generally starts class by briefly (in about 15 minutes) summarizing the main points from a previous lecture and explaining how previous learnings relate to the current/upcoming topic. (Videos, lecture notes, and other reading materials are also available to the students on Canvas.) Then she gives a presentation of roughly 30 minutes on the new topic, allowing students to offer input and ask questions.
Then the fun starts. Miller notes that the three activities listed below are fluid and somewhat interchangeable within one class period, and they take up the bulk of the time (some 45 minutes). In fact, that is partly why Miller changed this class from twice-weekly 50-minute meetings to one meeting of 100 minutes per week. “The idea for the one-day-a-week class period came from students, who said that the 50-minute class periods were too short and that they didn’t have time to unpack, relax, and enjoy the class,” she says.
Miller ends each period with a cliff-hanger aimed at producing curiosity about the next class meeting: “You are not going to believe what I have to tell you about enzymes,” or “I cannot wait to tell you about proteins—it’s crazy!”
Here, Miller walks us through the three activities, using the example of one of her class topics: the life-supporting properties of water.
1. Learning team activities: Solve problems with peers
For each learning team activity, students form their own groups of three or four and work together to answer questions and/or solve problems relating to the day’s topic.
Example: List the life-supporting properties of water and explain them.
Students have no prior knowledge of what the learning team activity will be before Miller provides the assignment handout. To answer the question, they are expected to discuss what has been taught in class as well as the information in their textbook, building on what they have already learned that semester.
The activity requires that students share ideas and practice speaking the language of biology, using terms from the vocabulary list that Miller provides in Canvas, the school’s online learning platform.
“These learning team activities help to emphasize deep understanding because they allow students to discuss ideas, think for themselves, and share their viewpoints,” says Miller. “Students learn to challenge concepts and draw conclusions in a nonthreatening atmosphere.”
2. Online exploration exercises: Dig deeper on your own
This activity allows students to explore tangents related to the day’s lesson. Miller provides topics—ones that are definitely not covered in the textbook—and asks each student to choose and research one as an individual exercise.
Example: What is the distribution of water on Earth? How much of the water is fresh water? How much fresh water is available for our use? What and when is International Water Day?
For this, students are allowed to use technology (e.g., their phone, laptop, or tablet), with Miller guiding them to reputable online sources such as science journals and professional websites (see sidebar).
3. Knowledge-sharing outreach: Teach it to a 7-year-old
Toward the end of each class meeting, Miller asks the class, “Can you teach what you’ve learned today to your seven-year-old niece or nephew?” Basically, Miller wants students to be able to take the day’s topic and summarize it, simplify it, and restate it in their own words.
Example: Explain, in very basic terms, why it is important to water a plant’s soil rather than just its leaves.
After class, Miller asks students to find a friend or family member and share their simplified summary. (This could be about part of the day’s topic or they could choose to explain the entire lesson.) “I urge them to share this information to both educate those folks as well as to understand the challenges of explaining science topics to different types and ages of people,” she says. Ultimately, this activity also reinforces the concepts for the students themselves.
At the next class meeting, Miller asks students to stand up in front of the class and share how it went when they shared the teachings with someone outside of class. As one student shared in a recent evaluation, “My friends [now] ask me, ‘What did you guys do today? What did you learn?’”
She concludes each semester by asking for a commitment from students to continue their community outreach, sharing some of the most important lessons from the course as a whole.