Blogging biology

A high school biology teacher brings Web 2.0 into the classroom

Jan 23, 2009
Elie Dolgin
High school biology teacher Stacy Baker was sick of waiting by the photocopier to make handouts for her students. So in 2006, she launched a website, linkurl:missbakersbiologyclass.com,;http://www.missbakersbiologyclass.com/ to serve as central repository for class notes, pictures, and extra credit assignments.At first, the site was simply an online extension of her classroom, and information flowed strictly one-way: teacher to pupils. But Baker wanted the site to be more than that; she wanted to engage her students in the full interactive potential of the Internet. So she transformed the site into a participatory blog, and let her students take it over.
"Miss Baker"
Baker, 29, taught her ninth grade and advance placement (AP) biology students at linkurl:Calverton School;http://www.calvertonschool.org/ in Huntingtown, Maryland some Internet basics -- including how to hyperlink and where to find copyright-free pictures -- and suggested a few good life sciences-related websites. "From there, I just backed off and waited to see what they'd do with it," Baker told __The Scientist__.The students ran with the idea. First, they voted to name the site's blog feature linkurl:"Extreme Biology.";http://www.missbakersbiologyclass.com/blog Then, the 40-odd freshmen and nine AP students started posting research-related stories and commenting on each other's pieces. A scientific dialogue ensued. "I didn't want to turn it into a typical report you do in school," said Baker. "I wanted it to be a lot more exciting than that."And it wasn't just the students who got excited. Educational bloggers around the world took notice of the site, and in 2008, Extreme Biology took home an linkurl:Edublog Award;http://edublogawards.com/ for the best class blog.
To drive the content and web traffic, Baker first created a point-based incentive scheme for her students, with new posts and comments each counting towards the students' scores. Now, however, rather than awarding points, students are graded based on the quality of their writing. Baker also checks that her students use credible sources and that they've collected information from a wide array of outlets. "My duty as a teacher isn't just teaching them stuff," Baker said. "It's how to analyze information rather than just memorize it.""It helps us learn which sources are credible and which aren't," said Caitlin Carey, one of Baker's students who blogs about cancer research.The students can write about anything and everything, as long as it's biology-related, explained Baker. "I don't like assigning them specific topics," she said. "I want them ideally looking into subjects that they're interested in or passionate about." By far, the most popular stories on the blog relate to behavioral sciences, said ninth-grader Brandon Greer, who said he enjoys writing about ecology, too. "I just try and stay abreast of some of the cool things because you don't want to bore your classmates," he told __The Scientist__.Baker was delighted by her students' energy and enthusiasm. But she wanted them to engage further with active biologists and science communicators. So last weekend, Baker took eight of her most eager students, together with their parent escorts, to linkurl:ScienceOnline09,;http://www.scienceonline09.com/ the third annual science blogging conference in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The students were blown away by their warm reception. "There's this whole network of scientists who are willing to talk to you," said Erik Martin, a ninth grader.Now, Baker is expanding the blog to include wikis, twitter feeds, and social networking services. Greer loves all the interactivity, and said that the blog has made biology one of his favorite subjects. "I can't even imagine any way else, because Miss Baker makes it so much fun," he said.
Miss Baker and the "Extreme Biology" bloggers at ScienceOnline09 in Research Triangle Park, NC
Images courtesy of Stacy Baker