Changing the anatomy of a science education

ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts implementing creative strategies to provide students with multiple pathways to success

anatomy class

When Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus opened in 2006, almost all of the students taking general science courses in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts were nursing majors.

As the campus has grown to be home to more than 8,400 undergraduates pursuing a range of degree programs — from allied health fields and public service to journalism and communication — the learning needs of students have changed. 

“It’s a delicate balance to keep the BIO 201 and 202 curriculum in-depth enough for the majors that need that rigor, but approachable for allied health and other majors as well,” said lecturer Tonya Penkrot, who has been teaching anatomy and physiology in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts faculty since 2009.

Science faculty members have developed a new one-semester survey course, BIO 160: Anatomy and Physiology for Non-Science Majors, which will launch in fall 2018 and, she said, should appeal to a broad range of students. 

“I’m proud of our faculty’s ability to manage the huge growth and continue to provide the best experiences for students in lectures, recitations and labs,” said Richard Bauer, a principal lecturer and Science, Math and Social Science faculty head in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “They’re really creative and encourage interactive learning, so that even in a lecture hall, students are engaged.

“Decisions on instruction are grounded in what we know about how students learn,” he emphasized. “We’re always focused on finding ways to help students be more successful.”

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When the coursework calls for exploring tissue under the microscope, Associate Professor J.P. Hyatt, for example, involves students in slide prep.

“They use the Cryostat technology — think a small, very cold deli slicer — to prepare microscope slides for the full class to use,” Hyatt said. “It gives our undergraduate students a throughput to research. They’re doing real tissue work and connecting teaching to research in a very tangible way.”

Upper-division undergraduates who have excelled in the anatomy and physiology 200- and 400-level courses have the opportunity to progress into a teaching role and be hired as instructional assistants (IAs) to help lead these same lab sections as peer mentors.

“Involving undergraduates as instructional assistants has become a signature, and very positive, addition to our program,” Bauer said. “Our student workers are extremely talented and qualified and are partners in contributing to student success. Having recently taken the course, they’re on the front lines in seeing flaws and offering ideas about how we can make our teaching better and continually improve. Students also feel very comfortable going to IAs with questions.”

First-year students don’t usually walk into an anatomy and physiology course expecting it to be a solid rung on the career ladder. 

“But career progression is built into these courses,” said Jennifer Legere, anatomy and physiology laboratory coordinator. “For many IAs it’s their first professional job. They become confident public speakers and discover they have a passion for teaching. They learn what it means to be representing their university, and they develop a sense of pride in their work and the institution.”

Legere herself was a student of anatomy and physiology at this campus in 2009 and became an instructional assistant in 2010. Hired as the full-time lab coordinator in 2013, she now oversees the 40 anatomy and physiology labs for BIO 201 and 202 and runs the weekly IA lab meetings, where students learn and discuss pedagogy. 

“In a typical session with the IAs for 201, they’ll work through the lab manual for the following week on their own before coming to the meeting,” Legere said. “I’ll call on them at random and ask what the goal of the lab is and go over our objectives and activities with the models and the Anatomage Table. I’ll ask what they think students might struggle with.

“Experienced IAs will talk about what students had difficulty with in the past and offer tips that worked for them, like inventive ways to remember particular structures or concepts,” she continued. “As a group we’ll brainstorm ideas about presenting the material in a way that’s more relatable. The IAs bring a different perspective from what I and the faculty have.”

Helping students discover their passion

ASU sophomore Kacey Cavanagh wants to eventually be a pediatric nurse practitioner in a primary-care setting. She knew as a senior in high school that she wanted a career working with kids, but the science and health piece of the puzzle came later.

“I volunteered with a kids’ musical theater group,” Cavanagh said. “Helping kids realize their goals and having them put their trust in me felt really special. I wasn’t sure which direction to take that, but thought, 'Hey, I’m pretty smart; I could probably do nursing.'

“But until I came to ASU, science was never my go-to subject,” she admitted. “Taking anatomy and physiology freshman year I was like, 'Yes! Let’s talk about the body!' For me it was like an accidental blessing in a way."   

She completed the BIO 494 Advanced Study Practicum focused on laboratory assistance last semester. This semester she’s applying what she learned as an IA, leading two BIO 202 labs.

“I think your IA kind of makes the course. If they’re not knowledgeable and having fun, you’re not going to be excited about the material,” she said. “To see people’s faces when they see or understand something for the first time, that’s a shared passion and excitement I really like.” 

Kelly Schock, now an IA for BIO 201 as well as for the advanced dissection practicum 494, said her experience as a student and as an IA in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts science program at Downtown Phoenix campus has had a similarly strong influence on her professional goals.   

“I came to ASU as a student athlete to run track and cross-country,” said Schock, who is majoring in biological sciences at ASU Tempe campus. “The BIO 201 course that best fit my schedule happened to be on the downtown campus, and I had a great experience, including a fantastic IA who had a desire and passion for the subject. 

“The next semester, taking 201, I got to know Dr. Penkrot and Dr. (Jeff) Kingsbury, and by then I knew I wanted to be on the inside of the IA experience myself, making sure students had a smooth learning experience. It’s definitely gotten me interested in the education field; I don’t know what aspect yet, but maybe something in developing curriculum and learning tools, and teaching people indirectly.”  

Top photo: Lab coordinator Jennifer Legere tests her students on their knowledge of human skull bones on the Anatomage Table in their Human Anatomy/Physiology I Lab at the Downtown Phoenix campus on Feb. 7. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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