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J Microbiol Biol Educ. 2011 Dec 1;12(2):127-34. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v12i2.245. Print 2011.

Manipulatives-based laboratory for majors biology - a hands-on approach to understanding respiration and photosynthesis.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Western Oregon University, Monmouth OR 97361.


The first course in our year-long introductory series for Biology majors encompasses four learning units: biological molecules and cells, metabolism, genetics, and evolution. Of these, the metabolism unit, which includes respiration and photosynthesis, has shown the lowest student exam scores, least interest, and lowest laboratory ratings. Consequently, we hypothesized that modeling metabolic processes in the laboratory would improve student content learning during this course unit. Specifically, we developed manipulatives-based laboratory exercises that combined paper cutouts, movable blocks, and large diagrams of the cell. In particular, our novel use of connecting LEGO blocks allowed students to move model electrons and phosphates between molecules and within defined spaces of the cell. We assessed student learning using both formal (content indicators and attitude surveys) and informal (the identification of misconceptions or discussions with students) approaches. On the metabolism unit content exam, student performance improved by 46% over pretest scores and by the end of the course, the majority of students rated metabolism as their most-improved (43%) and favorite (33%) subject as compared with other unit topics. The majority of students rated manipulatives-based labs as very helpful, as compared to non-manipulatives-based labs. In this report, we will demonstrate that students made learning gains across all content areas, but most notably in the unit that covered respiration and photosynthesis.

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