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Big Ideas classes creating lifelong learners

Program takes interdisciplinary approach to course curricula

students in big ideas class working with artifact

Students in a Big Ideas course on evolution and life examine a fossil and make observations in small groups for a class assignment. The Big ideas courses explore broad concepts and are team taught by faculty members from different academic departments. Photo by Jill Tobin.

The students are seated around tables, taking turns peering into small, rectangular containers holding three side-by-side insect specimens suspended on pins. Some groups are examining cicadas while others scrutinize dragonflies or cockroaches.

Their charge? To determine whether the insects presented together belong to the same species. They work in small groups to make observations and generate queries that might lead them to a final determination (Do the insects share the same DNA? How do they reproduce?) and then one student from each group reports their findings to the class.

It’s surprisingly challenging. To give the students perspective on the assignment, or perhaps to keep their attention, Andrew Forbes, associate professor of biology and course co-instructor, poses a question.

“Did you know that we once found six species of cockroach on campus?” he asks, prompting laughter and groans.

The exercise is part of an interdisciplinary class called Big Ideas: Evolution and Life in the Universe, which is team taught by four faculty members from different academic departments, with support from three teaching assistants. Today’s lesson is “Recognizing Species,” and after the insect evaluation the students complete related activities online using supplied laptops and engage in a general discussion about species and evolution.

Co-instructor Mary Kosloski, lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, explains to the class why species identification is so important: “We can’t understand bigger evolutionary processes if we don’t understand species.”

The class is one of six “Big Ideas” courses offered by the university. The concepts explored are broad in nature—evolution, technology, and creativity, among others—and are taught by multiple scholars with different areas of expertise. The courses also satisfy a General Education requirement, moving students one step closer to graduation.

Cornelia Lang, associate professor of physics and astronomy, was inspired to design the Big Ideas courses after she observed a similar program while in graduate school at UCLA. She took elements from that program and submitted a proposal to the UI provost in 2012. The first Big Ideas course was offered a year later. The six classes currently offered are held in TILE (Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage) classrooms to facilitate group learning and keep students engaged.

“We want to expose students to general ideas and teach them how to think critically, rather than just having them memorize things. We’re trying to get them to a higher state of learning,” says Lang, who teaches a portion of Evolution and Life in the Universe but attends every session. “I learn something in class every day. It’s nice for students to see faculty members learning from each other. We want to inspire them to become lifelong learners.”

Emma Markowski, a first-year student from Urbana, Iowa, says she enjoyed the Big Ideas course she took her first semester so much that she enrolled in a second one.

“I really like that I can have my voice heard in a large class—sometimes you can feel like an unknown student in a lecture,” she explains. “In the Big Ideas classes, I am with a lot of different people, but the interactions between the faculty and the students are at a much more personal level. I especially like the debates we have.”

Cameron Moeller, a first-year student from Davenport, Iowa, says he appreciates the broad perspective offered.

“Classes often get too focused on specific details and concepts and thus lose sight of the big picture—like why the class material is worth covering,” he notes. “What many classes fail to illustrate is that the questions we encounter in life cannot be understood or explained without examination through many different perspectives and skill sets, that seemingly unrelated ideas can have major impacts on each other, and that the tools and critical thinking skills developed from searching for and comprehending these connections is beneficial to anyone in any field. The Big Ideas classes help to make these concepts clear, and get you in the right mindset for what is to come in life.”

This post originally appears on Iowa Now. For more information visit