Activating the Classroom

January 1, 2015

For Assistant Professor of Biology Bronwyn Heather Bleakley, finding the spark that will ignite a passion for what students are learning is paramount.

Using new lecture capture technology, Bleakley has taken the most passive part of learning, watching a faculty member lecture, and moved it online for students to view outside of scheduled class time. This allows her to use class to connect with students one-on-one or in groups while they complete case studies and problem-solving sets – assignments that might have traditionally been done as homework.

Often called “flipping the classroom,” this innovative teaching style affords faculty the time to draw out deeper inquiries from students. Bleakley explains that with dozens of students, it’s not possible to lecture and answer all questions. But by removing the lecture component, it becomes feasible and highly beneficial for the learning process. “Instead of sending them to do the hard part on their own, we bring the active part into class. It’s more effective to have students doing the work and asking questions while an instructor is standing right there,” she says.

Bleakley experimented with posting 20-to-30-minute lectures online for her evolutionary biology class last fall with much success. This year, all sections of Biological Principles II are “flipped,” with Bleakley spearheading the effort and guiding instructors through the process.

Faculty are excited about this new method of teaching because it wakes up students, sometimes literally in the case of an 8:30a.m. class, and really gets their brains buzzing, Bleakley says. “Initially, it is an enormous amount of work, but people have agreed to come along for the ride, and now they don’t want to go back.”

Though science is Bleakley’s first love – she announced to her mother that she was going to be a biologist at 4 years old – she also has a profound interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning. While pursuing her Ph.D. at Indiana University, she minored in college pedagogy and has a true passion for methods development and mentoring.

At any given time, Bleakley has 10 to 15 students working in the lab with her as part of an independent study course or their thesis work. In addition to her evolutionary genetics research and a host of other scholarly pursuits, she is the advisor to the equestrian team, a community associate for the Office of Residence Life and a two-time Student Undergraduate Research Experience faculty mentor. “I don’t sleep much,” Bleakley laughs.

She has also participated in roundtable discussions presented by Stonehill’s Instructional Technology Center and is excited about sharing her experiences using technology in the classroom with other faculty. “One of the biggest challenges of technology is sorting out what works. It can enhance learning, or it can get in the way if it is not really suited to the topic,” she says.

“I feel more connected to students than I ever have.”
Bronwyn Heather Bleakley

As a scientist, Bleakley wants to look at the facts and is anxious to see what Professor Quinn’s research yields. Anecdotally, though, she feels students are performing better on the more inventive parts of her class, including open-ended questions and analysis. “My perception is that they are giving better answers. The level of engagement is higher; students are really thinking about the problems,” she says. “I feel more connected to students than I ever have.”