Posts filed under Natural Sciences


Rice University students sitting in the grass discussing papers.

Title of the Course –  Introductory Biology

Instructor –  Michael Gustin

Department – BioSciences

Course Number - BIOC 201

Intended Student Audience- Undergraduates

Course Description: Develop critical insight into basic biological mechanisms of biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, and development of animals and plants through exploration of initial observations, definition of problems and questions, construction and testing of hypotheses, and analysis of the results of experiments.

Professor Gustin teaches biology in a way that knocks you out of your comfort zone.
— BIOC 201 student


How can we create opportunities for learning through small group discussion and peer instruction in a large lecture class?

Gustin's BIOC 201 is a popular introductory course enrolling around 200 students each semester it is offered. The course is a requirement for BioSciences majors, a prerequisite for upper level courses in the BioSciences and other disciplines, and it also fulfills the University's distribution credit for science courses. Therefore, students enter the course with varying levels of preparation in the biological sciences and different motivations for mastering the material.  Gustin says that in order to facilitate more meaningful learning experiences he knew he had to get students talking to each other and working together during class. However due to the survey nature of the course, the lectures cover a large amount of material and are fast paced leaving little time for students to work together in groups during lecture. In addition, the large course enrollment creates logistical challenges for managing group work and discussion during lectures.


To create structured opportunities for small group work Gustin decided to make it an integrated part of the course design. At the beginning of the semester each student is assigned to a team of 10-12 students that they will work with over the semester in breakout discussion sections.  Eight class meetings over the semester (about 15% of classes) are dedicated to these breakout discussion sessions. Prior to each breakout session, Gustin assigns a few questions or provides a topic that one or two team members on each team must address. For example, for one session students are asked to create an analogy for one of the topics discussed in the previous lectures. These students prepare a response ahead of the discussion section, then give a presentation to their teammates and guide discussion during the breakout session.  An undergraduate teaching assistant is there (with a rubric) to observe and make sure all students are participating. At the end of the discussion session another student on the team writes up a summary of the discussion and identifies any unanswered questions. Before the next lecture Gustin scans these write-ups for the ‘unanswered questions' and these become potential topics for extra credit on the next exam. He says that this motivates all students in the class to read and try to answer these 'unanswered questions,' which are posted on the course webpage. In addition, when appropriate, he brings the work completed in these small groups back into the large group lecture. For example, the lecture following the analogy assignment he presents all of the analogies to the whole class and they vote on what they believe are the best two analogies. In this way, Gustin encourages students to see the small group work and peer instruction as an integrated part of their overall learning in the class, as opposed to 'supplemental' or 'additional' coursework.

I appreciated the discussion groups as it was a chance to discuss the material in a smaller forum and an opportunity to become more engaged with the subject and share knowledge with classmates.
— BIOC 201 student


Gustin says that there have been a few challenges with implementing these small group breakout sessions that he has not yet found solutions for. To begin with, due to the large number of students enrolled in this course integrating small group work at this level requires a lot of administration on the part of the instructor. Using undergraduate teaching assistants helps with some of the administrative tasks, but Gustin says he continues to look for ways to streamline the administration of the group discussion sessions. Gustin has also found that student absences from the small group discussion sections are difficult to account for since the these class meetings are more heavily factored into students grades than lecture meetings. This is particularly challenging when it comes to student athletes who may miss classes when their sport is in season.

Dr. Mike Gustin


Mike Gustin is a Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology.  He has earned multiple teaching awards over his 25 years at Rice University. In 2016 he received the George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit, thereby officially being retired from the competition for the Rice University Brown Teaching Awards. Professor Gustin's research is in the area of molecular genetics and biochemistry of signal transduction.

Posted on August 8, 2016 and filed under Natural Sciences.


Hands texting on a phone.

Title of the Course – Electricity & Magnetism          

Instructor –  Jason Hafner

Department – Physics & Astronomy

Course Number - PHYS 102

Intended Student Audience- Undergraduate science and engineering majors

Course Description: This course serves as an introduction to electricity and magnetism. Students will learn about how matter becomes charged, and about the physical interactions between charges as described by Maxwell’s Equations. Applications to basic circuit elements in both DC and AC circuits will also be addressed.


How can we create a class climate in which students feel comfortable to ask questions?

Hafner's PHYS 102 lecture course enrolls between 100-200 students each semester. The format of the class is fast-paced as students are introduced to the basic concepts of electricity and magnetism through lecture and demonstrations. This introductory physics course draws in a wide range of students with different levels of preparation and experience in physics. Most are freshman and this is among their first college courses. Hafner believes that these factors, along with the sheer number of students, creates a climate in which students are intimidated, nervous, and afraid to ask questions.



To address this challenge Hafner first tried using audience response systems during lecture, a strategy many of his colleagues use. However, he found that these tools disrupted the flow and rhythm of his short 50-minute lectures.  Eventually he discovered that simply writing his cell phone number on the board and letting students text him questions during class was the most efficient and effective way to encourage students to ask question.  With this strategy he found several benefits:

  1. It uses a technology that all students have readily available with them in class.
  2. It is (effectively) anonymous, encouraging questions that students would likely not ask in front of their peers.
  3. It provides occasional breaks to the monotony of the lecture.
  4. It makes the course feel more personal and engaging for students.

Dr. Hafner’s method of texting questions helps ease students’ fear of asking questions. A student does not feel intimidated to ask a question because the professor has no way of knowing which number corresponds to which student. Additionally, a student does not feel intimidated to ask a question with respect to the other students because the other students do not know who asked the question. In fact, there is no way of knowing whether each question is asked by a different student or all questions are asked by the same student, thus encouraging students who feel that they ask a lot of questions to continue doing so, and encouraging students who rarely ask a question to also do so. As a result, there are more questions being asked in class.
— PHYS 102 student


For those questions that go unanswered during lecture (due to time constraints), Hafner sends the student a text message after class with an answer to the question. The problem with this is that only the one student gets the benefit of hearing the question and its answer. In the coming year, he will post the questions and answers that were not addressed during lecture to the class webpage to enable all students to see them.


Dr. Jason Hafner

Professor Hafner earned his Ph.D. from Rice University in 1998 under Richard Smalley for work on carbon nanotubes, and pursued postdoctoral studies at Harvard University with Charles Lieber. He returned to Rice in 2001 to join the faculty where his lab studies nanophotonics and interfacial biology. Hafner was named a Beckman Young Investigtor in 2002, and won the Norman Hackerman Award for Chemical Research from the Welch Foundation in 2011. He is currently a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and of Chemistry. Hafner is a Member of Scientia at Rice and has served as an Associate Editor for ACS Nano since 2010. He has taught freshman and sophomore physics for the past eight years, and is a member of Rice's Center for Teaching Excellence. He is on a quest to find a lecture demonstration that will get him fired.

To find out more about Professor Hafner's popular EdX class for AP Physics look here.

Posted on August 2, 2016 and filed under Natural Sciences.


Students collecting data in the field.

Title of the Course: Biological Diversity

Instructor: Scott Solomon

Department: BioSciences

Course Number: EBIO 327

Intended Student Audience: Undergraduate students majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology; students interested in environmental sciences and conservation biology

Courses Description: This course is intended to provide students with hands-on experience surveying the biological diversity of a natural ecosystem. The course is focused on recognizing, quantifying, and analyzing biological diversity. Students work in groups to design, execute, and communicate the results of a systematic survey of particular taxonomic groups in the Big Thicket National Preserve in east Texas. The course includes a weekend-long field trip to carry out a bioblitz [1] in the Big Thicket National Preserve.


By the end of the course, students should:

  • become familiar with some of the species common to east Texas;
  • understand and demonstrate how to quantify biological diversity at different scales (e.g. at a site, between sites, within a region);
  • understand and demonstrate how to measure the biological diversity of different types of organisms (e.g. plants and animals) and be able to distinguish the field techniques and statistical analyses that are appropriate for different organisms and questions;
  • design and conduct a biological species inventory focused on a particular taxonomic group;
  • effectively communicate the results of a biological survey both in writing and orally;
  • experience working in a natural environment; and,
  • explain why biodiversity is important and understand the main threats to biodiversity globally and locally.

I have learning disabilities. I don’t learn from lectures or readings, I learn outside by doing things myself. Biological Diversity is one of the only classes I’ve taken that not only accommodates students like me, but creates an atmosphere where we will thrive. I had a blast searching for reptiles and amphibians in the Big Thicket, and I never once felt like my learning differences were holding me back. Biological diversity was a class that reminded me why I want to be a biologist and why I want to study ecology, and it’s to do things like the Bioblitz. To be out in the field, learning and doing.
— major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


This course uses a project-based approach in which students work in groups to design, execute, and analyze results of a survey of the species diversity of particular types of organisms (e.g. trees, fish, butterflies) in a natural setting (a national preserve). Student groups are matched with expert consultants who advise them on their study design and help during the collection of data. The results are communicated through written and oral reports and contribute to an ongoing effort to understand the biological diversity of the preserve. The activities and assignments in the course are designed to allow students to discover knowledge and learn skills through group projects, including the following:



At the beginning of the course, the class visits Hong Kong Market in Houston’s Chinatown neighborhood, a large supermarket with a wide range of food products from around the world. Rather than providing students with a definition for biodiversity and telling them the various ways that researchers quantify it, they are challenged with the task of “sampling” the most diverse set of purchases they can within a one hour period and with a virtual budget of $20. The only rules are that any ingredient that is derived from a living thing counts as a species and that their total expenditure cannot exceed $20. The students then work in groups, exploring the supermarket and writing down (or taking photos of) the products they choose to sample. After one hour, the class meets up and they are asked to explain (1) how they conceptualized the meaning of “diversity” in the context of the assignment (e.g. a diverse sample could include the greatest number of different species, an even distribution of different species, or species that come from different taxonomic groups or geographical regions); (2) what strategy they used to maximize diversity (e.g. include inexpensive processed products that contain many ingredients, like spice packets; split up to cover as many sections of the supermarket as possible); (3) how might one determine how complete the survey was (e.g. by determining how many new species are added with the addition of each new sample); and (4) how the exercise is similar to sampling a natural ecosystem (e.g. inability to include all individuals in a sample, constraints of time and resources), and how it is different (e.g. how easy it is to “capture” and identify individuals, spatial arrangement of individuals). With this activity students learn that there are numerous ways that biological diversity can be quantified, that there are always constraints, both temporal and financial, necessitating decisions about the how to best allocate the available resources given the goals of the project,  and that a biological survey is always incomplete, but that there are ways to estimate what was missed.



The main focus of the course is the survey of the species diversity within the Big Thicket National Preserve, located in east Texas. Students are assigned to groups, each of which is given a particular group of organisms (e.g. trees, fish, butterflies and moths, reptiles and amphibians, birds and mammals). The groups are then tasked with designing a method for surveying that group of organisms in the Big Thicket National Preserve within a 24-hour period. Each group is matched with an expert consultant who they are encouraged to contact for advice; rather than telling them what methods work best, the consultants (as well as the course instructor and TA) provide feedback on suggestions made by the students based on research conducted by the students about sampling methods used by researchers working with that particular group of organisms. Each group submits a detailed written proposal and gives an oral presentation to the class explaining their proposed methodology as well as providing some basic information about the group of organisms they will survey (e.g. its taxonomic classification, identifying characteristics, and what species are common in the region). To help prepare for this assignment, the class visits the field site where the surveys will take place so that each group can provide specific information about exactly where their sampling will occur and may try out some of the techniques they hope to utilize.


A bobcat captured with a motion-activated camera

Following feedback from the instructor, TA, expert consultants, and their classmates, the students execute their surveys during a weekend-long field trip to the Big Thicket National Preserve. Survey methods include seining for fish in a stream, collecting butterflies with aerial nets, setting up motion-activated cameras to photograph reclusive mammals, and setting up pitfall traps for reptiles and amphibians. Some groups collect specimens that they curate using appropriate methods and later deposit into a museum collection. Expert consultants participate in the weekend bioblitz survey.


Expert consultants include:

Dr. Nancy Grieg - Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences

Dr. Cassidy Johnson - Lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University

Dr. Kevin W. Conway - Assistant Professor and Curator of Fishes at Texas A&M University

Dr. Cin-Ty Lee - Professor of Earth Science at Rice University and an expert on birds

Dr. Evan Siemann - Professor and Chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University

David P. Lewis - President of the Gulf Coast Mycological Society

Chris Valdez - Herpetology Keeper at the Houston Zoo

Tim Perkins - bird expert (Rice University Class of 2004)

Working with consultants was extremely beneficial to our learning process. The consultants helped us avoid novice sampling procedure mistakes that would prove costly in the field, but did not obstruct our independent learning experience. They also were invaluable during the sampling process. I felt that they also acted indirectly as career role models
— major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


Students share the results of their biological surveys by posting images and information about species they observe in the field using the website This site is publicly available and contributes to a growing database of observations used by researchers and amateurs alike.

Students submit a written report and deliver an oral presentation to the class that describe the results of their biological survey of a particular taxonomic group in the Big Thicket National Preserve. The reports are compiled into a single document that is shared with the National Park Service and contributes to the ongoing effort to catalogue and monitor the species that occur within the preserve.

Sharing their results with their classmates, the National Park Service, and with the general public is meant to help students reflect on their results, to place them in the larger context of the biological diversity present at the sampling site and in the region, and to understand how such data contribute to the efforts of others, who might use their samples or observations for a wide range of different research projects. As each class of EBIO 327 students adds their results, they are gradually building a database that may be used by future researchers to monitor the status of endangered species or to document the spread of invasive species.

Putting our inputs into was an interesting experience, because we were able to actually receive feedback from people who know a lot about these species and their various characteristics. Personally, it gave me some insight into the collaborative nature of scientific research and how important feedback is to the overall process.
— major in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology & Policy Studies


Solomon says that the idea for the bioblitz assignment came gradually. He has taught this course for several semesters using a different approach, in which students carried out surveys of particular types of organisms in different habitats following a standard set of instructions provided by the instructor. Although this approach had its advantages (e.g. higher success rates, more consistency across groups and across years), Solomon felt it lacked both the authenticity of working on a real project in which the results would be utilized by community partners as well as the ownership that comes with developing a project on one’s own. When considering ways to reinvent the course, he found examples of “bioblitzes” conducted by other organizations, which are typically conducted as citizen science projects open to the general public. Modifying such an activity into a class project that still collects meaningful data seemed like a win-win proposition!

Solomon says than one of the biggest struggles he has faced as an instructor is determining how much guidance to give the students as they design their surveys. Specifically, he struggles with determining how much information to give them from previous semesters. On the one hand, students would benefit from knowing exactly what has been done previously and how successful it was. On the other hand, he believes that students get a better educational experience (in terms of both learning gains and project ownership) when they design the survey themselves rather than simply repeating what has been previously done. Likewise, we are somewhat constrained in terms of what methods can be used based on what approval we have from the National Park Service and the IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee). The compromise he has found is to allow students to suggest a sampling methodology based on their own independent research, and then have instructors and expert consultants point out additional considerations, potential problems, or suggest alternatives. They also have access to some of the results from previous semesters through, but not their detailed sampling methodology.

Another challenge with this approach is that the student experience differs quite a bit depending on which group they are in. For example, the tree group has no trouble finding their focal organisms (they are in a forest, after all), and typically are able to identify all individuals by sight during the survey. Other groups, such as the butterfly and moth group, typically have to collect samples that they bring back to the lab and have to identify using a microscope at a later date. This means that the workload and schedule differ for each group. Solomon has learned that it is important to be clear about this at the beginning of the course so that there are no surprises when students later learn that some groups have completed their work while others still have a lot of work to do.

Additionally, one idea suggested by a student was to require students to do more research about the organisms they are surveying. Currently, each group is asked to include some information about their focal organisms, but it might be helpful to include an additional assignment in which each group summarizes the natural history and behavior of their focal group before they begin working on a proposal for how to survey it. This would ensure that any important information (e.g. some members of the group are exclusively nocturnal or require a particular type of soil) are known when planning the survey.




Professor Solomon

Professor Solomon

Scott Solomon
Professor in the Practice, Department of BioSciences

Professor Solomon received a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from the University of Texas at Austin where he examined the evolutionary basis of biological diversity in the Amazon Basin. Before joining the faculty at Rice, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and the State University of São Paulo in Rio Claro, Brazil. He teaches courses in introductory biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, insect biology, tropical field biology, and scientific communication.  Professor Solomon has been a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence since 2014. In addition to his research on the biology of ants, he speaks and writes about science for the general public. His writing has appeared in publications such as Slate and and his first book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution will be published by Yale University Press in 2016. Dr. Solomon is also a Resident Associate and Faculty Fellow at Baker College, where he lives with his wife, Catharina, and their three children.

[1] A Bioblitz is a 24 hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible.

Posted on February 22, 2016 and filed under Natural Sciences.