A. Grace Martin

Author, Student Teacher, Optimist and Promoter of Self-Empowerment


PBL in Biology

Posted by agracemartin on August 12, 2015 at 9:35 PM

I am currently reflecting on PBL with a biology class in mind. I do not think that inquiry-based learning is the best model for concepts and terminology in biology, as the answers to these questions are often definitions that would not provide rich exploration. I think that for a problem-based inquiry project to go smoothly in biology, students need guidance either through direct instruction, videos, readings, or jigsaw groups to learn definitions and factual information that relate to the knowledge outcomes in the curriculum.


To me, a great idea for problem-based learning in biology is asking students to answer a question with a real-world application in order to develop the scientific skills and attitudes from the curriculum and experience the knowledge concepts in a more engaging manner. In a science classroom, problem-based learning can address the skills of initiating and planning, performing and recording, analyzing and interpreting, and communication and teamwork as well as the attitude outcomes of interest in science, mutual respect, scientific inquiry, collaboration, environmental stewardship, and even safety.




For example, when teaching the Bio 30 unit on the brain, an overarching question to guide students would be: “How would a tumor affect a person’s behaviour and bodily functions if it were located in different lobes of the brain?” This project could be introduced with an article reading or video on Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who chose death with dignity due to severe brain cancer. What an intense, emotional, and thought-provoking way to introduce a complex problem with cross-curricular implications! It is sad but meaningful and could stimulate powerful responses from the students. Of course the above example would only be appropriate in a high school classroom because of the level of maturity required to grapple with sensitive content (and would not be used if a student in the class were dealing with cancer in their immediate family).


Another example would be a Bio 20 inquiry into the correlation of crop-based food production in Canada and the levels of photosynthesis in areas with optimal sunlight, precipitation, and temperature variables. I would introduce this project with a scenario that an apocalypse has shut down all technology and transportation (take 5 minutes to explain that no it is not a zombie apocalypse), requiring you to grow your own food to support your community. Which communities in Canada would be able to grow the most plant-based foods and why? From here, the project could branch out to include other interactions in the biome including population density, carrying capacity, different food sources, and sustainability. Which modern-day communities would most likely thrive if they had to sustain themselves over several decades and why?


Both of these examples can provide opportunities for technological research and the usage of technology to formulate a finalized project. I believe in offering choice of format for presentation (video, song, PowerPoint, poster, brochure, essay, etc.).



This brings up the challenge faced by teachers: what conditions need to exist in order for PBL to exist in a classroom? Student independence, creativity, engagement, determination, patience, and discernment all come to mind. How do we facilitate such attributes in our classrooms? We can create an open, safe, risk-taking environment for our students from day 1 of the semester and model the thoughtful question-asking process throughout the course or year. Technology could be used in the research process after a mini-lesson on proper search terms or how to perform complex searches in an engine such as Google. Modelling the scientific process can be valuable here (and in any subject) as we identify an issue, hypothesize a solution, creatively construct and safely execute a plan to test our hypothesis, observe and record the results, then report and discuss our conclusions based upon the data gathered. This requires the teacher’s differentiated planning and organization to set up the optimal environmental conditions (emotional well-being, intellectually stimulating problems, and available materials and resources) for great learning experiences. Then the teacher must continually facilitate the inquiry process with probing questions and well-supplied information.

Categories: Teaching Blog

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