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Course in human mate selection wins Science magazine prize

Students in Valerie Foster's lower-division biology course have a genuine interest in doing their class research projects. Experiencing the raging hormones associated with being in their late teens and early twenties, the students are delighted to explore the subject of human mate preference. Harnessing that keen interest, Foster helps her students to explore published studies on the topic, develop their own hypotheses, conduct an experiment, and communicate their results in a scientific paper or poster.

"The topic is intrinsically motivating," says Foster, an associate professor at Pasadena City College. "It's a fun topic, thrilling for them actually. They get to do an experiment on something that's relevant in their lives."

Because of its ingenuity and effectiveness in getting students to thoroughly engage in real science, the multi-day course module Evolution of Human Mate Preference has been selected to win the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).

Science's IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as provide an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about Evolution of Human Mate Preference will be published on November 29.

"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says editor-in-chief emeritus Bruce Alberts. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources."

Science associate editor Melissa McCartney says that Evolution of Human Mate Preference is an ideal recipient of the IBI prize. "Students are able to participate in inquiry learning in a way that is virtually unrestricted, the module is easily adapted to classes of all sizes and abilities, and it is effectively free, with no specialized equipment required," McCartney says.

Foster's commitment to inquiry-based learning comes at least partly from her own experience as a student. When she entered the University of California at Berkeley, she wanted to major in genetics. Faced with large conventional lecture classes, Foster found it hard to connect and didn't feel she had access to faculty. Because of this, she decided to change her major to ecology and evolutionary biology. In her new major, her classes involved hands-on field work, including handling biological specimens.

"I think that kind of kinesthetic, tactile experience was better for me," she says.

Drawn into research, Foster earned a PhD at the University of California at Irvine, studying the evolution of parental care and sexual selection in zebra finches. It was also during graduate school that Foster developed her interest in science education. Mentors there developed student instructors' teaching skills, introducing them to problem-based learning, a form of inquiry in which students start with a problem that has many answers, none of which are black and white, and each student or student group can pursue a different exploration of the problem.

Mate preference in humans is such a problem, in that it is very complicated, varying with respect to type of trait preferred (visual, auditory, olfactory, personality, etc.); the interaction between traits; age; time in ovulation cycle; and gender. It is further complicated by humans' advanced cognitive abilities and cultural influences.

At the same time that Foster was studying the mate selection of zebra finches, she was discovering that her true passion was teaching. Landing at Pasadena City College, she encountered an educational atmosphere that encouraged hands-on learning. Students, however, often have little or no experience with science classes that require them to seek out their research questions, and their own answers.

"Problem-based learning is tough for them," Foster says. "It sometimes challenges students and sometimes chases them away. There's a learning curve for becoming comfortable with it, and sometimes they say, 'Why don't you just tell us what's going to be on the exam and what we need to know?'"

Foster explains that many of her students are intent on becoming doctorsand on following a straight path of learning what they need to know to get the grades required to head toward medical school. While she considers those aspirations noble, she thinks that sometimes students just aren't familiar with other career paths in the sciences. "I try to emphasize alternate careers. There's a lack of exposure to other science-related professions. When they're doing their projects, I say, "Hey, you could be doing this kind of work as a career.'"

The kinds of questions students explore include whether males prefer demure females over assertive ones, whether female preference for visual traits in males is augmented by low vocal pitch, and if females prefer males whose occupations involve risky, but altruistic, behavior. The students attack their projects with enthusiasm, but they are somewhat uncomfortable if their results don't support their hypotheses, even to the point that they want to change their hypotheses or make excuses in the discussion section of their papers. Foster points out to them that they're making an important discovery about the scientific process: It involves trial and error.

Despite any initial discomfort with the curriculum's new way of learning, the students who experience it often come back to Foster after they've finished the class to say how much they learned and how helpful the module was to them as they continued in school and transferred to other programs. Foster says they find they are more comfortable with their own ideas and with articulating them, rather than focusing on whether they have memorized correct answers.

Content that so many students report back about what they derived from the class, Foster says she hopes that winning the IBI prize and having an essay published in Science will help more colleagues to "warm up to this pedagogy and incorporate it into their curriculum." Students who acquire the skills of problem-based learning can lose them in more conventional science classes where lecture and memorization are the rule. "A more consistent development of these skills over time would be great," Foster says.


Contact: Natasha Pinol
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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