I wonder how many Physiology students dropped my class this semester when they saw the “Dead Rats” activity on the course schedule. There certainly have been many who tentatively ask me about that particular activity. After briefly traumatizing them with visions of dead rats piled high to the ceiling, I inform them that the activity actually makes use of PAPER dead rats. I can SEE that great sigh of relief as it exits their lungs!
I found this activity through the APS Archive of Teaching Resources. It simulates an actual physiology lab in which students treat rats with various hormones, then kill the rats and weigh their organs to learn more about how the hormones affect different body systems. The activity eliminates the need to kill rats (for which I am extremely grateful) and also adds a bit of authentic mystery into the mix, because the students in the scenario forgot to label the hormones before treating the rats. My students are then tasked with figuring out which hormone was used to treat each rat.
This activity works fantastically in the flipped class. My students will watch their lecture on the endocrine system and complete the lab handout based on the article from the Archive, all before coming to class on Wednesday. Then they will get into groups and examine their packets of “dead rats.” There are many skills students use in this activity. First, they have to have a working understanding of each hormone and the different ways the hormones affect each other and body organs. I do not require them to memorize these interactions or details, YET. I just want them to be able to APPLY what they’ve learned about the hormones to help them understand the dead rats. One of the most challenging things for them involves HOW they organize their data. This is tricky and I have to be careful about giving them instructions that are too specific, because then the activity becomes an exercise in following a recipe, instead of an opportunity to practice critical thinking skills.
I piloted this activity in my class a year ago, and perhaps because it was done so early in the semester, students found the open structure of it quite frustrating. I am used to this kind of frustration when I try something new, mostly because I don’t yet understand the pitfalls they will tumble into. In class tomorrow, I will warn them about the importance of effectively preparing for the activity by watching the lecture AND completing the lab handout. I will also remind them to make sure their brains are optimally engaged as they study and prepare.
Finally, I’d love to say I have a sophisticated assessment planned to accompany this activity…but unfortunately, I do not. That, however, is one of the GREAT things about teaching…I get to constantly improve my craft. Adding a rock-star quality assessment into the mix will be my goal NEXT semester.