For the past three semesters, students in CORE101: Scientific Investigations at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI have been creating websites on science topics they themselves have deemed important to society. The websites are designed to take the place of a course textbook in this course for non-majors, and are completely written, designed, and edited by nonscience majors. In the spirit of Open Pedagogy, the websites are renewable, with a new cohort of students adding and editing to the current websites each semester.
CORE101 is a unique class amongst general education classes. Rather than having a variety of science courses our students can choose from, all nonscience students take CORE101, which has two overarching learning outcomes: 1. Investigate questions of societal and personal relevance using scientific knowledge, and 2. Describe and actively engage in the scientific process. As instructors, we get to pick and choose the topics we cover, and many focus on our areas of study – ecology, nutrition, etc.
I take a somewhat different approach to most of my colleagues and focus mainly on those issues of societal and personal relevance – students get to vote and suggest topics we will cover in the class. Because of the wide range of topics I usually cover, and now that the course changes every semester based on student interests, I’ve never used a textbook, always relying on (sometimes open) resources on the web in its place. However, after a keynote by Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani in the early days of my own personal journey into the OER world, I recognized this course as a place to make some waves. What if nonscience majors wrote a textbook for nonscience majors?
A common complaint in general education science courses is the mismatch of expectations between professors of science and nonscience majors. Sometimes this involves choosing texts and articles that are too advanced for the students in the course. The goal of this project was to give students agency in their own learning – being able to choose topics they are interested in learning about and having the opportunity to bring in content from their own majors – while creating content that would be at the appropriate level for other nonscience students to learn from. So, instead of developing a textbook to cover the wide ranges of topics students may choose, I opted to create individual websites for each topic.
At the beginning of the semester, we start by talking about the privacy issues and risks associated with posting materials online – this is especially important because some of our topics can be conceived as controversial by some people in the public sphere, like climate change and evolution. After that discussion, they fill out a Privacy and Authorship Agreement using Google Forms. From there, students choose topics based on their interests using a Google Forms survey. After they chosen a topic, we spend a class reviewing the website in its current form – evaluating its coherence, organization, design, etc.. Students then develop a plan for proposed changes to the website. Some groups decide to add whole new subsections of content. For example, the current DNA page has three well organized subsections covering CRISPR, DNA fingerprinting and analysis, and Cloning, each created by three different cohorts (semesters) of students. Other groups choose to enhance existing sections and add new sub-pages.
Once the plan is developed, students work collaboratively using Google Docs to create rough drafts of the new sections, or they take a current section that needs major edits and begin to add edits using the suggesting tool. These drafts are then shared with other students in the class, who are given commenting (not editing) privileges to peer review the sections that are being added. From there, the students then take the content from Google Docs and transfer it to their websites using Google Sites, incorporating openly licensed images and media.
A challenge I encountered in the early semesters of this project was recognizing that students have very little knowledge of copyright and even less knowledge of Creative Commons. As a result, I have worked closely with our scholarly communications librarian on campus to create lessons and workshops that we integrate into the course to help students develop these skills. The first lesson is a typical information literacy course that focuses on information retrieval (database searching), evaluation, and citations. The second lesson focuses on intellectual property rights, including copyright and Creative Commons licenses. We also incorporate a small lesson on accessibility in this session, teaching the students why and how to add alternative text descriptions on the images they use. The librarian also comes into the classroom during the in-class working sessions to wander around and help students that need additional assistance finding open images or incorporating citations and attributions. The addition of these lessons and the assistance to the class has been invaluable in terms of advancing student knowledge of intellectual property rights and helping them to realize their roles in contributing to the scholarly conversation.
The project wraps up with a poster-style session in a unique space that we have on campus that houses large touch-screen monitors. Students from previous semesters and select faculty and staff on campus are also invited to come and see the presentations. The students organically move from website to website, alternating presenting and being engaged audience members. This style allows for more two-way communication between the students, and usually results in them realizing by the end of the session that all of their projects relate to each other in some way. This, of course, amuses me to no end because they come about it so innocently in the session and it’s usually been a clear goal of mine throughout the semester, prompting them to make connections between topics. It isn’t until it’s literally staring them in the face that they draw those wide-sweeping connections between the topics.
Assessment of these projects (and in the course as a whole) is done using an ungrading approach. A separate presentation is scheduled with only me and the individual groups, where they present their contributions to their topic website, and we then have a conversation about the quality of the work. My students self-assess their work based on the plan developed at the beginning of the semester. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their contributions, and I ask them at the end of our meeting together what grade they would give themselves. For the most part, the grade they select is usually their final grade for the project.
Anecdotally, I have seen my students’ confidence in science increase as a result of these projects. One of my students wrote in their post-course reflection the following: “I feel after taking this class my perspective on science has changed drastically. It was always something that scared me, but as we went over these topics I found an interest in them and found it fascinating how all science comes back together and makes connections.” Overwhelmingly, they enjoy working on the projects and report that they learn a lot, not just about their topics, but about the other groups topics as well.
The websites can be found here. They are licensed using CC-BY-NC-SA that was chosen by the first cohort (Fall 2018) of students because they were concerned about people profiting off of their work. All of the websites can be used as is, but with the caveat that they are works in progress and some images and sources may not be cited or attributed appropriately – we use these as jumping off points in new semesters for the lessons in information literacy and intellectual property. To revise and remix, please contact me for a copy.