Biologist James Morris: How to make your intro to biology class fun

The author of a major college textbook and an award-winning teacher, Morris explains how he keeps undergraduates motivated and engaged.

When James Morris started teaching biology at Harvard in 2000, he was dismayed by the textbooks that were available.

Though there were exceptions, they tended to be dull, full of facts students were expected to memorize and packed with an overwhelming amount of information. They assumed teachers took a top-down approach to education, lecturing to students rather than inviting their participation. The results were predictable.

“Students had a passion for biology, but we were squeezing the life out it,” Morris says.

Morris started as an assistant professor of biology at Brandeis in 2006. Around that time, he began work with several Harvard professors on a new textbook for introductory college-level biology classes. "Biology: How Life Works," published in 2013, reinvents the science textbook from the ground up.

First, it’s 1,200 pages, which may sound like a lot, but is significantly fewer than most other textbooks on the subject. It’s also much more readable. Morris and his colleagues decided the small boxes used in textbooks to set off supplementary information leads to a fractured experience lacking in coherence.

"Biology: How Life Works" doesn’t have boxes. It aims at providing a coherent and enjoyable narrative. Morris sees introductory biology classes as pivotal in students’ education. “It’s the place where you either hook students or lose them,” he says. “They either fall in love with biology or they’re overwhelmed and they give up on the sciences altogether.”

In his intro class at Brandeis, he aims to build on students’ preexisting interest in the subject. “Most people are naturally curious about biology,” he says. “They want to know how their body works or learn about genetics,” he says. “It’s a matter of understanding how the world around you works.”

Over the years, Morris has won three certificates of distinction in teaching from Harvard, and in 2013 received Brandeis' Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching. He served as a National Academies Education Fellow in the Life Sciences from 2012 to 2013.

Morris also writes Science Whys, a popular blog on campus where he explains complicated scientific subjects in plain, easy-to-comprehend language. On Valentine’s Day, he wrote about how we evolved to see the color red.

He’s connected the movie Dead Poet’s Society to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and in another post, chronicled his attempts since age 12 to photograph a complete eclipse of the moon. “Science is all round us,” he says. “It’s something we can all do. I love empowering students to recognize that in themselves.”

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