Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Replacing Textbooks with Nonfiction Science Books

The fall semester will start very soon, so I have started to prepare the material associated with the courses that I will be teaching very soon.

Like most instructors, I always try to integrate assigned readings into my courses in hopes to help students create a deeper understanding of the content and expand their thinking past the surface. Because scientific material can be presented in different ways, I ask students to read scientific papers, scientific daily news and pages from their textbooks.

Unfortunately, many students simply don’t like or try to read scientific material presented under these forms. In particular, students dislike reading textbooks. The interesting thing is that we (instructors) know that students do not usually read their textbooks, but we keep asking them to do it.

Why don't students read textbooks? Well, there are certainly many reasons. A possible one is that the content of papers or textbooks can be difficult to relate to everyday knowledge, or to form a mental image of scientific facts.

The Song of the Dodo
 About 7-8 years ago now, I introduced a different type of reading material in one of my upper-level courses, "Biogeography and Macroecology". I decided to replace the textbook with a non-fiction scientific book (~700 pages) called The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions  

First, let me tell you why I pick this book.  The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions is part travelogue, part natural history essay, and an excellent example of science writing.  It is a detailed overview of the factors that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms (especially animals) on islands.  In this book, the author, David Quammen,   makes you travel to different places across the world, including Brazil, Madagascar, and Komodo Island.  Readers learn about many different key concepts/topics that are usually covered in biogeography courses. Thus, the book is the perfect companion for any biogeography course!

 Replacing Textbooks with Nonfiction Scientific Novels
I thought that the use of a nonfiction book with more of a narrative would bring the course material to life. Well, I am happy to say that I was not wrong!  The use of a nonfiction book has encouraged students to read about the topics discussed during lectures, improved discussion participation, and has simply made the class more fun not only for students, but also for me.

Of course, students are not only asked to read The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (which is ~700 page), but are also asked to conduct a few other activities (just to ensure that they read the book!). Each student is asked to be the leader of a book chapter (or part of it depending upon the number of students taking the course).  As a leader, the student is required to facilitate a class discussion, prepare focused questions for the discussion and organize 1-2 class activities.  Although most students choose to create a game (e.g., Jeopardy, Who wants to be a Millionaire), this year some students prepared a movie (theatrical representation of the chapter) and others wrote a song to engage participation and discussion.

Replacing the textbook with a non-fiction scientific novel for my biogeography course has really been a great success, and has inspired me to try to do the same for other courses.

For instance, I am currently reading the book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. I am hoping to use this book in my "Biodiversity and Conservation" course that I am teaching this coming fall. This book is the #1 Bestseller in the  Natural History Books category in So far, I am enjoying very much this book which discusses how humans are affecting species extinction.

I realize that it is not always possible to replace textbooks, it is worth a try to do it whenever possible. In particular, I feel that it is a good option for upper-level courses where class discussion and critical thinking should be expected.

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