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A Team-Taught Interdisciplinary First-Year Seminar With a Focus on Blood

Journal of College Science Teaching—January/February 2020 (Volume 49, Issue 3)

By Adele J. Wolfson and Justin Armstrong


First-Year Seminars (FYS) offer a unique mode of introducing college students to new topics, research practices, and approaches to learning that they may not have been exposed to in high school. In this article, we outline the successes and challenges of team teaching a combined cultural anthropology and biochemistry course on the topic of blood, an aspect of our everyday lives that is both vital and hidden. Using our own experiences in and out of the classroom along with direct student feedback, we discuss the importance and relevance of using interdisciplinary, team-taught FYS to engage, excite, and educate students about the inherent value of thinking and working across disciplinary boundaries.

 

First-Year Seminars (FYS) are a High-Impact Practice (HIP) that have been shown to facilitate the transition from high school to college learning (Kuh, 2008). When Wellesley instituted a FYS program in 2011, among the goals were: to introduce the ways that knowledge is constructed in particular fields, to employ innovative pedagogies, and to model interdisciplinarity.

With these goals in mind, we designed a team-taught FYS called The Science and Culture of Blood. As instructors, we thought that both of our fields of expertise—(bio)chemistry and (cultural) anthropology—could easily be organized around this topic. Blood is also a subject that holds a great deal of mystery and interest in the popular imagination. Once we began framing the course, we were overwhelmed with potential course material and student interest.

Course design

The course was offered twice, once in 2014 and again in 2017. A list of topics and selected readings is shown in Table 1. These points of discussion were similar in both offerings, although there was some modification to the time spent on each topic and the timing of which instructor took the lead in the second offering.

Table 1

Outline of topics and readings.

Readings

Topic

Introduction to Chemistry/Biology/Physics of Blood

Hill (2013), Chapter 1; Southern Illinois University (2014) website on blood cells

Introduction to Culture and Blood

Knight (1991), Introduction

Blood Groups/Blood Banking/Transfusions

Hill (2013), Chapter 2; Swanson (2014); Sayers (1940); Zimmer (2014)

Bioethics of Blood Donation

Caplan (2010); Edna (2014); Galarneau (2010a; 2010b); U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018)

Purity and Pollution

Douglas (1966)

Ethnographic Approaches to Research

Durrenberger (1995)

Menstruation Taboos: Case Study

Armstrong (2015); Delaney et al. (1976); George (2012); Mufaro (2014); Kissling (2002)

Cultures of Blood in Medicine and Illness

Hill (2013), Chapter 1

Mythologies: Vampires, Divination, and Haunting

Bell (2006)

Blood Disorders: Clotting and Hemophilia

Hill (2013), Chapter 2; Science Magazine (2009)

Symbolic Life: Blood and Other Symbols

Carsten (2013)

Blood Disorders: Sickle Cell and Other Anemias

Epstein (2013), Chapter 11; Tymoczo et al. (2013)

Family Ties: Kinship and Blood

Carsten (2011)

Blood Doping: Case Study

Wolfson (2015); Epstein (2013), Chapter 13; Shuster and Devine (2013); Gladwell (2013); Craig (2004)

Blood Disorders: HIV/AIDS

Barre-Sinoussi et al. (2013); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019)

Blood on Film

Sotiris (2014)

Note: Table does not include student assignments or materials other than readings (lab exercises, films, etc.).

The only required text was Blood: The Stuff of Life, by Lawrence Hill. Other materials, including a basic biochemistry text, were available in the library or through Sakai, Wellesley’s online course platform. The 2014 offering was able to take advantage of a PBS special on blood (that site is no longer available).

In addition to all of the resources in existence, we were each able to develop a case study suitable for the course with the support of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2014) STIRS (Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills) program. The two cases were “Blood Doping: Cheating, or Leveling the Playing Field?” (Wolfson, 2015) and “Different Times of the Month: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Menstruation Taboos” (Armstrong, 2015). The former was used as in-class group exercises, and the latter was assigned as reading and paper topics. STIRS case studies are meant to be an entry into scientific thinking and reasoning, and the blood doping example included practice in interpretation and analysis of data. Both case studies also had significant content related to ethics.

Student feedback

Students responded well to the design and content of the course, as indicated by both formal and informal student evaluations. College-wide evaluations were conducted at the end of the course, and instructor-designed evaluations were conducted at the midpoint and end.

It appeared from these comments that students appreciated and understood the goal of interdisciplinarity. They wrote the following: The most valuable feature of this course was that it was a combined anthropology and chemistry course. The balance between social discussion and learning of chemistry was great. This course was interesting. An unexpected mix of anthropology and biochemistry, leading to an extremely unique mix of material. It was a good way to be exposed to some anthropology and biochemistry. I loved that this course was interdisciplinary and that it was a combination of chemistry and anthropology. Since I am not a science person, I was able to learn a little bit about chemistry but still feel comfortable since I was also learning about anthropology.

As the last comment indicates, we also met our goal of providing an entry point into the sciences for science-averse students.

Students also appreciated the value of a FYS in introducing them to college-level work:

This course allowed me to explore what a college seminar setting looks like. This was invaluable, and I got to explore a niche topic through many different lenses, which helped me think critically about the world around me.

It allowed for a good deal of freedom in what was discussed in class, which permitted more freedom of inquiry than is usual in academic classes. It was very engagingly presented, and the multidisciplinary approach allowed students interested in radically different future paths to come together in investigating the topic of blood. It was not aimed at any particular track, and as such, it allowed for the engagement and interaction of two very different fields and a very interesting group of students.

Discussion

Both Plank (2011) and Rinn and Weir (1984) used the word joy with regard to team teaching. We have found this description to be quite accurate. One of the great pleasures of this course was the opportunity it provided for multiple modes of instruction and collaboration with others at the college and beyond. On the scientific side, we spent part of one class in the laboratory viewing blood cells, but we also watched clips from the movie “Fantastic Voyage,” and read a Dorothy Sayers’s mystery with a plot that hinges on blood typing. On the anthropology side, we visited the college museum to see works of art that incorporated blood (literally or figuratively) and viewed both classic anthropology films and slasher movies. Our guest lecturers included experts on the ethics of blood donation, HIV/AIDS in both the international and local context, and college librarians.

The course was “interdisciplinary” (Newell & Green, 1982) only in the sense that we brought two disciplines (chemistry and anthropology) to bear on a single subject (blood). We did not expect to, nor did we, develop a synthesis or create new knowledge about blood because of this approach. However, the interplay between the instructors and the types of materials used highlighted for students the different approaches and attitudes toward evidence for these two disciplines, as has been described in other contexts (Duchovic, 2011).

Other instructors who have reported on team teaching have noted how this approach breaks down the usual teacher-centered classroom and gives students permission to be more active learners and constructors of knowledge (Liao & Worth, 2011; Plank, 2011; Robinson & Schaible, 1995). We certainly found this to be the case. Each class session began with students bringing examples of encounters with blood in their daily lives or in the news, and many of these instances led to discussions that were not resolved by the instructors. Additionally, each of the instructors participated as class members when the other was taking charge, modeling good student behavior and making it clear that we were learning from one another.

One issue that has been noted in accounts of team teaching is the tension over “who is in charge,” particularly with regard to grading (Liao & Worth, 2011; Plank, 2013; Shibley, 2006). We did not encounter this problem. Because our course was offered on a “credit/no credit” basis, the only possible grade was “credit” (or “pass”). If a student were to be judged as not having earned credit, the course would be expunged from her transcript. Part of the goal of such a grading system is to relieve pressure around grades, and it was successful in that regard. For each assignment, the instructor taking the lead for that day read and commented on the papers, with the other instructor also reading as a check. Rubrics were included for some assignments, including oral presentations, and were returned to the students as feedback. Because much of the work in class was done in small groups, students felt responsible for contributing to their groups and were rarely absent. When a student missed class, there was an immediate effort to determine the reason, and all assignments were ultimately completed.

There has been recent interest in integrative, or interdisciplinary, curricula in higher education. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018) has published recommendations for integrating the sciences with humanities and arts with the sciences in graduate and professional schools. The benefits are obvious: We live in an interdisciplinary world, where boundaries are disappearing or becoming blurred and the interesting questions are at the interfaces. The more we can help students make connections, the better their overall experience and output become. Our data (Wolfson, Cuba, & Day, 2015), and those of others (Pitt & Tepper, 2012) suggest that students who study two fields in depth—a science and nonscience—are better at making connections among fields than those students who simply sample from other fields or avoid them altogether. FYSs are particularly effective in this regard, since these courses introduce students to the questions asked and methods used by various disciplines and provide an opportunity to demonstrate how these approaches are connected.

In general, FYSs are an ideal environment in which to introduce disciplines students may not have encountered in high school and/or to reintroduce disciplines they may have seen but not understood as active areas of scholarship. Instructors at many institutions have used FYSs as a vehicle for team teaching and interdisciplinarity (Bozzone & Doyle, 2017; Krometis, Clark, Gonzalez, & Leslie, 2011; Nungsari, Dedrick, & Patel, 2017). A common topic for team-taught FYSs is sustainability, whether the central theme is water (Forbes, Brozovic, Franz, Lally, & Petitt, 2018) or consumption (Walsh & Davis, 2017), or other aspects of this growing field. Our course was certainly not unique in design but was engaging for both faculty and students and served the purposes of helping students transition to college level research and analysis; break down barriers between disciplines; improve writing, reasoning, and speaking skills; and bring colleagues together from all parts of campus.

We understand that employing two instructors for a small class (capped at 15) is a luxury that only some institutions can afford. However, the investment in First Year students is one that many colleges find to be worthwhile in terms of retention and engagement.

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the Association of American Colleges and Universities STIRS program for support of case-study creation and to Wellesley College’s First-Year Seminar program. Thank you to the students who so willingly embarked on this adventure with us.

Adele J. Wolfson (awolfson@wellesley.edu) is Professor Emerita in the Department of Chemistry and Justin Armstrong is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Writing Program, both at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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