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Professor John Peters

Professor John Peters


Biology Professor Turns Students Into Scientists
By Trudy Helmsing

When college students think of a typical biology course, they might picture going to class, listening to the professor's lecture, taking pages of notes, and then learning it all for an exam. The whole time the students are wondering, "How am I ever going to use this in real life?"

John S. Peters, Ph.D., is attempting to change such sentiments by the introduction of problem-based learning into his biology classes. "I want to create an experience that will prepare students for how they'll use biology in their civic, professional, and personal lives," Peters said.

The traditional approach to teaching biology is very concept-oriented; students learn what is in the textbook and then aretested on it.

Problem-based learning, on the other hand, is more contextual. Students divide into teams to look at a real world issue, research it, do activities in class, and gradually move toward forming an opinion on how the problem can be solved. They might form a debate, write letters, or create a policy statement. Some of these issues include global warming, embryonic cell research, human population growth, and performance enhancing drugs.

Peters, a Chicago native who has been teaching at the college since 1990, has been using this approach for the past several years. Last year, the project received a grant from the National Science Foundation, to try to get more professors to employ this method of teaching. "Problem-based learning is grounded in what we know about how students learn best," Peters said. "They will learn more, engage more, if what they learn has relevance."

He also finds this approach useful in teaching labs. Traditional labs usually begin with a lecture, then students follow a set of instructions to get a specific outcome that is preplanned or already known. Instead of using this traditional method, Peters uses student-directed inquiry when instructing labs. "A lot of the learning starts with students," he said.

In place of a lecture, students decide what background knowledge is needed and what learning resources to use. They come up with the question instead of having it provided by the instructor. The students collect evidence, formulate explanations, and finally present the ideas as both an article and oral presentation to be peer-reviewed by the class.

According to Peters, this approach is more like the process an actual scientist would go through: research, perform experiments, draw conclusions, and get them reviewed by their peers.

"We gradually work towards turning students into little scientists," Peters said.

He thinks that this method is important because students do not just learn about biological processes but instead also learn about how we came to know about them. In addition, by teaching them about real-world scientific issues, they can not only better relate to what they are learning, but also use these concepts in later life.

"Students must understand how scientists acquire, evaluate, and use scientific knowledge," Peters said. "Decades of research in science education suggest that the best way to do this is to engage students in doing real science investigations."

Peters also believes that the process helps students to think about economic, moral, ethical, and historical issues as well. Although he does give a few exams, most of his Biology 102 class is based around activities done in teams.

Besides the two beginner levels of biology, Peters has also taught introduction to cellular and molecular biology, introduction to the ecology, evolution, and biology of organisms, and general ecology. He also teaches two graduate courses for teachers, zoology and genetics. Peters earned his B.S. at the University of Illinois, his M.S. at the College of Charleston, and his Ph.D. at the University of Northern Colorado.

Peters enjoys underwater hockey, wood-working, building furniture, competing in triathlons, and playing golf.

For more information, visit http://www.cofc.edu/~petersj/peters.htm.