Sunday, December 14, 2008

Picture this - photography and biology

Biology is everywhere - you just have to look

An effective biology course can give students a new way to look at the world around them. Photography is a very useful tool in pushing them to literally see their surroundings through a different perspective. Digital cameras, disposable point-and-shoots, and camera phones make it easy for students to take and transmit images. Sending them out to ponder and photograph animals and plants adds a do-it-yourself but still directed field trip experience to an online course.

There are several different approaches that work well. One is to give the students a topic and send them out to find images that illuminate it. You might give them broad themes like photosynthesis or competition or plant succession. Or have them choose an environmental challenge like attracting mates or coping with drought and then document the strategies used by a few different species to solve the problem. Each photo or set of photos should be accompanied by a write up that explains the biology involved. Chose the assignments carefully, so that students have to really look at their surroundings and think through what they’ve learned in the course. Otherwise it just becomes a digital version of the dreaded 6th grade leaf collection.

On the other hand, a photographic show and tell can be a good way to get students talking to one another, and about biologic topics. Have a class upload photos of their pets to start a group discussion on artificial versus natural selection or the adaptive value of cuteness. Get them to post pictures of their lunch as a starting point to describe energy flow through ecosystems or debate the production and labeling of genetically modified organisms. Ask them to photograph their favorite outdoor spaces as a springboard to evaluating the value of wilderness and open space, or their sense of place in the natural world.

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