Elementary Microbiology: Barbara Stebbins on The Invisible Living World

The interview below is a part of a series on New ATDP Courses for 2013. Barbara Stebbins discusses her upcoming Elementary Division course, The Invisible Living World. Read the course description here.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhy is it important for elementary-aged students to study biology (or science in general)?

Science is the best subject for elementary students, because they think like scientists, full of questions and detailed observations about how the world works, which we, as adults, tend to filter out. Science teaching uses a process of discovery that parallels the scientific method and naturally engages student interest. By setting up activities that lead to unusual or interesting phenomena, you motivate students to propose theories, ask questions and do further explorations. Of course, biology is the subject closest to us as living creatures, so it tends to be the most popular.

What will fourth graders contribute to this course and what will they gain? 

Fourth graders have a large enthusiasm component, which is contagious in a classroom. They are generally not inhibited about asking questions, which adds a lot to the group learning experience. At that age students also have a high tolerance of, or dare I say affinity for, the inevitable ick aspect that accompanies the study of microbes. They should come out of the course with a greater appreciation for the abundance, diversity and importance of the “Invisible Living World” around them. The activities in the class will give them a good sense of the history and process that science uses to study microscopic organisms and cells.

The course description says that students will be using technology to study microscopic organisms and cells — what scientific tool are you most excited about using with your students? Why? 

Microscopes are essential tools for exploring the “Invisible Living World.” Of course microscopes are really 19th century tools, but the 21st century has given us digital imagers that are inexpensive and amazing in their ability to display what is revealed under the microscope. Learning how to “see” what’s under a microscope can take a long time. Using imagers makes the process much easier for students.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your background or motivations for teaching this course?

At first I was intrigued with the idea of using microscopes to open up the invisible world for exploration by 4th grade students. Then I got excited about structuring the topics to parallel the evolution of living things, beginning with single-celled organisms and ending with specialized cells of complex, multicellular organisms.  At the same time I realized that students would also reenact elements of the beginnings of biology as a subject by drawing organisms they observe. Overall this course will elaborate upon the necessity for cooperation by living things.