CAUT
Report

UniServe Science News Volume 9 March 1998




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'GECKO': Computer Modules for First Year Biology Practical Classes

Kristine French,
kris@uow.edu.au
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Wollongong

Overview of project

The teaching of biodiversity and organism structure and function in first year suffers from the limited range of examples that can be studied because of resource and logistic limitations. There is difficulty in keeping fresh specimens alive and finding them each year, and the alternative of providing bleached, preserved specimens fails to interest students.

Students also have difficulty in accurately identifying features of specimens from written instructions. There is concern that they "can't see the widgoblast". Furthermore, demonstrators find that for difficult slides and specimens, students require individual attention causing logistic problems in the lab class. The result is often that students leave with incorrect knowledge.

Teaching biodiversity and the structure of organisms can be enhanced with the use of multimedia tools. A computer package, Gecko, was developed using Macromind Director to facilitate the teaching of biology to first year undergraduate students at the University of Wollongong. Gecko has facilitated learning in practical sessions through providing accurate information, a method of self learning and a method of checking progress.

The program has been operating in various forms for two years with improvements occurring each year. Students have assessed its value, providing feedback for us about the value of the program to their learning and our observations during practical sessions have further provided new ideas for improvement. A version that will be available to other institutions is currently being completed.

The program is currently used in 6 practical sessions. These practicals involve looking at material and organisms, identifying features in the material and drawing specimens/slides. Other practicals teach students skills in carrying out experiments, dissections and research protocols and do not lend themselves to this learning tool. However, for practicals where students view a range of specimens to understand diversity or structure and function, this mode of teaching is ideal.

The practicals with computer modules are:

  • Plant structure
  • Plant reproduction
  • Cell structure
  • Cell division
  • Invertebrates (2)

Structure of a 'GECKO' practical session

The general structure of these practical sessions involves a series of tasks explained in a practical manual. The manual provides all background information and all information required to complete the task. The manual is the main learning tool allowing students to work individually at their own pace through the series of tasks. As the student completes the task, he/she can check the computer if necessary to ensure accuracy of interpretation and their diagrams. Not all tasks are found on the computer - only those specimens that the student finds difficult to interpret or are important features of the practical.

Some specimens can only be viewed on the computer, where there is difficulty in getting fresh or preserved specimens. In this regard, the program provides an ideal backup if, for example, one year a specimen was not available. Students are still able to view an example of the specimen on the computer.

Each computer module is self contained but linked within the package through a frontispiece. Within this front section is a glossary for exploration. The glossary is also accessible from within each module but only for the words selected. Each module is menu driven and students choose a particular section and then a particular page within each section (Figure 1). Simple arrows allow students to move within any section of the module. Each page has a picture with labels that point to the feature when clicked (Figure 1). A double click opens the glossary which provides a definition for the word that has been double-clicked.

Figure 1.
Figure 1. A page from the computer module on cell structure, showing the menu boxes at the top which move the student within the Cell structure module. The lefthand box [Plant cells] refers to the section whilst the righthand box [E.M. Cell Wall] allows a choice of pages within the section. One of the labels is highlighted (a click with the mouse) and has a line pointing to the relevent structure. The butterfly scroll bar at the bottom can be moved to scroll between a line drawing and the photograph.

For some pictures, particularly slides and electron micrographs, a line drawing has been added. Students can use a scroll bar to change between the photograph and the line drawing. This enables features that are often difficult to see to be highlighted easily. For other pictures the line diagram is provided next to the picture.

A textbox can be opened on each page which provides a more detailed explanation of the material pictured (Figure 2). The idea of the textbox is to take students further than the practical manual or to emphasise particular points.

Figure 2.
Figure 2. A page from the computer module on Invertebrates where the text has been selected and appears on the left hand side of the page.

Some problems identified

The emphasis on a thorough practical manual should be considered further. One of the difficulties that we encountered early in the development of each module was the necessity for a complete practical manual that matches the computer module. We found many students copying all information from the computer and making drawings from the computer before doing the exercise themselves. This tied up the computers and meant that demonstrators had to intervene in the time allowed on the computer. Following discussions, it was realised that the practical manual was not giving enough information for them to complete the task. For instance, the practical manual must include a description of the material being examined and an explanation for each label required in the drawing. If this is not the case, students need to consult the computer to determine what labels are needed and what the structure looks like that needs to be labelled, instead of using the computer to confirm their observations. For example, the task might be: Examine and draw the moss plant provided, labelling the thallus, rhizoids, gametophyte, sporophyte and capsule. Unless there is a preceding paragraph describing what each of these features look like, a student has to ask the demonstrator or check on the computer. So instead we included:

The main photosynthetic part of the life cycle is the GAMETOPHYTE. The gametophyte consists of a leaf-like structure, the thallus, and a series of root like structures, rhizoids, which permit the uptake of water and nutrients..... The resulting SPOROPHYTE grows out from here [archegonia] as a long stalk. At the top of the stalk is a capsule which produces the spores.....

Whilst some students will always focus heavily on the computer package, we have always emphasised the importance of the practical component in the laboratories, stressed in the practical exam which only uses fresh specimens!

Learning and practical outcomes

In 1996 we assessed these practicals during the standard evaluation report for the subject. The results suggest that the computer modules helped the majority of students learn in the practicals and helped them enjoy the practical session more than other practicals. The information provided in the modules was considered useful with over 80% of students using the computers regularly. Students wanted greater access to the computers (currently 8 operate for 80 students) but it was likely that this was due to some students spending too long on computers gaining information which should have been in their manual.

Demonstrators also noticed fewer questions and explanations required, indicating that students were gaining greater independence in their learning.

Preserved specimens are frequently colourless and fresh specimens are frequently hard to obtain. The atlas provides a way of introducing a level of reality to the specimens in the practical session. For example, the computer module will show movement in worms using a film clip; a hard thing to demonstrate with a preserved specimen! We have introduced a number of specimens into the modules which can not be seen in the practicals but which enhance their learning experience. For example, there is an electron microscope photograph of a nuclear pore which is explained in the module but which does not match a task in the practical. This will extend understanding of cell structure. We have also included a photograph of the newly discovered group of Echinoderms, the Concentricycloidea (Figure 2).

Students complete the practical with a more accurate knowledge and correct diagrams from which to study. This is despite the increased student/demonstrator ratios we have been facing. In fact, we hope to reduce the need for as many demonstrators in these practicals as this self teach program is completed.

Future developments

Such a program is constantly being developed and changed as new ideas and material becomes available to improve the modules. It is planned to continue to add new material to each of the currently developed modules and to develop a new module on vertebrates in the future.


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UniServe Science News Volume 9 March 1998

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