Behind the scenes in a 650-student biology course

For the past year, I have worked as a teaching assistant (TA) for BIS2C (Biodiversity and the Tree of Life), which is the third and final course in the introductory biology series at UC Davis. Successful completion of the introductory series is required before students can move on to take upper division biology courses. The course is offered every quarter, with enrollments ranging from 600-1000 students. Those students attend four 1-hour lectures and one 3-hour lab each week. I want to use this blog post to give you some insights into the people and resources that make such a large course possible.

Let’s start with the curriculum. The course was designed by a team of faculty from the College of Biological Sciences, who established the topics that are covered in lecture and worked extensively to develop each of the eight labs that the students complete. The delivery of this curriculum is accomplished by a large team of people, including professors, staff, graduate students, and undergraduates. Here is a breakdown of the roles played the different groups of people that contribute to running BIS2C:

Professors: Each quarter a team of 2-3 professors oversee the teaching of the course. Following the curriculum guidelines, they develop the syllabus, assemble and deliver four lectures per week, write the exams, and provide guidance on various policy questions. In Spring 2014,  Jonathan Eisen, Susan Keen, and Peter Wainwright taught the course.

Course Coordinator: The course coordinator, Joel Ledford, is a full-time employee who oversees many aspects of the course. The primary function of the coordinator is to ensure that the labs run smoothly. This involves hiring and supervising TAs, coordinating lab setup with the course RA, holding training meetings for new TAs and  lab assistants, developing the lab practical exam, and making revisions to the lab manual and homework assignments. He is also responsible for the course website, where students submit pre-lab assignments, access lecture notes and other resources, and view grades.

Course RA: The course RA, Hoorin Gill, is a full-time employee who is responsible for setting up the labs. This involves supervising the undergraduate assistants, repairing or replacing damaged materials, and handling enrollment at the start of the quarter. She also assists the coordinator and head TA with a variety of other tasks.

Head TA: I am the current head TA for BIS2C. Like the lab TAs, I have a 50% appointment, which means I spend, on average, 15-20 hours per week fulfilling my BIS2C duties. My responsibilities center around the smooth delivery of exams. I assist the course coordinator and professors with preparing exams and handle all of the logistics for the exams. This includes reserving extra rooms, assigning proctoring duties to TAs, and assembling exam packets (each student gets an exam and Scantron with their name on it). I also coordinate the provision of accommodations to students who get extra time on exams (we had 10 this quarter). Lastly, I run the Scantrons after each exam and maintain the master grade sheet.

Lab TAs: This was my first position in BIS2C (I was a lab TA for 3 quarters). During the regular school year, lab TAs are in charge of 2 sections of up to 24 students each. These sections have one 3-hour meeting per week. During lab, the TA is responsible for delivering a short introduction to the lab, helping students work through the lab activities, and conducting a short wrap-up discussion. Outside of lab, the TAs grade pre and post-lab assignments and help proctor exams. Being a lab TA for BIS2C is challenging at first, due to the extreme breadth of material covered. This means that most TAs will have to do a significant amount of background reading to prepare for labs that cover topics far afield from those of their dissertation. For example, my training is in plant and molecular biology, and I had to lead two labs on basic animal physiology and systematics (which was actually a ton of fun). In Spring 2014 there were 17 TAs for BIS2C (all masters or Ph.D. students).

Readers: These are graduate students (with 25% appointments), who grade the short answer questions on the exams. After each exam, they work with the professors to develop rubrics, and then rapidly grade all of the short answer questions. There are typically 3 pages of short answer questions per exam, which meant that nearly 2,000 pages had to be graded after each exam this quarter! There were 3 readers in Spring 2014.

Lab Assistants: Lab assistants are undergraduates that assist TAs with teaching the labs. They are former BIS2C students that have taken a course on teaching methods through the UC Davis Mathematics and Science Teaching program (MAST). The lab assistant program allows current students to benefit from the experience of successful former students, gives the assistants experience with teaching, and gives the TAs experience with mentoring. There were 24 lab assistants in Spring 2014.

Undergraduate Assistants: These are students that are paid to help set up and take down the labs. There were 7 undergraduate assistants in Spring 2014.

College Staff: The BIS2C labs would not be possible without the help of various College of Biological Sciences staff, who support our course and others offered by the college. Specifically, purchasing for the course is handled by staff in the Plant Biology department, and the many live organisms we use in our labs are maintained by the staffs of the conservatory and animal care facility.

In summary, it took the combined efforts of 3 professors, 2 full-time staff members, 20 graduate students, and 31 undergraduates to make BIS2C a reality in Spring 2014.



2 thoughts on “Behind the scenes in a 650-student biology course

  1. Pingback: I made a cool video of the angiosperm life cycle! | The Prospective Prof

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