Course Overview

Welcome to Grinnell's first course in biology, Bio-150 Introduction to Biological Inquiry! As a consequence of our growing understanding of how people best learn scientific principles, we have designed this course to be distinct from most college introductory biology courses. You have probably noticed that each section focuses on a different biological problem: instead of expecting all students taking Bio 150 to learn exactly the same list of biological facts, we expect all students to practice the same skills, while investigating interesting biological questions. It's not that facts are unimportant: they are fundamental to investigating and understanding life. Research on learning shows, however, that people are more likely to remember facts, understand concepts and apply them to new situations when they use them. For this reason, all sections of Bio 150 feature the following common elements:


From the title and description of your section, you probably have some idea of the questions your section will focus upon. Each instructor chose a topic near to her/his own research interests, so s/he will be expert in helping you define interesting and answerable questions.


Throughout the course, your instructors will ask you to design investigations that address your specific questions. Through this process, we hope you will learn both the power and the limitations of scientific methods in biological explanation, so you'll be able to evaluate the results of other scientific investigations in the future.


Answering questions in science involves comparing predictions with observations. You will learn to use a large array of tools (both fancy and simple) that allow us to observe in new ways or with more precision than our own senses allow. In most cases you will be asked to quantify your observations, since this is the most convincing way to test predictions.


What do your observations say about your question? Analysis involves comparing predictions with observations to make a conclusion. With quantitative observations, this involves evaluation of your confidence in your conclusion, using the tools of statistical reasoning.


A critical part of doing science well is communicating effectively with other scientists. You will spend a lot of time working on ways to represent your observations graphically and to communicate your results. At the end of the course, we will have a joint poster session, at which you will get a chance to see what students in other sections have been doing.


Good science, and good policy informed by science, depends on both the reliability of the scientific process and the scientist's awareness of other areas of human concern affected by the results. In this course, you'll become familiar with standards regarding the ethics of practicing and communicating science, and many of you will discuss how scientific results may be relevant to social issues.

The philosophy behind this course is that you will learn more effectively by practicing. This goes for biology as much as for playing a musical instrument or a sport. By grounding your learning in authentic research questions, we also hope you will be motivated to practice very hard, so that you will be confident in your abilities when the semester is long past. That is how we, as teachers and scholars, keep up with the incredible change and growth in biological knowledge over our own lifetimes. If you go on to the 200-level biology courses, you'll find that your practice in Bio 150 has prepared you for the task of understanding organisms by integrating ideas from across the spectrum of biological sub-disciplines. And, if you don't intend to major in biology, we are certain that Bio 150 will provide you with critical analytical tools needed to interpret the results of biological research in your daily life. We hope all of you will be prepared to learn what you need to know to evaluate the biology of your future.

Section Titles and Descriptions

Typically, four different sections of Bio-150 are offered each semester.

Animal Locomotion (Professor Queathem)

As a way to explore how biologists ask questions and develop answers to them, this class will focus on the biological problems associated with animal locomotion. Students will begin learning how to use the scientific literature to study the physical, physiological, and biomechanical principles that underlie the ways animals move. Students might make videos of moving creatures, design paper airplanes, or shoot rubber bands to better understand locomotor mechanics. The emphasis of the course will be on asking questions, designing experiments to answer those questions, and communication results of the experiments in a variety of formats.

Biological Responses to Stress (Professor Gregg-Jolly)

In this course, we will investigate ways that biologists seek to understand how organisms can interact with their environment and change in response to varying environmental conditions. Since microbes are excellent model systems for biological inquiry, their response to stressful environments will be emphasized. Students will formulate hypotheses regarding stress responses, design and conduct experiments to test their hypotheses, and communicate the results of their experiments.

Cell Fate: Calvin or Hobbes? (Professor Praitis)

During the development of an embryo, how is the fate of a cell determined? How does a cell 'know' it is supposed to become a nerve cell? Or part of the gut? How does it know its location within the embryo? To address these questions, we will examine the fate of cells during embryonic development, focusing primarily on the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans. We will critically evaluate the primary literature, formulate hypotheses, carry out independent research projects using a variety of analytical tools, and report experimental results in scientific papers, posters, and oral presentations.

The Effects of Climate Change on Organisms (Professor Jacobson)

We will examine the effects of predicted changes in temperature, moisture and carbon dioxide levels on organismal and ecosystem function through experimental investigation. We will focus on the effects of such changes on the physiology and metabolic functioning of soil and aquatic organisms, as well as on biogeochemical processes of ecosystems, including respiration, decomposition and nutrient-cycling. Class time will be devoted primarily to discussions and lab work examining theoretical aspects of organismal and ecosystem functioning, design and implementation of lab-based experiments, and the interpretation of our results in the context of extensive ongoing climate change research.

The Language of Neurons (Professor Lindgren)

In this course students will actively learn how biologists study the nervous system. Specifically, students will work as neuroscientists for a semester and will attempt to learn something novel about how nerve cells communicate with one another at chemical synapses. Students will present their findings at the end of the semester via both oral and written presentations. Papers resulting from a substantial independent project will be published in the class journal, Pioneering Neuroscience: The Grinnell Journal of Neurophysiology. Students with a strong background in high school physics will benefit most from this section of Biological Inquiry.

Plant Genetics and the Environment (Professor DeRidder)

The physical and behavioral characteristics of living organisms are largely determined by their genetic makeup and their environment. This course is designed to allow us to ask questions about the relationship between genetics and the environment and to explore the mechanisms plants use to acclimate and adapt to changes in their environment. Using the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana, we will examine the influence of different environmental factors on the growth and development of 'wild-type' and mutant individuals Students will design and perform experiments to address questions about the effect of genetic mutation on plant responses to the environment. After careful analysis of experimental results, students will communicate their findings in various scientific forms.

Prairie Restoration (Professor Brown)

As a way to explore how biologists ask questions and develop answers to them, this class will focus on the biological problems involved in the restoration of tallgrass prairies. It will be taught in "workshop" format at Grinnell College's Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), where we will use the college's prairie and savanna restorations as our laboratory. Students will be required to formulate research questions based on readings of the scientific literature, design experimental or observational studies to test these hypotheses, and communicate the results of these studies after the conventions of professional biologists. Papers resulting from a substantial independent project will be published in the class journal, Tillers.

Sexy Beast (Professor Brown)

Why do animals have sex? and in such incredible variety? This course will consider the ways biologists study the causes and consequences of sex in animals at all levels -- from the cellular process of meiosis, to the organismal concept of gender, to mating interactions between individuals and their evolutionary consequences. Students will learn to read and evaluate the primary literature, formulate hypotheses, and carry out independent research projects using a model organism, the bean beetle Callosobruchus maculatus. Students will communicate their results in scientific papers, posters, and oral presentations. Finally, as sexy beasts ourselves, we will consider how our human biases and social assumptions influence the questions asked and their accepted answers.

The Sex Life of Plants (Professor Eckhart)

This course will explore the evolution and ecology of reproduction in flowering plants to develop your understanding of how and why plants reproduce as they do. You'll experience biology as it is practiced, as you learn principles of adaptation, practice the scientific method, and communicate your research findings in the style of professional biologists. Activities will include reading and discussing classic and contemporary scientific literature, completing exercises on the structure and function of plant reproductive features, and conducting and reporting on research projects done in the lab, the greenhouse, and the field.

Survivor (Professor Hinsa-Leasure)

In this course we will investigate strategies organisms use for survival in different environments. We will focus on microorganisms and humans as model systems. Topics addressed will include the biology of bacteria, factors important for biofilm formation, how microorganisms become resistant to antibiotics, and how we protect ourselves from microorganisms. Students will isolate and characterize microorganisms attached to vegetables by using standard microbial and basic molecular biology techniques. Based on critical reading of the literature, students will design and carry out independent projects, analyze and report the results in scientific papers, posters and oral presentations.

Symmetry Breaking (Professor Sandquist)

Cells are not disorderly bags of molecules. On the contrary, all cells carefully distribute their contents asymmetrically in order to make certain parts of themselves distinct from other parts. Such asymmetry occurs on the organismal level as well. The process of forming asymmetry, or breaking symmetry, is particularly evident during embryonic development when an embryo morphs from a sphere of cells into something with multiple axes (e.g. front-back). How do cells do this? Why do they spend so much energy breaking symmetry? It turns out that symmetry breaking is essential for many biological processes. In this course students will learn to use frog oocytes, eggs, and/or embryos in order to observe and explore symmetry breaking processes in living cells. Moreover, students will perform novel research related to this topic, which will involve developing a specific hypothesis, designing and performing experiments, and analyzing and sharing results.