Was in my Classroom: A Biotechnology Program

I got some really great news recently: some of my biotech students from last year are insisting that the program live beyond my tenure. The students who persist are not your typical advanced science participants (both were new last year and had zero science training beyond their graduation-required science courses). They found a sense of purpose and belonging and I’m really moved that they are exercising their agency. The program is more than the principle investigator.

My Report: By Michael Ralph

They have a new sponsor and the question has turned again to, “What the heck is the Biotech program at Olathe East?” This is an open letter to the new sponsor, and I share it here so my debrief can be of value to anyone else considering something weird. Here we go.


What Would Professionals Do?

Keystone Habit #1: BE a Research Lab

We did everything like a grant-funded university research lab. Every question was, “How do professionals do it? We will do it like that.” There was no pre-planned curriculum. There were no tests. There were no points. One thing matters: the question. Can we get methanotrophs out of there? The joke gets made frequently that, “[some biology topic] could be a whole course right there!” Ha ha, but it won’t be… Well, this was that course. From day one, I assigned new students to help me address my question. Train on taking water samples, learn to cell stain, build me a sensor… we’ve got stuff to do. When they needed chemistry to mix the Nitrate Mineral Medium 2014 (NMM14), we’d stop and learn it. When pressure gradients were needed to understand a sampling design, we’d learn that too. Professionals have meetings, so we had them. Professionals present at conferences, so we did that. Professionals do outreach, so it’s on the calendar. WWPD, all day every day.

When students started to become more comfortable in the space, they invariably start having ideas and asking questions. We’d follow the postdoc model and let them split their time. My veterans of several years would have the freedom and authority to oversee an entire research team. Students specialized and began to follow their own interests, while still having responsibilities to the original investigation.

Take home recommendation: craft your own driving question. It’s got to be really good. Then focus on nothing else.


Only one thing I can’t use… a credit card.


Keystone Habit #2: We’re Cheap

Necessity is the driver of innovation. We performed robust biogeochemical analysis with scraps and pennies. Only 1 of our 5 years did we have any dedicated budget (it was in the middle and it went away again). Scrap lumber from theater, scrap electrical from district contractors, spare keyboards from IT, waste planters from horticulture… being efficient scrappers was so ingrained in everyone’s attitude that when we did the final tear down I had to throw many of the items away myself because students could not be convinced anything was trash.

Big flashy equipment is a crutch when students don’t yet understand the fundamental concepts they’re investigating. When you really commit to finding a way, it’s amazing what you can make work. 3D print parts rather than buy them. Leftover dry ice in shipping materials. Creating long-term storage cultures in the freezer rather than reordering. Mixing your own bacterial media instead of pre-made. It makes the program cost-effective and the students see more of what goes into the project. They understand the bacterial medium because they had to make it. Sterilization makes sense because it was a total pain to sterilize that equipment.

Take home recommendation: fancy equipment and protocols are not the point. They take great pictures, but they aren’t science. This stuff is hard and making any arbitrary technique the course focus will obscure what it actually means to learn in a biological research space.


Anyone can help those who can already help themselves.

Keystone Habit #3: We’re Inclusive

A good driving question is both accessible and complex. That means nobody who hasn’t intentionally trained in that area will have strong background knowledge on how to investigate it. The end result is who cares what level of math they’re in?!? AP Biology students know as much about methanotrophy as freshman (in every practical sense). We have a serious exclusion problem in high school science; don’t be a part of that problem. Any student… ANY STUDENT… who is interested and willing to join should be welcomed. I have a litany of “not science students” in my alumni base who made powerful contributions to our project. I had freshman leading research teams, remedial students self-identifying as mycologists, and more.

There are plenty of biotech programs out there, collegiate and high school. They are picturesque spaces with students in lab coats wearing goggles staring intently at test tubes. They burn through budgets and look great on resumes. The problem with these programs is the course has become about the techniques. Put your hands on an electrophoresis chamber. Check. Touch a thermocycler. Check. These are Petri dishes. Moving on. Biotechnology in the industry sense is a highly derivative field that requires expertise in more than a half dozen disciplines. Our high school students are not that. Indeed, the few who can be have boatloads of options for how to pursue enrichment. The world doesn’t really need an expensive, esoteric course to serve the 1 or 2 students a year ready for that kind of work.

Take home recommendation: Get Them All Involved. I’m not saying tolerate distraction, destruction or ineffective behaviors. What I am saying is it’s easy to quibble with the all the other programs about that top 3% of students who will spin gold in any classroom. Instead, find all the other students who just want to do something meaningful… and give them some sweet science to explore.


There’s so much more I think and want to say, but ultimately this post is prompted by students. Let the program be theirs. For that matter let it be yours too. Don’t investigate methanotrophs, find your own thing. Let the students help you decide what that might be. Talk with others in the field when you need help. The putting greens are pleasant, but well-traveled. Get out in the weeds a bit.


And post about it. A very proud former investigator will be following your progress.

Discuss Research

Any teacher with a year or two of experience has had one of those conversations. You have six things to get done before you leave for the evening and you’re hustling to catch someone before they’ve left too. You pass a colleague in the hallway and they make a comment that catches you just right. You pause and give a remark from your own experience that seems to resonate with them too. In no time flat you’re both an hour into a conversation that is reshaping your practice. It happens to everyone, and often they are the most disruptive and creative milestones in a career.


We’re doing a business… without an office?!?!? (image from Shutterstock)


Those discussions never seem to happen during a scheduled workshop. A basic think-pair-share-move on doesn’t produce that kind of dialogue. Deadlines get missed… dinner gets postponed… but that time is so remarkably valuable and satisfying that it never seems like anyone is willing to walk away from them when they’re happening. Let’s get more of that.

Our brand new podcast. It’s great. Check it out!

I launched a podcast recently (Two Pint PLC) and Woodruff and I have been talking about how to get more folks engaged. We’ve had multiple people give some excellent perspectives on some of our discussions and I have been really sad that those contributions aren’t available for everyone. KABTers have done meetups periodically, so what do you all think about trying to find a way to create a forum to continue those conversations as they happen organically. We’ve got the Facebook page, but that page has so much other stuff going on that I don’t know it’s the best place for lengthier (I hope) dialogue. This blog hasn’t engendered that level of casual back and forth… So ideas? How might we get something more akin to a forum going to discuss research?

AP Biology – Layered, Mastery Assessments

Eleven months ago I wrote a letter to my AP Biology students about stumbling in my efforts to include more learners in my AP Biology program. I was deeply conflicted in deciding how to proceed from our scores; student morale was as good as it had ever been and enrollment was up but their scores were the lowest of my career.


This was my last year teaching AP Biology and the changes in my methods continued. Enrollment this year tripled last year’s and early numbers showed them on the rise again next year (had I remained to teach again). Since my commitment to inclusiveness over scores two and a half years ago, I have lost ZERO students to the scythe of early year panic drops. I had groups of students approaching me, a remarkable number of which were future enrollees whom I had yet to even teach, looking for lab placements and enrichment experiences to get more involved in science. Students believed they could biology. I am happy to say I built the environment I sought for my AP program.


Scores are not out yet, but I did another overhaul of my assessment system which I think is worth sharing. When I was brute-forcing my student success I used textbook question banks and regular weekend quizzes to ensure my handful of students did A LOT of testing and their AP scores were very strong. I transitioned last year to only assess by asking students to write what they know and we focused their analysis on what they could add over multiple attempts. Every student knew something about photosynthesis and every student could know something more than what they did each time. Nobody felt useless or stumped, because even if they knew they “weren’t there yet” they could work from what they did know and focus on filling their gaps and fixing their misconceptions.


The shortcoming in this system was the lack of an anchor for the students in evaluating what they know against what the College Board asks them to know. My students were surprised in May because I had told them they had mastered a topic, but my judgement was imperfect and being able to talk about what they know is meaningfully different from solving problems set within a schema… or more often at an intersection between multiple large networks of ideas. I must give my students practice working from what they know while they experience problem solving in ways I had failed to maintain during my transition last year.

Students will feel great about not knowing that much about HW…

So this year I changed my assessment perspective. I still need to hook students on our culture of knowing things, and you must know things to solve problems. For those reasons my first semester changed very little. I made a re-commitment to inquiry and lab experience, but my knowledge assessment suite was only sharpened and refined.


Second semester, however, we were ready to be dangerous. We knew about the world of molecular biology, so from day one we worked to address problems. In January I said, “Muscular dystrophy… what’s the deal with that?” We actually had about half an hour of productive discussion regarding what we did know (I got yet another reminder that students are not blank slates!), but then I handed them our first formal assessment. It had a full page of background information pulled from expert sources and a deceptively simple prompt. They said we don’t know this…

Hint: You’ll need more than one page to fully answer this prompt.

Great! What do you need to know to be able to solve this problem? We made a list. Our work was filling the gaps they needed to address the problem. Once the list was all crossed off, we attempted the problem. After several attempts, they were ready for more. “AIDS resistance… how’s that possible?” Away we went again.

CCR5-Delta32: Enzymes and shapes… It’s always enzymes and shapes, bros.

The top level of work changed each time they attempted the assessment, but usually only in small ways that ensured they focused on the ideas rather than the test itself. Every student could still know something, but now there was a much more concrete framework for their trajectory of development. It was challenging to writing milestone assessments that appropriately built student understanding in ways that actually conferred success on the summative assessments… but I think I hit the mark more often than not. In January students needed 3+ attempts per assessment to finally bank all levels, but by April I did have students banking things first try.

Understanding this was only part of the first level… sweet baby James we loved cell signaling this year.

Logistically, I provided students with the concepts level and the background reading at the start. The synthesis was brand new each of the first several attempts, but as a class they found it more comfortable to only attempt concepts the first time around so they could have more time to write and revise without the time crunch of getting both things done while both phases were unfamiliar. If students banked all levels of the knowledge assessments/driving problems, they were automatically awarded credit for all formative milestones (but not visa versa). This took a lot of pressure off students who wanted to focus on growth during the unit to be ready to crush at the end, and eliminated the redundancy of going back to do in part something they’d already demonstrated they could do in full. I was surprised to see an even divide of the class, some preferred to bank every chapter first and some wanted to just work the big problems.

An early biochem milestone assessment.
A milestone assessment from sometime in March.

I don’t think these assessments are perfect, and I’m posting them warts and all. What matters is that old concepts continue to be explicitly assessed in later topics (see biochem stuff in like… every single assessment). Here they are. Many need copy editing and revision from how they were delivered this year because they were new. Take, modify, use and share in good health.


Students need opportunities to show what they know. Deficit grading will disenfranchise too many students, especially in AP classes. To remain successful we have to find ways to provide layered assessments that are accessible to students at many points on the learning trajectory while still building toward the robust understanding expected by AP exams. Philosophically, I am really liking the path I’ve been on. Perhaps some of you will walk this same direction and push even further down the road.


I’ll update this post in July when the scores are released.

The Implications of Mindset Research on Science Classrooms

A recent article in Buzzfeed News shared an overview of some of the concerns surrounding growth mindset research and pedagogies focused on leveraging that research. The membership of KABT has considered the article and its critiques and has created the following response.


The Implications of Mindset Research for Science Classrooms

Mindset research, which focuses on the differences between growth and fixed mindset, has been popularized by Carol Dweck and her associates (Yeager, 2012) (Dweck, 2008) (Dweck C. S., 2012). While there is a growing market for classroom materials, publications and workshops related to promoting growth mindsets in students, there is a growing discussion regarding the inadequacies of the research base for mindset methodologies.


The initial work by Dr. Dweck has been criticized for some of its experimental design and statistical practice. Those mistakes have been accepted by Dr. Dweck and corrections and revisions have been acknowledged. The accumulating list of errors has led to concerns regarding the validity of the results. Statistical practice in social science is an area in need of considerable improvement and a demand for best practice from the consumers of the research, the practitioners, is a way to incentivize this improvement. Teachers should not shrug off statistical malpractice as only a footnote.


Strong statistical analysis improves the confidence of readers in the reproducibility (or lack thereof) of the work. In this instance the missing statistical confidence pairs with a lack of reproduction to this point. Reproducing education research requires tremendous skill in both pedagogy and experimental design. There are concerns that the small number of attempts at reproduction do not faithfully recreate the appropriate conditions for eliciting the effect. There are other questions about the value of the growth mindset effect if it is so small and fragile that reproduction by researchers is exceedingly difficult.


At its heart growth mindsets tap into a long-held belief that hard work is valuable. Many teachers find the idea of a student having agency over their own achievement to be desirable. Growth mindset is not the solution to classroom culture. Students need more than just hard work. Tremendous energy can be spent smashing into a door until you are through it, or you can simply turn the handle and open it. When mindsets augment a productive culture and a coherent curriculum they can be powerful.


When poorly-supported methodologies are used and the teaching practice is weak, a growth mindset is of little value. As the market saturates with products claiming to be based on mindset research, we must identify which are doomed to failure from unthoughtful application. Many flying machines failed due to ignorance of flight mechanics, but flight was always possible. Similarly, when a speaker with a shallow understanding of the literature fails to demonstrate value in a product we should remember that a failed application is not the same as a faulty concept.


Inquiry in the science classroom is well-supported by research as best practice. Interconnected understanding, developed through retrieval practice and responsive feedback, is superior to linear content delivery by a lecturing expert to passive audience members. Shaping that feedback through a growth mindset lens appears to have a positive impact despite the fact that reproduction of the research is proving difficult. Indeed, our job as educators is to do something that is hard! We must synthesize the research regarding mindset with best practices in assessment, classroom management, curricular design, differentiation, inquiry instruction, choice theory and many other overlapping domains to produce the strongest experience possible in unique students who change every semester. This is our job and they call us educators.


We must be faithful to the body of research. We can simultaneously incorporate aspects of the growth mindset research into our classroom and remain skeptical of the work. If future studies reveal flaws and allow us to develop a better description of how student perceptions shape learning, we should follow that work also. We also need to share our perspective from the field to shape investigations to be more useful and applicable. Perhaps more dynamic classroom methodologies will yield stronger signals in new mindset research. Perhaps responsive differentiation will allow us to visualize specific demographics who stand to benefit the most from a growth mindset. Perhaps training in retrieval practice as studying will increase the propensity of students to adopt and develop a growth mindset through greater yields from investment.


Ultimately we must close the gap between practitioner and researcher in education. Medical doctors consider experimental treatments and provide feedback on their results on a regular basis. Attorneys publish briefs and review frequently to respond to an ever-changing body of legislation. We, too, must become more than consumers of research. Teachers must communicate with researchers because our classroom experience can make experimental design better. We can demand stronger statistical practice, more meaningful treatment conditions and more targeted assessment tools. The improved research will return as more actionable results which we can use to improve our technique again.


We must allow our classroom practice to respond to the current literature while acknowledging and addressing its flaws. It is highly unlikely that a growth mindset is the educational silver bullet. It is also unlikely to be entirely smoke and mirrors. Instead we are trying to understand a remarkably complex system so that we can help it mature as effectively as possible. As far as promoting a growth mindset can further that goal, we should use it. When the body of research indicates there is a better approach, teachers should change methods. We should not switch a moment later than when the research publishes, but not a moment before either.


  1. Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement.
  2. Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: Promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower. American Psychologist, 67(8), 614.
  3. Yeager, D. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. . Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.


An Open Letter to my AP Biology Students

To my AP Biology students,


The scores are out and they are not what we wanted. The results are surprising and disappointing. The numbers on this report do not represent the competency I led you to believe you had developed this year. We have stumbled, together; we must now become better from this struggle.


I made some difficult choices this year in the pursuit of including more students in our course. From the outset I told you it would be different from past years, and it was. There is an answer I know and it is the application of tremendous effort and rapid coverage. That work has earned previous students success on exams past, but those methods left too many excluded from growth or discouraged from the larger pursuit of science. I am sad, but I am not sorry.


You worked hard all year long. Each one of you grew as a scientist and as a learner. You explored topics that interested you and made plans for the future. You considered yourself in a new light as you saw what the future might hold. Our course was not one in which you simply survived, and in May each of you left with justified assurance of what you had learned and awareness of what you had not. Your confidence, knowledge and growth is my greatest victory this year. I am proud, but I am not satisfied.


This is a moment when I am reminded my choices matter. My professional freedom has an impact on your life. These scores do not define you as scientists, but they do have consequence. We could have done better. It is my fault. I could have made different choices. I long for a control class to run with my students to know if I made good or bad choices. I must smile at the irony of teaching a natural science through social science. I am confused, but I am resolute.


I still believe in practice and supporting re-consolidation with the same primacy as learning. I will struggle in the coming months to incorporate this new data into my understanding of our class’ achievement. I refuse to revert to my previous model because I believe in you and what you’ve done more than test scores. Our time together has been my greatest work as a teacher. But so will next year’s. Remain invested. Believe in the growth you’ve seen and felt.
We need revision, but we are not finished.