In the summer of 2018, Georgetown’s Biology Department found the roots of quantitative aptitude in a potentially surprising place: writing aptitude.
That summer, members of the Biology department convened a Productive Open Design Space (PODS) group, led by Teaching Professor Manus Patten, as part of CNDLS’ annual Teaching, Learning & Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI). They aren’t alone in their pursuits; each year multiple groups of faculty and staff apply to form PODS teams to pursue projects that can more easily come together with concentrated time and collective effort. The goal of the Biology faculty in this group was to design a framework for fostering quantitative literacy in biology majors—or, as they called it, Quantitative Reasoning in the Discipline (QuID). PODS and TLISI gave them the space and time to do it.
A few years prior to the creation of PODS, a number of Biology faculty, including Patten, who were concerned about the quality of writing they were seeing in graduating student theses, had come together to articulate guidelines for Writing in the Discipline (WID). In Patten’s words, they “tried to inject [a focus on writing and writing instruction] at certain places in the curriculum, tried to say what we expect at each level.” That, in turn, led to faculty paying more attention to writing and approaching it more intentionally, with learning goals in mind, “and after that point we saw an improvement in student writing.”
When Biology faculty came together again for TLISI 2018 with an analogous concern—problems with quantitative/mathematical literacy in student theses—the hope was that they could successfully use the same approach to this issue that they did with writing. The first task of the group during the intensive PODS week was clarification: “We spent all morning over coffee and snacks provided by CNDLS deciding this particular thing….It took a couple of days to figure out exactly what QuID looks like.” After some discussion the group outlined four competencies they wanted to foster in their students: Basic Skills of Numeracy, Calculation, and Visualization; Computation; Statistics and Data Analysis; and Modeling and Abstraction. Then, in another step analogous to what they did when tackling writing, they articulated, for each competency, three levels of increasing mastery, with the goal of guiding students through these levels during their time in the major. For example, one skill under the umbrella of the Computation competency involves databases. Students are expected first to be familiar with databases and to practice extracting data from them; next they need to become “an intelligent consumer” of databases; and, finally, they are expected to be able to create their own.
The first expectations fall on the faculty, of course. This work, according to Patten, “helped us when we were figuring out how to revamp our Foundations course, our sophomore-level courses….People in the intro and mid-level courses will be a little more thoughtful about what they can do, what they should do.” And the effects of the PODS experience have gone beyond being more deliberate about teaching quantitative reasoning in Biology. “It’s fun to get the faculty together to focus on teaching for a little while,” Patten says. “We have a shared task and we’re trying to do that, but we’re also doing other things. You end up learning things you wouldn’t have known.”
The effects of this QuID pedagogical project are still unfolding, and will be for some time. Patten’s view: “It’ll take two or three years, but I hope we’ll see senior theses and we’ll say, ‘Hey, that was pretty sophisticated quantitative reasoning.”
This year’s PODS will take place at TLISI May 20 – 23, 2019. Our applications for PODS are now open, and we invite all faculty and staff at Georgetown to consider applying. For more information, please visit the TLISI website.