Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A new curriculum for Introduction to Biological Anthropology

A naturalist’s approach in the molecular age

[Update June 11, 2014: Here's how far this project has come.]

Brief Description
This is a curriculum that teaches introductory human origins and evolution the same way that humankind came to understand it-- from a naturalist’s perspective. This framework has historically worked quite well (witness Charles Darwin), yet it’s foreign to many undergraduate students who feel removed from nature. 


Background and Rationale
This spring 2012 semester marks about the 12th time that I’ve taught Introduction to Biological Anthropology (which is called APG 201: Human Origins where I am now).

For my first stint, I did my best to ape Jeffrey Kurland’s Penn State course because I had TA’d for him in grad school and he was phenomenal. This also means that I ripped-off various activities that TAs had developed and contributed to the curriculum over the years. I was also heavily influenced by Susan Anton’s late 90s version that I experienced while an undergraduate at UF.   But ever since then my course has gradually developed its own distinct flavor and I’m now at the point where it looks so different from its ancestors that even Milford Wolpoff might consider it a separate species. (To the uninitiated, welcome to bioanth humor.)

The changes I’ve made are due in no small part to new findings in genetics, primatology, paleontology, biology, forensics, archaeology, etc. that constantly accumulate. 

But mostly I’ll blame the changes I’ve made on a complete shift in pedagogical perspective thanks to finally identifying my two biggest teaching goals:

(1) Students should get as strong a handle on evolution as possible, shedding as many misconceptions as possible, so that they can best comprehend the biological, ecological, and cultural significance of human variation and evolution.

(2)  Students should achieve as much of this evolutionary understanding on their own as possible, by thinking creatively, synthetically, and critically about the evidence.

Number one means that I probably take more time with evolutionary theory  than most of my colleagues. But because this course is the only college-level exposure to evolution (let alone biology) that many undergraduates have, it’s important that it's strong. Once they’re out your door, they’re consuming, producing, and voting based in no small part on their understanding of their place in nature and their (and others') place in the human species. This one chance that we get to represent evolutionary theory and human ecology and biology is crucial make-or-break time for us biological anthropology professors.

Number two means that I have to deviate pretty far from the conventional format for this course, which plays out exactly the same way in all the textbooks. 

Here's why. My best guess for how to get students to achieve number two is to lead them through the steps that have worked for naturalists through history. This means having students walk in Darwin’s shoes (wearing modern science's goggles and gloves, of course). A lot of evolutionary evidence is plainly obvious if you just look around and read up on things like Darwin did. No need for fancy protein-coding machinery that students would be lucky to use if they got into the right grad school, let alone if they go work in a cubicle after graduation. What’s more, a lot of the biology and ecology (variation, heredity, inter-connectedness of all things) that was once obvious to so many people because they grew their own food in their backyard is now far from obvious to students who only grow their waistlines at Taco Bell.  I want students to see it for themselves because, while it engages them in higher level thinking, it is just so satisfying to discover things about the world. Why take that pleasure away from students?

Unfortunately, that's what all the mainstream textbooks in introductory biological anthropology do. Every single one begins the course by spoon-feeding the students evolutionary theory and smacking them in the face with molecular and cellular processes, hardly any of which have been specifically identified to be causally linked to the locomotor, dietary, cognitive and social traits that are the foci of subsequent chapters. [See Jurmain et al. (Cengage), Boyd and Silk (WW Norton and Co.),  Park ( McGraw Hill), Larsen (WW Norton and Co), Relethford (McGraw Will), Stanford et al. (Pearson)] 

For the most part, the popular textbooks present the material as a tour of what biological anthropologists do. But why do this to hundreds of students a year who aren't going to be biological anthropologists? Those students are, however, going to continue to be humans. So while the content is very important, it's just the presentation that's off.

Frontloading the course with complex theory and molecular concepts before making any comparative observations or discussing any of the evidence for human evolution is simply backwards. It also leaves some students feeling like they’re just memorizing factoids with little hope as to how to bring them all together to answer larger questions about where we come from and why we vary. And this method also creates the potential for students to believe evolution merely because someone with authority said it is so. But, by definition, evolutionary theory does not require dogma to endure. Anyone can see for themselves the evidence for human evolution all around them. This is what my approach encourages. (For more, see my last post on pedagogy here.) 

A New Curriculum
For my curriculum to work, it means that I assign readings out of order of the textbook.  So, to start the course, students are reading up on comparative anatomy and behavior from the middle and sometimes end of the textbook.  This is far from ideal considering these textbooks are written to progressively build upon previous knowledge. Having students read chapters out of order can be confusing, but it’s the only way to do it. (That is, until I write my own book (heh) or until enough resources that I can piece together become available like, for example, this draft list.)

In my reorganized curriculum we ask a chain of questions that progress in a logical manner and that foster a natural sequence of discovery. Here’s the unit-by-unit breakdown.

Unit 1. What is the scientific approach to understanding human origins? Provides perspective for the rest of the curriculum and provides essential tools for interpreting and evaluating evidence and understanding the science of human origins and evolution.

Units 2 & 3. What is a human and what are human traits? Students compare and contrast human biology and behavior with other organisms and learn how observations of living organisms support their evolution from common ancestors over deep time.

Units 4 & 5. How did human traits evolve? Theories and principles used to explain the evolutionary processes responsible for the observations made above. Students decide how evolutionary hypotheses can be tested and they make predictions for what is contained in the fossil, archaeological, and genetic records. Molecular evidence is evaluated here; fossil and archaeological evidence comes later.

Unit 6. Why did our ancestors diverge from those of other animals? Evaluate hypotheses for human-chimpanzee divergence. Testing evolutionary hypotheses in the fossil and genetic records.

Unit 7. When did our ancestors diverge from those of other animals? The importance of context. Geological dating methods. Molecular clocks.

Unit 8. How were early hominins similar to and different from apes? Testing evolutionary hypotheses in the fossil, archaeological, and genetic records.

Unit 9. When did early hominins start behaving like us? Testing evolutionary hypotheses in the fossil, archaeological, and genetic records.

Unit 10.  When and where did the first humans live and how did they disperse around the globe? Testing evolutionary hypotheses in the fossil, archaeological, and genetic records.

Unit 11. How and why do humans vary? Explaining human variation with and without evolutionary forces. Understanding race.

Unit 12. Why is human evolution misunderstood and why is it controversial? Facing denial and misconceptions and their dangers.

Unit 13. Are we still evolving? From this newly acquired, informed perspective we consider the evolutionary sciences and their role in our lives today. We also consider our place in nature today and in the future.

(c) Holly Dunsworth
Note: I know it's a blog, but this is where I chose to publish. That means, if you use this then find a way to cite it, please. Thanks and welcome to the future!

11 comments:

John Hawks said...

As other people find this post, I would love to hear if any others are doing innovative things in their intro biological anthro classes. I've totally reorganized mine as well, with a slightly different twist. I'll write that up and try to send some people to this discussion.

Nick Kilzer said...

I find it near impossible to adequately cover all the topics found in a typical introductory biological anthropology textbook (I've lately preferred Stanford, Anton, and Allen), so I've been basically forced to do much the same. I find I have expanded coverage of similarities of humans/apes and human fossil record at the expense of much of the basics of genetics. I have the students read those chapters and give an assignment, but then take it as read. I also prefer to provide a good amount of history/development of evolutionary thought as well as a strong dose of basic evolutionary theory. Just like you, I feel this is the only place they are going to get it. If they understand nothing else, they at least have that.

Nick Kilzer said...

I find it near impossible to adequately cover all the topics found in a typical introductory biological anthropology textbook (I've lately preferred Stanford, Anton, and Allen), so I've been basically forced to do much the same. I find I have expanded coverage of similarities of humans/apes and human fossil record at the expense of much of the basics of genetics. I have the students read those chapters and give an assignment, but then take it as read. I also prefer to provide a good amount of history/development of evolutionary thought as well as a strong dose of basic evolutionary theory. Just like you, I feel this is the only place they are going to get it. If they understand nothing else, they at least have that.

Marc Meyer said...

Just like you Holly, I grew weary of textbooks that didn't fit my sequence or focus, so a few years ago I wrote my own (published by Cengage). It's in perfect lockstep with every slide and every concept that I present. My students love it because it costs half the price of a typical textbook. But I don't promote my book anywhere because it probably won't work for anyone else's course. Looking forward to the inspiration that I can gain from yours though!

Ken Weiss said...

This is very interesting and a good approach. These days, with Powerpoint or other media like that, we can all teach just the way we want, picking and choosing from topics. Textbooks rarely give everything that you'd want, or the way you want, and so you are in a dilemma of what to do.

Nowadays, many textbooks also try to present everything the author knows about or fears that if left out some reviewer will slam the book for (and hurt its sales).

So in this sense we live in an era of pedagogical freedom.

rich lawler said...

"It also leaves some students feeling like they’re just memorizing factoids with little hope as to how to bring them all together to answer larger questions..."

But it is often necessary to memorize certain facts before students can put things together. In my class I warn the students about the large amounts of facts dispensed in this class. These are the nuts-and-bolts of the discipline and without keeping your facts straight (the "facts" of transmission genetics, the "facts" of selection"), you cannot possibly synthesize anything in a coherent fashion.

Obviously, introductory Biological Anthropology shouldn't just be a laundry list of facts, but there is no escaping that at least some of the basic "facts" of science-vs-nonscience, evolution, anatomy, etc., need to be inculcated prior to having the students develop questions/hypotheses that are worth considering. (At least within a 50 or 75 minute lecture w/220 students).

Certainly, it is possible to avoid facts (e.g., avoid memorizing that 8x8=64) by considering first principles (e.g., proving via demonstration that eight sets of eight equals sixty-four). For example, as you note, you can "walk in Darwin's shoes" to see how he assembled the "facts" of natural selection from several inferences based on Malthus, various animal breeders, etc. However, in a semester course, it is only possible to take this approach for some material, not all of it. For me, I am satisfied with stating as fact that "changes in a DNA sequence may sometimes influence the phenotype" rather than revisit the work of de Vries, Morgan, Muller, etc.

It took Darwin about 15 years to arrive at the concept of natural selection and de Vries, Morgan, Muller and others about 25 years or more to arrive at a "theory" of mutation; given this time frame, it makes the first-principle approach difficult to establish in a 3-6 lectures. I'm content with sometimes standing on their shoulders in order to find a shortcut, rather than walking in their shoes through the forest.

For me, the toughest challenge in intro courses is the balance between choosing when to cut corners by dispensing facts and when to follow first-principles in a manner that doesn't omit critical information.

What I've found effective is to spend the first 1/4 of my course on evolutionary theory, following a mix of facts and first principles, but--in order to keep this section relevant--making sure I continually draw connections and expand on what I've laid out in the first part of the course in subsequent sections. Obviously, this is not a novel approach but making sure to have real-world connections between evolutionary "facts" and day-to-day problems at least shows the students how theory articulates with their reality. I guess I still use the traditional "evolution up-front as fact and theory" but I don't just present this stuff in isolation but continue to revisit it throughout the semester.

Cynthia Bradbury said...

I couldn't agree with you more that providing a solid foundation in the facts of evolution is the best thing we can provide introductory students. Many students tell me they have never seen the data behind evolution.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks everyone for your feedback!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Rich, Thanks for your comments. Either I didn't write my ideas clearly enough in this limited space or you didn't understand them as I intended. It's probably a little of both. I'm not against teaching fundamental facts at all and I don't advocate retreading all the steps of all the past thinkers. I also don't pretend to expect everyone to share my goals or perspective. We must pick and choose our goals in the classroom in order to achieve something! I get that. One of my biggest aims is to encourage independent thinking. I want students discover as much for themselves as they can so that they can become independent thinkers. And with a little reorganization of the presentation (not the content per se), I've found that even in a lecture-based course, they can be lead through this discovery process and explicitly address the big questions that matter to everyone who's learning about or thinking about human evolution. I guess the difference between my intro course and some others is that I'm not interested that they know what biological anthropology is or what biological anthropologists do. I'm interested that they know how to answer the big questions about human evolution and that they gain some insight into the scientific and cultural controversies within those answers.

rich lawler said...

Hi Holly, I think we are in more accord than not. I didn't intend my post to be a critique of your approach to bioanthro. Like a good creationist, I was just quote-mining your post as a launching point to a pedagogical issue that has always interested me--the difference between description and explanation. In the classroom this can translate into the difference between learning that something works versus learning how something works. Memorization "works" just fine if students correctly recall a particular fact (such as the Hardy-Weinberg equation) but if I spend a lecture deriving the equation step-by-step then the students learn how this equation works and how it is properly deployed.

What I should have made more clear in my previous post was that I wish I could develop each topic in terms of a first-principle approach (have the students "walk in their shoes...") as it is more effective and a better way to learn. But given all that needs to be covered in an introductory course, I'm forced to cut corners.

In any case, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post and it got me thinking about all sorts of pedagogical approaches, one of which was what I wrote about previously.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks for getting me thinking too Rich!

P.S. For being such a gregarious person, it's remarkable how inept I am at navigating blog comment threads.