Nanney Autobiographic Essays
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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney

8. Hands On Biology

The explosion of student populations after WWII, along with the shortage of staff and teaching facilities also resulted in a major shift in the instructional practices in biology. In the first half of the 20thcentury most biology courses were taught with associated laboratories or field work.  Often the laboratories were “open laboratories” in which students could work outside scheduled lab periods.  As class sizes increased, the demand for student laboratories could not be met.  The first response to this challenge was in many cases to “uncouple” the laboratories, and to make them optional.  A limited number of students were enrolled on tight schedules in the available labs, and the remaining students were allowed to enroll for lecture only (and fewer IUs).  Students often preferred to avoid the time-consuming laboratories anyway, and the examinations in the course often ignored information that might be acquired in the laboratories, in order to be “fair” to students who were excluded from the labs.  The subject matter of the biology courses became more and more theoretical and text oriented.  The expository skills of the teacher became more important than the experience with organisms and laboratory procedures.  Eventually laboratory instruction fell to such low levels in the School of Life Science that the faculty imposed a new requirement: students must present at least one meaningful laboratory experience, i.e., something beyond observations of demonstrations, in order to graduate.

The steady erosion of laboratory experience in undergraduate biology education concerned me considerably, probably because of my own belated initiation into experimental biology.  I had taken a few courses in biology as an undergraduate – general zoology, comparative anatomy of vertebrates, and the spring flowers of Oklahoma – but had found my exposure to sliced and pickled organisms a real turn-off, even though I served as an undergraduate teaching assistant.  The worlds of literature and philosophy seemed much more interesting.  When I was lured into graduate school in zoology by the offer of a teaching assistantship in Indiana, I was surprised and stimulated by some of the lecture courses, particularly in genetics, but I thought the formal laboratory exercises deadly. I was close to giving up on biology, when Tracy Sonneborn, the paramecium geneticist, provided me a microscope at a lab bench, and invited me to study paramecia in my own way.  Within weeks I became a committed biologist.  An experience such as I had found in Sonneborn’s laboratory was not provided to very many students in the universities I knew.  My mission to “put biology back together” became joined with another – to let students experience living things, and to provide the experience early in their education.

In my own research lab, following Tracy Sonneborn’s philosophy, I considered that the involvement of students should be primarily an educational experience, and not assistance to my research projects.  I acquainted entering students with the organisms and instruments available; I outlined the kinds of experiments others were doing in the lab, and encouraged them to read the literature and to formulate some experimental question that could be posed.  I offered to answer questions and demonstrate techniques, but I would not assign a project.

This practice did not necessarily lead to happy results for the students, and few achieved immediate publishable results.  But they all learned something about themselves that they needed to know. About half of the students were disappointed and frustrated.  One straight A student from a prominent university with high recommendations from her sponsors came to me at mid term of her first lab semester saying: “I hate it.  I have always been very successful in doing what pleased my professors, but you won’t tell me what I need to do. I think I was mistaken in thinking I could be happy as an independent investigator.  I am going to have to revise my goals, toward a profession with more human interaction.”  Though I usually considered such results appropriate, sometimes I had my doubts. My saddest experience actually came with a postdoctoral fellow from Japan.  I was unaware of the communal scientific teamwork in which his previous successful research had been developed and executed.  Without the consistent support of colleagues in planning and executing experiments, he became dispirited and depressed.  He considered himself a failure for not completing a major project, and he subsequently committed suicide after returning to Japan. Since then I have had some second thoughts about the role of autonomous investigators and of team work in scientific exploration.  Maybe there is more than one effective style.

Opportunities for truly independent studies were always rare.  Even formal teaching laboratories were too few, too small, and too poorly equipped to allow individual initiatives.  The fiscal reality of teaching larger numbers of students in inadequate facilities was daunting.  New buildings were being constructed, but these were not teaching buildings. Increasing numbers of faculty members were being added and the new faculty members required adequate space in which to conduct their funded research; they needed time off from formal teaching assignments to do that research and train graduate students. Nevertheless, against the financial odds, I pressed for a University commitment to modern teaching facilities to house a new vision of experimental biology for undergraduates.

Orin Halvorson, the first Director of the School of Life Sciences, shared my enthusiasm for hands on instruction and came up with a possible solution.  The National Science Foundation was not only in the business of supporting research, but recognized at this time the need for enhanced educational opportunities in the sciences.  The Sputnik episode in the ‘50s, with the USSR gaining a foothold in space, sparked a national concern about the quality of American science education.  One reflection of this concern was a project in the 1950s to provide modern biology texts to replace the obsolete books used in secondary schools.  Teams of biologists were recruited to provide diverse new versions of a modern biology – distinguished as the yellow version, the blue version, and the green version – filled with modern illustrations and emerging insights into the nature of living systems. Marston Bates, an ecologist at Michigan, headed one of the writing teams, and taught a popular course in “Zoology in Human Affairs”.  I was not personally involved in this writing project to upgrade scientific training in secondary schools, but I had volunteered at Michigan to serve as an assistant in Bates’ course and become better acquainted with such efforts.

Biology students were beginning to arrive at colleges and universities stimulated and prepared as never before – to find training facilities deteriorating while research laboratories prospered.  And so, the rapidly growing NSF budget provided a program for matching funds for educational facilities.