Performance Learning In Biology @ Millikin University

4 Sep

About our Curriculum

The Biology Program at Millikin University is an excellent example of the university’s strong emphasis on learning by doing.  Independent student research is required of all students and many of the courses have laboratory sections featuring small, independent projects and consistent hypothesis testing in the classroom. Though we have only 1,900 full time undergraduate students at the university, we have 11 faculty members in the Biology Department, which affords students the opportunity to complete a broad array of courses en route to their required senior capstone course.

Ecology and Evolution BI105 / BI155

Our first laboratory requirement for our students comes in a Fall Semester, Freshman year course, Ecology and Evolution, with three, 50 minute lectures per week and the companion lab, once a week for 3 hours.  The lecture material emphasizes the importance of understanding the unifying principles of biology and thinking about science, and biology in particular, as a process and not just a static set of facts. An intentional focus on Evolution is central to the mission of our department, and all courses, with the exception of Human Anatomy & Physiology courses, must be delivered from an evolutionary standpoint or at least have a substantial evolutionary component.

While learning the basic principles of ecology and evolution in the lecture, students have a very different experience in the laboratory section accompanying this course.  Early in the semester, the students are given open-ended experiments and asked to carry out the scientific method from inquiry to writing a paper with some specific guidelines.  After learning how to carry out an experiment for which most of the guidelines were set, how to read scientific literature, and how to write a scientific paper, the students are then given the remainder of the semester to complete a research project.  The students work in groups of two, choose their own project, test hypotheses, and learn and complete all necessary laboratory techniques. The projects must be completed and ready to present in a PowerPoint presentation and written as a scientific paper within five weeks of the initiation of the study.

Upper-level courses with a required research project:

The experience gained by the students in Ecology and Evolution greatly facilitates their learning and research opportunities in future upper-level courses. Students will often develop their chosen research project from one or more of these courses into their capstone research experience, culminating in the presentation of the further-developed work in Senior Seminar. Each of the following upper-level courses at Millikin has a required independent research project for the lab portion of the course and some require presentation of this work in poster form at the Millikin Celebration of Scholarship Research Poster Symposium in April of each year:

BI220 Field Ecology; BI308 Plant Physiology; BI312 Immunology; BI314 Ecology; BI323 Animal Behavior; BI325 Vertebrate Biology; BI326 Plant Biology; BI330 General Microbiology; BI340 Conservation Biology; BI360 Physiological Ecology; BI380 Ecological Journeys (Alaska or Florida or South Africa); BI407 Molecular Genetics

Research – BI391/BI392

All students at Millikin complete a research project before graduation, however, not all of them do so specifically for research credit.  Students that complete Research as a course establish a mutually agreed-upon schedule of work and plan of study with the faculty mentor with whom they are working.  The student then decides whether one research credit or two research credits best fit into their schedule during the semester.  A rough estimate of the amount of work required for one credit is 48 hours over the course of the semester (thus, 96 hours for two credits), and mentors will often incorporate into this agreement a requirement that the student provide a written progress report at the end of the first semester of Research credit and present their work at a conference at the end of their second semester of earning the credit. Freshmen almost never sign up for this course as they are already involved in a research project with Ecology and Evolution.  A few Sophomores earn research credit; however, the majority of students working to earn research credit are Juniors and Seniors.

Senior Seminar – BI481/BI482

All students graduating from Millikin University with a Biology degree must complete a research project and complete Senior Seminar.  In their Senior Seminar course, they must serve as peer reviewers of the other seniors’ work as well as present their own scientific poster, 20-minute oral presentation, and full scientific paper. All Biology faculty members are required to attend each presentation and to contribute to the grading of the student work as well. Students may enroll in this course and complete the requirement in either the Fall or Spring semester, depending on their level of preparation when their senior year arrives.

Research Outside of the Normal Curriculum

We have one endowed, merit-based science scholarship program, the John and Ula Leighy Science Scholarship, which provides a $2,500 annual scholarship to those students who qualify for the scholarship upon enrolling at Millikin as well as a $3,000 stipend for staying on campus and working on an independent research project with a faculty mentor during the summer between their Sophomore and Junior years.

We also have Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, which are competitive research fellowships granted from the university. All student/faculty collaborators are eligible to apply for this.  This, too, provides a summer stipend for the student and a modest budget for supplies.

Overall, our faculty work diligently to incorporate performance learning into the curriculum for undergraduates in the Biology program.

In future posts, I will share information about what my students have accomplished in the past 3 years and where we are headed next.



One Response to “Performance Learning In Biology @ Millikin University”


  1. Performance Learning Enhancement Grant (yes, the acronym is PLEG…) | The Liberal Arts Ecologists | Small Universities. Big Ecology. - February 14, 2014

    […] the nature of research here at Millikin University, way back when we first launched this blog (you can read that here), I explained that folks at this university are big on using the phrase ‘performance […]

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