Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
The objectives of this course are very true to its name; it serves as a biological introduction to the chaos and clockwork that make up life of Earth. It does not go very in depth on each of the topics, but rather offers a broad overview into the discipline of biology with an emphasis on evolution and species interactions. Topics range from the origin of life on Earth at the beginning of the semester to evolution and speciation, climate and climate change, and ultimately intra- and inter-species interactions at the end. There are several key themes that Dr. Rubenstein and the lab TAs emphasize continually throughout the course: mutualism, trade-offs, evolutionary fitness, evidence of the past on the present, and the propagation of genes via reproduction as an individual’s ultimate goal. Through this course, students are expected to acquire an understanding of and appreciation for the basic biological principles that govern life as we know it and the world around us. Students are expected to be able to apply the principles that we learn in lecture to new situations in order to predict or explain biological outcomes. Students must be able to compare and contrast the various ideas and strategies covered and identify relationships between units.
The course is divided first into broad topics such as Origins, Evolution, and Biosphere Form & Function. Each lecture within is then focused on a particular subtopic, such as Origins of Eukaryotes, Evidence of Evolution, and Nutrient Cycling. While there are certainly distinct units, every topic truly ties together and the themes continually reappear in discussions and on exams. The course is initially sequential as we discuss the origins and history of life and mass extinctions at the beginning of the semester. The subsequent material is no longer chronological, but rather grouped by the topics discussed above. As the key information is entirely qualitative, is is absolutely necessary to discuss the material with peers, lab TAs and Dr. Rubenstein. The material itself is not particularly hard to grasp and understand, but it is very easy to miss key aspects or forget important details if you do not understand the themes that Dr. Rubenstein has in mind.
A familiarity or awareness of key biological concepts is helpful in this course but certainly not required. Much of the material introduced, such as Darwin’s finches, overlaps with AP Biology courses and MOL 214 and will likely be familiar to students who have taken these courses. Nonetheless, it is certainly not necessary to have taken these courses or have any previous knowledge for this course, as everything that we are expected to know is explicitly explained in lecture. Prior experience conducting labs and writing reports is not necessary but certainly beneficial, as lab is a very large part of the grade and the assessment comes entirely from the reports.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
The main source of information in this course is lecture, which is led by Dr. Rubenstein. When students arrive, they pick up a set of slides that Dr. Rubenstein will use in lecture. While the slides have some information, they are certainly not complete nor comprehensive. Thus, it is the student's responsibility to take diligent and thorough notes. The original lecture slides are quite difficult to learn from and nearly all of the important information is spoken, not written, so it is absolutely necessary to go to lecture and take notes so that when it comes time to study you know what was discussed on the day of that lecture but may not be on the slides. As mentioned, the lecture material is not particularly challenging. However, there is quite a lot of information that is easy to forget so it is important to keep up from the start. A very successful strategy to master the lecture material in this course is to create flashcards each week after lecture with the most important terms, definitions, and biological examples and to review them cumulatively with the rest of the material each subsequent week. This strategy not only helps you to learn the material but also alleviates most of the stress and studying that you need to do when it comes to the exam, because you have already internalized the material and should be equipped to discuss it.
There are two types of assigned reading in this course; there is a textbook and several additional books. As shown on the syllabus, each week has corresponding reading from the textbook and each unit has a book that coincides with it. The textbook is certainly not necessary to understand course material, however it is a good resource if you want a more thorough description and analysis of a concept mentioned in lecture. Likewise, the additional books aren’t essential, as everything that you need to know is said in lecture, but they are very helpful in providing biological examples and creating a more holistic understanding of the material. While there is not system to keep you accountable for the reading, the assignments are made very intentionally to correspond to the material that we are learning in class. If you read just a couple chapters a night, it is quite easy to finish the books that correspond with each unit. Furthermore, the selected books are really, really interesting! They are not intended as textbooks but rather read like novels. They are meant to be enjoyable readings that reinforce the key principles of life of Earth that are taught in this course.
The final component of the course are the labs. The labs are so key to this course, more so than any other course I have ever taken. The lab material is entirely integrated into the lectures and exams and vice versa. As such, it is nearly impossible to succeed in this course without a strong understanding of the labs. The lab material will coincide with the lectures in that unit and are meant to provide a more thorough understanding of the concepts and an opportunity to see these concepts in action in the world around us. Prior to each lab section, students are expected to have read and understood the lab description and procedure. During lab, students work in groups to complete the various tasks and discuss the key takeaways. Following lab, students must complete individual write-ups and answer questions about the lab. These lab reports are a very large portion of the course grade and so it is very important that they are done well. Each lab TA has very distinct expectations and so it is important to communicate with your TA and understand these early on. The TAs are also an excellent resource as you are completing the write-up, as they are happy to discuss the labs and answer any questions that you may have, which will absolutely help you to do well on the reports. In addition to understanding the lab material for the reports, it is crucial to understand how it fits into the lecture, as the two are very interrelated and the lab material will certainly show up on the exams.
Learning For and From Assignments
This course is challenging in that there are very few assessments and so it is incredibly easy to fall behind. The only forms of assessment are the midterm and final exams and the various lab reports throughout the semester. The examinations require that students not only understand the basic mechanisms and principles that were discussed in lecture and lab, but that students are able to compare, contrast, and apply these to various situations. Students must be able to demonstrate not only that they know each principle, but that they understand how it works with the other principles and how it relates to the common themes, particularly mutualisms, tradeoffs, and reproduction. The exams provide students with a significant amount of choice in what to answer, so it becomes more important to understand a few principles very well than to understand all of the principles only at a surface level. It is also incredibly important to understand and use biological examples when answering exam questions. The books are a great resource for these, as are the labs and lectures.
In preparing for the exams, be sure to take advantage of the “main idea” bullet points at the end of each lecture. These are a reflection of what the professor deems most important and should be your points of focus. Additionally, use the “big picture questions” at the start of each lecture to guide your thinking and help frame the smaller ideas in context of the larger ones. As there are no practice exams available, it is good exam preparation to try to answer these “big picture questions”, as they tie together material from different units in a way that is similar to the exams. Finally, it is important that you don’t neglect the labs in your studying, as they most definitely appear on the exams in some form.
This course really does not require a significant amount of external resources. It is incredibly important to utilize the lab TAs and attend their office hours to get help on the labs. The assigned books, while not truly required, are helpful in solidifying concepts and providing a larger context for the things we are learning.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
Students can expect to get an introduction to the principles of evolutionary biology and ecology and engage in a significant amount of lab work, both conducting experiments and evaluating results and drawing conclusions. These skills will certainly be helpful in future lab courses, whether in the field of biology or elsewhere. The assigned readings offer an introduction to several related fields and careers that may be of interest to you. The course is not particularly demanding nor time consuming, although you should expect to devote some energy to the labs. This course absolutely inspired me and certainly helped strengthen my analytical and critical thinking skills. I gained a new appreciation for the world around me and a curiosity for why things are the way that they are.