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Journal publishes professor’s spin on assignments

Theme weeks promote learning and add an element of surprise to microbiology classes

October 3, 2021

Stacey Peterson, Ph.D., encourages her upper-division microbiology class to think outside the cell wall. Using biweekly themes, students enliven course material with poems about microbial cell structures and cartoons depicting the antics of endospores. Stacey Peterson, PhD, professor of biological sciences, has introduced creative assignments to keep her students engaged. Her approach was detailed in a paper published by the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Educationi

The Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education published her article, “Introducing Weekly Themes to Engage Students in Microbiology Class,” detailing her procedures for introducing and designing assignments for each of her six themes.

After more than a decade of teaching at the Mount, Peterson, a professor of biological sciences, decided it was time to incorporate some fun activities into her lectures. In 2017, she began introducing themes and corresponding assignments to increase student interest and help students connect to lessons.  

“One of the reasons I did this was to get my students excited so that they’re more engaged in the class,” Peterson explains. “It’s also a surprise because I don’t tell them about the themes until I introduce the first one a couple of weeks into the semester.”

Peterson starts with an art theme, which pairs well with bacterial cell structure and function. In addition to drawing different parts of the cell, students choose from a variety of take-home activities, such as photographing objects that resemble bacterial morphologies or writing a song related to any aspect of microbial cell structure.

For the in-class assignment, students play the part of protein complexes and demonstrate a metabolic pathway.

Other themes aligning with course content include Relevance to Life, Analogies, Group Work, Asking Questions and In the News. Peterson recalls one student who wrote enthusiastically about how antibiotics saved her life (Relevance to Life) and another who compared biofilm formation to a scene from the movie “Toy Story” (Analogies).

But Peterson’s list of themes is by no means exhaustive. She constantly comes up with new ones and encourages her students to do the same. This year she hopes to introduce several new themes; for example, Fun and Games, which would include word searches and crossword puzzles. 

An assignment in Stacey Peterson's class required that students write about biological topics in haiku, a Japanese poetry form of three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, consecutively.
An assignment in Stacey Peterson's class required that students write about biological topics in haiku, a Japanese poetry form of three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, consecutively.

“I’ve never quantitatively assessed the use of themes,” says Peterson, “but my students consistently complete the assignments — and they get really excited about them.”

One such student is Micaela Wong, who took the class in the fall of 2019.

“It was a fun class, and the themes were a great refresher — especially because when you’re taking so many classes it’s hard to remember the simple things,” she says.

Wong’s favorite theme week was art in which she scoured her pantry looking for foods shaped like different bacteria: spiral noodles for spiral bacteria, grapes for coccus and beans for bacillus.

She says the use of themes not only helped her remember the course material but opened her eyes to the world around her.

“For Relevance to Life, we went through our medicine cabinets to see if we had things like antibiotics, hydrogen peroxide or alcohol wipes,” Wong recalls. “Now, especially with the pandemic going on, I’m more aware of the issues of microbial growth in daily life.”

Jaris Torres also took Peterson’s microbiology class in 2019 and says that it was one of her favorites. Today she is considering a career in infectious diseases.

“Sometimes science can get a little dry, and there is a lot of memorization,” she says. “The use of themes allowed us to be creative and think of science in a more abstract way.”