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IMSA New Biology Electives 

Written by Margaret Wei

New biology elective classes, Pathophysiology, Cancer Biology, and Biology of Behavior, have recently become IMSA upperclassmen favorites. The addition of these classes were aimed to further students’ knowledge from the required core classes: Scientific Inquiries Biology and Advanced Biological Systems. These new biology classes offer students a deeper knowledge in a specific branch of biology and introduce new medical perspectives that the core biology classes were not able to provide. Below is an interview that I conducted with Dr. Anjur who teaches Pathophysiology and Ms. O’Leary who teaches Cancer Biology and The Biology of Behavior. The objective behind this interview is to allow students a better understanding of each class so that they can determine if these courses will be of interest to them. 


Who had the idea to create this class curriculum and why?

Biology of Behavior – Ms. O’ Leary: “It was my idea to start this class because we didn’t have a biology class at IMSA that really explained the reasoning behind human cognitive function and the role of evolution. This is good for students who are interested in psychology and neuroscience because we apply the concept of natural selection to behavior.”


Cancer Biology – Ms. O’Leary: “This is a little different because it is a newer version of an older class called molecular biology. It has been around for a long time, so it is not a completely new class, it just focuses more specifically on cancer. Anyone who taught molecular biology has contributed to the new class curriculum and Dr. Randall and I more specifically are working on the new parts of the curriculum.”


Pathophysiology – Dr. Anjur: “I created this class because I have been teaching pathophysiology for more than 10 years. I wanted to change the focus of pathophysiology because I wanted to make it more geared to the development of disease so that students would understand biological concepts like homeostasis better.” 


How is this course structured?

Biology of Behavior – Ms. O’ Leary: “The class is still being built, but as of now it is mainly a combination of readings, lectures, and student presentations. The first quarter is focused on the concepts of behavior, specific behaviors, and application with animals. The second quarter starts to get more into human behavior like with hormones, how our brain works, development, and external influences on behavior. At the end of the semester students can choose their own topics to research, since behavior is a large topic. There are quite a few class periods dedicated to discussion about the book “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” and the podcast, “The Hidden Brain”.”


Cancer Biology – Ms. O’Leary: “The class structure is similar to Biology of Behavior. We do pathways in biology, so we make diagrams and pictures to help visualize biology on a microscopic scale and to use for problem solving. So both in terms of the structure and day to day content- it varies a lot. There will be student research on specific mutations in cancer so we do presentations. At the end, we do something to do something pertaining to the students’ interests related to cancer. It is a very broad field so there are different ways to connect with the class.”


Pathophysiology – Dr. Anjur: “The course starts with a sharp introduction to modeling. I use the concept of transcription then have them model in any way that they feel comfortable. Some of the models are mathematically designed, computer science, other students use biology, and one person even used interpretive dance. Modeling does not always have to be mathematical, it is just a way to project how you are thinking. After transcription, we learn about organ systems and the mechanisms of how diseases are formed. We have projects that model the structures of the students’ choice.” 


A teacher’s role might differ depending on the context of the class. Could you tell me more about how you interact with the students in the context of your class?

Biology of Behavior – Ms. O’ Leary: “Last semester, it was really nice because there was a lot of discussion. And especially when the students are researching things they are specifically interested in, the conversations are pretty thorough and deep, so I’ve gotten to talk to all the students personally quite a lot. In those situations, I act more as an advisor or a facilitator. Also, there are days where I am presenting information, it just depends on what we are working on.”


Cancer Biology – Ms. O’Leary: “The structure is similar to Biology of Behavior in terms of guiding. When using pictures, we have students build their own understanding. Molecular biology is a very unique skill set, and I help students learn the material and have them practice with the material and apply it. My goal for students is to be conversant in molecular biology, so when they pick up a molecular paper and they don’t completely understand it, they will be able  to figure it out by themselves.”


Pathophysiology – Dr. Anjur: “I give students a lot of hands-on projects. In between the projects, I also give them lessons because it is hard to understand concepts without knowing the underlying science behind it. We go in depth in the body structures by asking why they function, why diseases are developed, et cetera. I also give them lots of practice on the information that they learned. My goal is for students to think from a different perspective.” 


What skill sets are your students further developing in the context of the class material?

Biology of Behavior – Ms. O’ Leary: “I think one of the biggest things to take away from this class  is making connections. Behavior is not something that you can look at in isolation. It is important to utilize multiple standpoints to understand behavior. Communication is another skill that is being developed, which is why we use podcasts. Last semester, my students posted podcasts on a simple website so that they can share their information. Everything was unique to what the students were researching.”


Cancer Biology – Ms. O’Leary: “One of the most unique things about our class is that our students are working with more abstract ideas and embracing ambiguity, because you can’t observe molecular biology like you can with ecology. We use methods to help wrap your mind around these ideas in a way that makes sense to each student. The field is constantly growing and changing, so there are some questions that students ask that I cannot answer and even the field cannot answer, so accepting ambiguity is crucial.” 


Pathophysiology -Dr. Anjur:  “I want them to open up the common sense for logical artificial intelligence.They will learn how to think differently. We learn how to integrate different sciences like mathematics, computer science, and a little bit of physics to make pathophysiology more approachable. I assign hands-on projects that also help take away the stress of exams, and I have cut down the number of tests.” 


How can the information learned in this class be applied in the real world and the students’ future endeavors?

Biology of Behavior – Ms. O’ Leary: “Learning about human behavior and psychology or sociology made me understand the world better. By implementing that in the classroom allows students to gain a new perspective on humans. There is always an evolutionary basis on why people do certain things and this gives insight of why people are the way they are.”


Cancer Biology – Ms. O’Leary: “Logistically, almost every student that has taken a molecular class came back and said that it helped. Learning biology in an abstract method allows them to approach issues differently. Universally, it makes them understand how complicated biology can be. It is important to learn especially during this age where there is a lot of misinformation about medicine going around.”  


Pathophysiology – Dr. Anjur: “They will get the learning skills to think differently and it will help them simplify everything. When you see something like a huge project, it is not hard once you break it into a lot of different pieces, and it becomes easier to tackle. This class lets students practice their problem solving skills by having them look at the big picture of things.” 


In what ways does this class differ from the other biology electives?

Biology of Behavior – Ms. O’ Leary: “I think topic-wise, it is different. It is a little harder to do in the labs, although we are going to add more labs this semester because some of the larger organisms that we study, we can’t do on campus. It is also a little more cross disciplinary because it crosses into psychology quite a bit. Also, it is unique as a high school class because it is normally a college class.” 


Cancer Biology – Ms. O’Leary: “This class is different from chemistry and physics because the other biology electives typically build on these classes. However in those core classes, they learn a very small piece of what we cover. We go through the details of regulations and principles. In biology, the ability to apply principles are not always applied in the same way. If you get anything out of it, biology is complicated – it does not always fit into boxes, especially cancer biology.” 


Pathophysiology – Dr. Anjur: “This class integrates lots of different disciplines. Not many other biology classes integrate computer science, math, and physics besides the biophysics class. Most of the labs involve the human body like how the heart rate and blood pressure changes. We also learn how the brain controls different parts of the body, and how control can be interrupted. We do not apply a lot of molecular stuff, instead, we focus on structures on a larger scale.”


New insight on these electives have been shown, on the specifics on the new biology electives. These electives pertain to more specific skill sets and interests students may have. From these classes, students are able to gain a unique experience and knowledge on a specific topic in biology. A crucial part of these electives is that they uphold the IMSA mission because they develop deeper thinking and problem solving skills.

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