In 2000, Grinnell College turned the biology curriculum upside down, involving entry-level biology students in cutting-edge research and offering a unique, hands-on, research-based introductory course — Biology 150: Introduction to Biological Inquiry. With 12 different specialized topics to choose from, students can select the topic that appeals most to them — from “Animal Locomotion” to “The Sex Life of Plants.”
In Professor Clark Lindgren’s “The Language of Neurons” section, first-year biologists do original research with the potential to create new knowledge. In the process, they operate instruments such as intracellular electrodes to measure electrochemical response and fluorescence microscopes to visualize neuronal connections — high-tech equipment that’s usually reserved for advanced researchers.
This video takes a closer look at the class, Lindgren’s views on Biology 150’s approach, and the biannual, end-of-semester poster session where students from all sections of Biology 150 come together to present their research.
- Grinnell College Biology Department
- Clark Lindgren's April 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article describing Biology 150
To me it always seems a real tragedy to have a student come to college and say, “I want to be a biology major” for whatever reason, or “I want to be a science major,” and not find out until maybe their senior year that actually the thing that biologists really do isn’t very appealing to them. They were attracted to biology because they were really good at doing biology in a course structure. But throw them into a laboratory where there’s a lot more open-endedness to the problems, [and] you have to use a lot more creativity to solve your problems, they’re just lost and they don’t really like it.
So to me it seems almost like false advertising to bring students in. “Trust us, you’ll like it. Trust us, you’ll like it.” But we don’t really let them really “do it” until maybe their senior year, and they do an independent research project, and they actually get to do something similar to what we’re doing in BIO-150.
The thing I like about the [BIO] 150s … that I think is special is, you learn to work with people. Science doesn’t just happen — one person looking at a microscope discovering things. … It happens with people.
There’s like 10 or 12 different 150s, so students can pick the 150 that they feel they identify with the most, and then they buy into it right away.
So [my section of the course] is called “The Language of Neurons.” The topic we focus on [is] how neurons communicate … with other neurons. The idea is how do nerves communicate? What is the nature of that form of talking that they engage in between different cells?
It’s an important, interesting question as to how cells talk to each other in this way. They use a chemical message that gets transmitted from one cell to the other and basically tells the receiving cell what to do, whether to become more active or to become less active. That’s happening all the time. In fact, in the human brain, that’s happening at trillions of synapses in the brain simultaneously.
As usual, it’s really impressive. You have to kind of keep pinching yourself and saying these really are kids who, prior to this semester, had done nothing like this before, had [not] really taken any college-level science classes or biology classes. And then you see something that’s not that much different than what you see when you go off to your professional meetings and do this.
>>MAISIE DOLAN ’15:
One of the cool things is that we’ve all been working on the same things, like how to write an abstract, how to ask scientific questions, how to create a working hypothesis and create an experiment that helps us prove the hypothesis — or disprove the hypothesis (hopefully not!).
So all the [students] have the same tools and the same structure but are all coming at it from really different places. So that’s been really cool. They’re people working on sunscreen and radiation or how hermit crabs walk up hills.
It looks good right now. I think we’ll have a lot of people come out. We have a lot of our alumni who have come back, so I’ve seen a lot of my students from last year … that’s really fun.
>>KATHRYN VINCENT ’13:
It’s really fun to come back and look at people’s posters and see what projects they’re doing and how they’re trying to think like a scientist. I remember back in 150-days when we’re all trying to wrap our heads around how to do a project, and actually seeing it come to fruition is really a cool thing to do.
If they see somebody who did a project looking at, let’s say, joint angles in goats, and they did a project on sheep last year, they’re so excited. And they know what to ask because they know the morphology. So, it’s good.
Obviously, this represents a lot of hard work and commitment to having done this during the semester. It’s really fun to see how much this event itself means to them. They’re taking this very seriously. It’s very important. That’s a feature of this way of teaching that’s really hard to get any other way, so students really own it. This isn’t just something they’re doing because we tell them they have to do it. They really want to do this because, at some point along the way, after they spend enough time on these projects, they really become their projects. And that’s just a whole different way of looking at whatever you’re doing. If it’s something you really want and you think is important, you’re going to own it and contribute in a way that you don’t … if you’re just being told to do it.