Designing a Course for Non-Majors: The evolution of an instructor and her course.

Non-majors courses.

I found that this topic usually makes faculty cringe. It’s the “paying your dues” course that no one wants to teach, but “someone’s gotta do it and it’s your turn”.

“How exciting… a room full of people who are hard-pressed to even pretend to enjoy what I am talking about.”

I totally get it, it can be an uphill battle. Before the semester even starts you have a bunch of students who are already convinced they will hate your class and will fail it. For us science folks, we have a bunch of students who “are not scientists and never will be”.


I have not given up hope on such courses yet. I actually see a lot of potential and get pretty excited about my non-majors biology courses. This coming semester I have two sections of what SU calls Issues in Biology. I’ve been thinking about my approach for this class since I got the assignment last semester. I see these classes as an opportunity to show students just how relevant science is to their lives…because even though they know, they don’t really know, ya know?

Below I outline how my ideas about the course, and the course itself, have changed over the last couple semesters.

Evolution of my Non-Majors Biology course

Spring 2015

This won’t be the first semester that I teach a non-majors course in biology. Actually, I first taught a class like this when I was an adjunct at Mount Saint Joseph University in Cincinnati. And goodness, has the course evolved since that first semester just over a year ago. At that point in my career, the course was my FIRST full lecture and lab responsibility. Up until that point I had only adjuncted for the lab portion of courses. So, it was a big deal. So big, that I was terrified of failing miserably and did what I think is the WORST thing to do and lectured chapter by chapter, directly from the text. I know what you are thinking, “Sarah, how could you? You know better. Shame.” I’m not proud of it.

However, to be fair, I was in survival mode. So I lectured through the text and did some cool lab exercises that I felt demonstrated the concepts in the book. My students were not thrilled, I was happy to finish the course. I do feel like when you are first dropped into the classroom, this is the easiest way to do things. A lot happens that first semester: you have to deal with the logistics of the course, you have to deal with students, etc. While learning how to run a course, I didn’t have it in me to also figure out and incorporate all the hottest active learning activities. I was also in the last year of PhD program, so that was happening too.

We did do some fun stuff though, like go on a field trip to a distillery after talking about fermentation. How cool is that?

The point is, I learned a lot and finally had the opportunity to go through all the motions of running a course for the first time. The teacher I was at the beginning of the course was completely  different from the teacher I was at the end of the course.

Fall 2015

Next time I taught this class I was at SU. I used the same text, however decided that I would only lecture on topics relevant to interesting issues to my students…like disease. For example, we learned about DNA replication and mutations after opening with cancer. I started the semester with at least a full week of scientific methods and ethics, and instead of hardcore lab reports I had them write popular science articles based on their data. I also incorporated group projects: each group selected a topic and then created webpages addressing the topic. Essentially it was a group term paper, but since it was on an website, they could incorporate pictures, graphs, maps, etc. I had all sorts of big ideas for these projects, imagining all the cool stuff that could be incorporated. Unfortunately, all those ideas were stuck in my head and not laid out in some way as an example for my students. So the projects were a little ‘flat’, but I think that was my fault. I did collect feedback on the projects at multiple points, so this was less of a problem in the future. Actually, I did the same projects in spring with a psychology course, with a lot of the same students, and they reported much higher satisfaction with the whole process! Phew!

Fall 2016

This brings us to now. The course will evolve, yet again. This semester, I am going to focus on science literacy in the context of neuroscience and I am not going to use a text book. Am I sounding like a real professor yet?  I’m pretty excited about what I have planned.

We will start the semester with some big-picture questions: Why do we need to know the scientific process if we are not scientists? How do I use the scientific method in my field – how could it be used to improve society? What is science literacy and what does it mean to be scientifically literate? Why do I need to be scientifically literate? What does that have to do with my liberal arts education? 

I am hoping that questions like these will really motivate my students to engage.

We will also be learning some neuroscience, starting with the basics – anatomy, how a neuron works – and then moving into two big fields that are particularly interesting to college students: drugs and disease. However, we won’t just talk about what drugs are doing in the brain, for example, we will also talk about how using science could improve drug policy or change the stigma associated with mental illness. BOOM. This is important stuff. I hope that since I am so convinced of it, my students will be too.

Discussion is going to be a big part of this class, considering the amount of ‘soft’ topics we will be covering. Student input – opinions, experience, etc – is going to drive these conversations. Each week I have assigned a reading to get the discussion started. Some weeks, these readings will be more vocabulary or basic information-heavy because we will spend the week talking about neuroanatomy or neurotransmitters. Other weeks, they will may be book chapters introducing students to drugs and society or stigma associated with mental illness. To ensure that they read, I routinely reference their readings and ask them questions about it in class. I may also start off the week with a quiz to support good habits as well. Students will also be able to contribute data. I use the online discussion platform Yellowdig on Blackboard to allow students to look up information and add to the conversation as needed (they also can only acquire points if they take the convo in a new direction). Yellowdig looks a lot like Facebook and allows for a much smoother discussion experience compared to the default Blackboard discussion board. In the example below, you can see that I posted a “Pin” that included an article. Students would read it and then comment, sometimes commenting on a peer’s input or starting their own. They can also “Like” posts (as well as vote if they “Love it!” or find it’s “Not relevant”).


Then then there’s the group project…which is where I will incorporate service learning. The addition of a service learning group project was a no-brainer, the Susquehanna University motto is ‘Achieve, Lead, Serve’, after all. Groups will develop active learning activities for school-age children, meeting criteria for lessons plans set by the state of Pennsylvania. Since we will be learning neuroscience, I expect the activities to be based on topics in neuroscience. At the end of the semester, we take the lessons/activities to a science fair at the local elementary/middle school to expose children to the wonders of the brain. My two sections of Issues won’t be the only classes working on these projects either. The Introduction to Neuroscience students will be working on similar projects, so we will have a sizable group. Pretty cool, right?

As I mentioned, a service learning project fits right it with the values of SU. In addition to practicing core values and enhancing their understanding of neuroscience, I hope these projects will promote positive social change through education – within my students and the community. A big part of these projects will be reflections addressing how being familiar with science/scientific method helps understanding in other fields and how teaching someone else about the brain has enhanced their own understanding. With any luck, my students will be inspired to use what they learned to change the world, and they will inspire the children they interact with as well!

 While I won’t go into it now, I will require that my students to assign specific roles to each group member – for example, there will be a project manager and a group editor…just to name a few. I’ve used this approach to group work before and had positive outcomes. I’ll write about this approach more in a future post.

Finally, the labs. I’m a huge fan of hypothesis-driven lab exercises, but these can be hard to do in a non-majors course where they don’t have the background, lab skills, or motivation to ask a question and find the answer. I will be able to incorporate a couple of these kind of labs into the semester, but I’ll be balancing it out with a lot of other soft activities. ‘Soft activities’ include, to me, task-driven labs (look at something and answer a bunch of questions) and discussion heavy labs. In this course, where I’m really trying to connect science to ‘non-science’ areas, there will be a lot of discussion-based labs. The first lab we will have will be about the scientific method. I use an activity where groups are given an aphorism (for example: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”) and asked to design an experiment to test the statement. It may seem simple, but once they get into the details, they see how difficult it can be to answer a question. We will also be watching some films that incorporate neuroscience topics, such as Lorenzo’s Oil. That discussion will revolve around ethics, the role of science in society and the value of a liberal arts education.

Non-majors courses can be difficult to do well because the instructor wants to show-off the fun and exciting side of science at the same time as teaching why it’s so important. This is exhausting for a class that meets for an hour, three times a week, for 14 weeks. I hope that my plan for this semester will be stimulating for my students. Since I’m trying new things, I’ll be asking my classes how they feel about the course at multiple points and adjust instruction as needed.

Wish me luck! I’ll report on the progress as the semester goes!! Welcome back to school!

What have you done in non-majors courses that has been super successful? Do you have any suggestions for activities that help students learn about ethics? What have you struggled with the most in non-majors courses?


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