Thursday, October 3, 2013

Focus on Form

I had a delightful day in lab yesterday as my students struggled with finding, defining, and communicating about form. My doctoral work at Harvard and subsequent research focused on lichen form, so I thought I would give them a taste of one of my professional articles. The article was chock full of scanning electron micrographs, some of which I'm including in this post.

A theme of our course this semester has been looking beneath the surface. I'm trying to engage students in thinking about how to interpret the abstract messages that nature (and the world in general) send us. How do we go about interpreting our strange world? If we want to assert our agency in that world, and do it effectively, we have to interpret signals. Lichens with their strange seemingly abstract forms, difficult to put into any kind of familiar context, turn out to provide a great study instrument.

So as a warmup I asked students to tweet me their impressions of the figures in my article. People overwhelmingly wrote, " looks like..."  Bunny rabbit ears, coral, human hands and feet all appeared as descriptors. All focused on "visible" appearance though in nature, most form (I'm thinking molecular form) is observable though technically "invisible." This lab was also intended as a bridge to our next unit, where we will start looking at molecular interactions. If you don't think form is important in molecular biology think water. Or proteins. Or DNA.

After the warmup I asked students to consider a series of questions about form, its relationship to shape, and whether it only applies to living things.

Students put a lot of thought into their answers. I was inspired by all the work people invested in this lab, and I think they were too. As a biology professor I see my role less as a purveyor of biological "facts" and more as a learning coach. Especially focusing on how we solve problems, how we observe, and how we think and perceive. This is all connected with the new Boston University Arts Initiative. And I am a strong proponent as well of S.T.E.A.M., which includes arts in the traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) way of thinking. It follows that the introductory essay I had my class read was "Thinking Critically with Aesthetics," authored of course by me. 

I just spoke with one of my students who's doing a double major in advertising and economics. He reports that his class at BU's COM school is similar to mine. Students are asked to think hard, innovate, collaborate, and communicate, a tall order that goes way beyond the old models of imparting and receiving information. 

Lichens were a fun thing for me to study. They presented a real intellectual challenge. But the work I'm doing now goes way beyond that challenge as I design learning environments for my undergraduates that get them thinking (and performing) in new ways. 

Incidentally I spent my time in lab responding to students' tweets. Instant feedback and thoughtful discourse. Can't beat that for an effective learning environment.

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