I am the module leader of a third year biotechnology module, in which we cover topics from bioremediation to genome editing and synthetic biology. Biotechnology advances rely on innovative thinking, and being able to make new and unexpected connections between topics and concepts. The less obvious those connections are, the more interesting the ideas (potentially) become.

How do you teach students to connect concepts?

Diagram showing the ‘building blocks’ of biotechnology.

Last year I tried to visualise biotechnology as a discipline made of biology ‘building blocks’. I started by drawing the building blocks on the whiteboard: molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry… you get the picture. I added other building blocks like ‘business’ or ‘health care’. Then I asked my students to come up with biotechnology product ideas by combining two or more building blocks. For example, microbiology + molecular biology + health care = recombinant bacteria producing therapeutic proteins, or new biosensors to detect diseases. Marine biology + microbiology + pharmacology = screening marine organisms for new antibiotics.

I used the same building block method this year. I realised however that this was a limiting approach, as it kept idea generation on a broader level. How could I help a student writing the discussion of a scientific report or essay to come up with original and novel directions in their thinking?

Brookfield’s Lenses

All new lecturers at Oxford Brookes University are required to complete a Postgraduate Certificate for Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE) as part of their probation period. Right at the start  we learnt about the existence of formal frameworks for professional reflection. This was a huge revelation for me. Reflection is something that’s hugely important for our personal and professional development. Yet, it rarely is taught ‘properly’ in biology (at least in my experience). Being able to guide my thoughts along a framework or reflective ‘cycle’ made the task so much easier. Something that always had been a bit wishy-washy suddenly became tangible.

One of those frameworks is ‘Brookfield’s Lenses‘. It structures the thought process by asking us to analyse a situation from four different perspectives. As Stephen Brookfield designed his lenses for reflection in education, they include the perspectives of ourselves, our students, our colleagues, and the literature. I wondered if I could transfer his model into biotechnology teaching.

Biotechnology Lenses

The four Biotechnology lenses.

The four biotechnology lenses that I developed each look at a different component of a biotechnology idea. They can be used as part of an iterative process, and are probably best explained through an example: insulin.

A series of scientific discoveries (nicely summarised here) led to the discovery and isolation of insulin by Frederick Banting and Charles H. Best in 1921. Simplified, the science behind insulin was the discovery that pancreatic cells produce insulin, and that insulin isolated from the pancreas of cattle in slaughterhouses could be used to treat human patients. Eli Lilly and Company took on the mass production of insulin (product) by extracting it from pig and cow pancreases from slaughterhouses (technique). The immediate problem of this is scaleability; “according to the magazine Diabetes Forecast, it took nearly two tons of pig parts to produce 8 ounces of purified insulin“.

This problem was solved with advances in our understanding of DNA and proteins (science), the development of genetic engineering, and the ability to transfer the human insulin gene into a bacterial host for mass production in fermenters (technique). Since then, modifications in the amino acid sequence of insulin (technique) have created  a range of slow- and fast-acting insulin types (product) to help patients manage their blood sugar levels better (science/problem).

So, what are the problems and potential future directions of insulin treatment? Finding alternatives to injections by building new devices, inhalers or even artificial or bionic pancreases? Gene therapy to deliver functional insulin gene copies into cells? I will stop here, as I am no expert in this area. But hopefully the example will have illustrated how the biotechnology lenses could be used to dissect an existing idea, and explore new avenues for future scientific developments.

What now?

After explaining the lenses and the insulin example, I asked my students to discuss in groups how the lenses could be applied to genetically modified moths, and non-browning apples. I was very happy with the outcomes of with, as they very critically analysed the products and the problems that came with them (some of the associated problems seemed bigger than the solution that the product promised to solve). In general I feel that this could work well as a tool. The main challenge for me is to try and embed this structured approach into my lectures, to remind the students that this tool exists, and to practise its use.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you? Can you think of other good examples where the tool gives useful results? Let me know in the comments!


As part of my new lecturer role, I am completing the  Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE).  Our first formative assignment was to write a reflective statement. I used the suggested format of reflecting on my own experiences as learner, and how they influenced my teaching; followed by reflections on the different types uf students I taught, and what approaches and strategies I used. The brief was to make use of formal reflective frameworks, and refer to pedagogic literature and the UK Professional Standards Framework published by the Higher Education Academy


Sculpture by Horst Antes, University campus Garching, Munich.

Some of the worst memories from my University years feature lectures that just ‘happened’ to me. They were the ones where a professor regurgitated all the information, sentence by sentence, from their lecture handbook. I stopped attending them after a few weeks, as I felt that it would be more beneficial and efficient if I just read the textbook on my own. Of course there were exceptions, like our cell biology lecturer, who provided handouts with diagrams and blank labels for us to complete during his presentation. But a large part of my University learning took place at home, where I practiced drawing textbook diagrams from scratch and explained scientific concepts to the cat.

Eleven years later, I am starting my adventure of becoming a lecturer myself. In my mind I am compiling a list of experiences that I want to spare my students, and an encyclopedia of new ideas. The metaphor of a neatly sorted inner library is not completely true to reality though, as everything still feels rather raw and messy. As I am trying to make sense of it all and to knock it into a more ordered format, I am glad about every tool that the PCTHE course offers. I had not realized that formal reflective frameworks exist, providing a structure for professional reflection. Two examples are Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984) and Gibbs’s reflective cycle (Gibbs et al., 1988).

Using a more detailed example of Gibbs’ reflective cycle (ALES, 2015), a description of my undergraduate experience would be what I wrote in the introduction. I attended lectures that were mainly used as method of one-way dissemination of information. My feelings were disappointment and frustration. I felt frustrated by the low intellectual stimulation. I was disappointed because the lecture theatre felt like an extension of the school classroom, with all its cliques and stereotypes. I had hoped to become part of a larger group of like-minded peers. Instead, I felt like an outsider. Evaluating my experience, I now realise that it played a big role in developing and strengthening my independent learning skills. Instead of relying on lectures, I sought out my own interactive and stimulating approaches to learning. The bad thing was that I spent a lot of time on my own. Analysing my situation, students benefit from collaborative learning, group work and discussion (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005; ASKe, 2015). In conclusion, I would advise my younger self to use these lectures as opportunity to network, and strategically form relationships for learning beyond them.

As I arrived at this point of the reflective cycle, I found myself reflecting less on an ‘action plan’ and more on the limitations of Gibb’s cycle. In contrast to my teaching that I can refine and repeat, I will not get another re-run of my undergraduate degree. Spiraling down a rabbit hole of reflecting on the limitations of reflecting (Finlay, 2008), I arrived at the conclusion that reflective frameworks were more complex than they initially appeared. Do they need to be strictly followed through, or is it possible to leave at suitable exit points to enter another framework? Is it appropriate to use a past one-off event to reflect on an action plan for another future event?

To reflect on my identity and style as a teacher, I used Brookfield’s Lenses (Brookfield, 1995), in which the subject of reflection is viewed from the perspective of myself, my students, my peers, and the literature. A lot of my teaching has been influenced by my experiences on how not to do it. There is however another aspect, which is underpinned by my strong interest in science communication and in engaging different audiences with my subject area. In these informal science learning settings, I use interactive approaches and creative strategies such as humour or storytelling (Dahlstrom, 2014). As I reflected on my students, it occurred to me that biology university students are likely to be a more homogenous audience than for example a mixed audience at a family science event. In a university setting, it may be more acceptable to expect students to adjust to the way we teach our subject area; we certainly expect them to be at specific levels of background knowledge, and progress along a set academic pathway. In contrast, for successful science communication it is essential that the target audience dictates the communication approach, and we cannot expect our audience to adjust to our preferred way of communication. Reflecting on my audience as seen from my peers’ perspective, I have gained a lot of insight from working with colleagues in Health and Social Care. Depending on specific disciplines, more of their students are mature students, who enter university with extensive professional experience. This made me wonder about how much research has been carried out on teaching methods between different disciplines, and which proportion of teaching approaches in biology are traditional passive lectures, or more active formats (Allen and Tanner, 2005; Tanner, 2011).

Following on from this thought, I tried to place myself and my dichotomic teaching experience within the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF, HEA, 2011). I realized that I had gained most of my experience in designing and planning, teaching, learning approaches from my science communication activities. Through leading tutorials for my academic advisees and supervising research undergraduate and postgraduate students, I gained some experience in assessment and feedback, none of which I designed myself though. While this course is the first time that I formally engaged with professional development and pedagogy of higher education teaching, I feel that I have quite a solid base of formal and informal training and literature knowledge in science communication. I then wondered which UKPSF values are the same in higher education and science communication. There seems to be less emphasis on the individual learner in science communication, or at least in the activities that I designed – I tend to think more about a whole audience and how to reach the ‘masses’ rather than individuals. Should we focus more on individuals, or is that beyond the scope of informal science learning? This is something I would like to research more thoroughly. Acknowledging and addressing equality and diversity is a big issue in science communication, but is also being discussed in higher education. I wonder which area will evolve faster.

As I continued with this exercise of trying to place higher education and science communication along the UKPSF framework, I was struck by the differences in focus and approaches between formal and informal science learning and teaching. I plan to put my additional notes into a more coherent and scholarly format, and gain enough courage to post this and future reflections on my blog, to gain feedback from the wider higher education and science communication community.


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